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December 03, 2016

Please, Get Out of the Way

Fostering Community

Do you remember being young and feeling passionate about a cause? Or incredibly energized by a creative project? Or so proud when given that first bit of true responsibility by an important adult in your life? Since September, I’ve had the privilege to stand back and watch our students tackle a myriad of school initiatives with just such passion, creativity and pride. What I’ve seen are displays of innovation, initiative and leadership worthy of teams that work at companies like Google and Apple.

Examples of high-performance teamwork are plentiful at Trafalgar Castle School. During our annual fall trip to Camp Kilcoo there is the Air Band competition – highly choreographed, lip-sync performances by each of the School’s four Houses. (Hare House won this year, but it was a close call). Then there’s the Haunted Castle – a spine-chilling open house fundraiser that takes guests through elaborately staged rooms, dark hallways, and basement corners where ghouls, zombies and other terrifying specters lie in wait. (The makeup and ambiance achieved by the girls this year was so realistic that I struggled to walk through the tour with my requisite Head of School composure intact). This past week, we enjoyed House Plays, a wonderful tradition where student directors from each of the four Houses are given a mere two weeks to hold auditions, stage and rehearse a one-act play that is performed and adjudicated by judges selected from our local theatre community. There are so many other examples I could point to – the list is truly endless.

What impresses me the most about these events is that they are planned, organized and executed by the students. In order for this to take place, the girls are given a great deal of latitude, a huge amount of independence, and experience very little interference. In other words, Trafalgar girls learn to do the heavy lifting while the adults demonstrate trust and stay largely on the sidelines. In the case of Air Bands, for example, teachers and staff don’t even see (never mind supervise) the rehearsals or the behind-the-scenes frenzy as students prepare for competition. In fact, the teachers are busy preparing their own musical number to perform for the girls that same night!

Our method of developing leadership skills doesn’t involve dumping children in the deep end to see if they can swim. The independence we foster doesn’t work like that. Our school culture is such that leadership begins with an expectation of existing competency – a presumption that our girls are capable from the get go. We start by believing that together they can manage problems as they arise, and proceed by encouraging them to navigate their own way through unchartered waters.

During my year of observation, I’ve also noticed that the adults in our school appear to stay out the way. They meet students’ ideas with a burst of enthusiasm as opposed to a cautionary tale. And they resist the urge to anticipate problems on the students’ behalf. Instead, they allow the girls to revel in the feeling that a new and exciting idea is truly their own, that their proposal is worthy of exploration, and that others might want to share in their excitement.

Our faculty and staff use hundreds of teachable moments by way of gentle questions to help students think about how to be inclusive, how to ensure our youngest ones feel empowered, and how to identify potential risks and prepare solutions on their own. These conversations take place naturally and every day. When learning to lead at our school, there is typically no big form to fill out, no bureaucratic red tape to encumber innovation and action, and no day-long seminar about the latest leadership framework. Instead, our girls learn to lead by doing. They learn to lead better by reflecting on their mistakes. And they learn to foster leadership in our younger girls by sharing lessons along the way.

What is it about our school culture that cultivates this type of leadership that combines teamwork and initiative with a high degree of independence? Why did it stand out so strongly for me when I first arrived here last year? And why does it continue to impress me?

I think it’s a part of our school’s history and perhaps also the result of our geographic location – close enough to a big metropolis to feel worldly but still a small town school at heart. And with that small town sensibility comes a feeling of safety, security and confidence. We don’t bubble wrap our girls for fear that something might happen. We try not to see danger lurking around every corner. As a school community, we accept that the proverbial skinned knee is inevitable, and while we could mandate that kneepads, helmets and mouth guards are worn at every moment of every day, we believe that the subsequent impediment to movement (both literally and figuratively) wouldn’t be worth the price of insurance.

Our girls are no fools. They know how to identify risk and problem solve with great care and ability. This encourages a wonderful “can do” attitude that I find common among Trafalgar girls. They strive to be resilient, brave and ready to take on whatever life throws at them. And they understand the notion that we’re stronger when we work together.

My year of watching and learning from our remarkable students has led me to believe that that they don’t need me (or any other risk-adverse adult) to undermine the lessons they will learn through trial and error. In a world that seems increasingly filled with uncertainty and angst, they certainly don’t need me telling them to be careful. As I see it, my job as Head of School is to encourage them, listen to them, support them, and simply get out of their way. I know they can take it from there!

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