The Presidential Election, National Discourse, and Marin Academy

I wanted to share comments very similar to the ones that I expressed  to students during a recent assembly. Although this may be unconventional and outside of the realm of typical engagement of a Head of School, I felt it was important to convey my thoughts.

Whenever I tell people that I am a teacher, an educator, they often bring up the idea that, “schools are not the real world.” And they have a point: I believe that schools should be better than the real world. How else can we prepare our students and your children to be compassionate leaders and engaged citizens? We intentionally set a high bar for integrity, responsibility, and accountability. We also know that students, especially adolescents, are in the process of developing their values and identities, a process which involves a great deal of what we call, trying it on. We set up an environment where students develop a values-based approach to defining who they are, who they will be, and how they will engage in the world.

For the first time in my experience as a Head of School, I am finding my values as an educator are challenged. And the challenge is coming from the upcoming presidential election. As an educator and Head of School, I hold the belief that we have a fundamental responsibility to avoid using our classrooms or positions as a bully pulpit when it comes to politics. As a teacher, I long held as a badge of honor the fact that I could encourage deep and robust debate without revealing my political beliefs. My students used to joke that I had a banker’s face when it came to political arguments.

The circumstances of this election, however, have challenged that position. I find myself trying to reconcile two conflicting and deeply held values: my belief in the need for adults to maintain neutrality when it comes to politics in schools and my commitment to being a values-driven leader and educator. Our focus, after all, is in developing students who can think for themselves. Simultaneously, as educators, we have agreed upon ways of speaking to each other, the values of academic integrity, and the essential nature of respect for individuals and our differences. This season the name-calling and utter disregard for data-driven, fact-based argument has reached an alarming level. Instead, we’ve seen innuendo and opinion parading as facts and truth and remarks that go beyond disparaging or stereotyping. For those of us who have been through many election cycles, the rhetoric may seem extreme and perhaps something whose effect will end with the tally of votes. For our students, however, who likely do not remember the last contested presidential election, this season’s rhetoric may be disheartening at the very least and damaging or frightening at worst. This impact for our students may far outlast the end of this election. We must all remember that adolescents watch us closely and learn from our actions and our words.

Finally, the language and demeanor of this election, at times, seems to be an assault on quintessential American values regardless of party affiliation. Freedom of speech in our country often comes in conflict with other values. The ability to speak our thoughts freely without the prospect of recrimination is foundational to our democracy; so too is the manner in which we disagree and engage with different points of view. At MA it is our goal to ensure there’s a place at the table for all voices and perspectives. There is always a place at Marin Academy for students whose voices are outside of the dominant discourse, and here our students grow skills in doing so in a way that is both persuasive and respectful. Respect, expressed in both word and deed, is a core value.

It is not lost on me that if our students were to behave in some of the ways that we have witnessed this political season, their actions would earn a clear disciplinary response.

At MA we welcome many voices. Our students and faculty work side-by-side every day immersing themselves deeply in their subjects while honing the ability to think critically and creatively. This election season we will continue to do what we do best:

  • Insist on data driven, factually based opinions;
  • Create safe classrooms where all voices are welcomed;
  • Treat each other with respect in word and deed;
  • Hold ourselves and each other responsible for the impact of our words and actions;
  • Ensure that our discussions refrain from targeting a particular group, culture, religion, or nationality.

Democracy, by its nature, is a messy endeavor and so, too, is the process of education. That is why Marin Academy must be better than the real world. That is why we must insist on a level of discourse that encourages lively debate without marginalizing a specific group of people, one that honors different points of view.

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Appreciating those with 15, 20 & 35 years of service

15 years of service

Randi Bakken

For Randi Bakken there have been more than name changes over the last 15 years. She has touched almost every part of the school. Teacher extraordinaire, volleyball coach, science department chair, and outings. She is truly in and of Marin Academy. Today I’d like to focus on her contributions towards our Science Innovation Center. From the beginning, five years ago, at a Board retreat, with then brand new Academic Dean Scott Young, Randi presented the compelling case that has brought us to the building of the program driven architecture. I bring this up not as an advertisement for the new Science and Innovation Center, but rather as a way to capture Randi’s contributions. Picasso said that every child was an artist; Randi has made it abundantly clear that every citizen needs to be a scientist. Her understanding of learning by doing informs everything that she does. That is why our students will be designers of original science. Her commitment to her colleagues is unending and unbounded. Her first concern is always to make sure that teachers have what they need to do what they do best. This commitment and vision on Randi’s part has made her a key player in both the imagination and execution of Marin Academy’s next chapter in intellectual and curricular growth.

Joani Lacey

There is a certain challenge in writing a recognition for the person whose job it is to remain in a confidential space, under the radar, and privately accessible to others. And it would be more of a challenge if Joani were not Joani. Over the last five years, I have often reflected on the fact that Joani’s line of work mirrors one of her other passions in life: film. She does indeed collect stories, reflect on them, provide feedback, and set each and every one of us up for an even better shoot next time. Because Joani is so good at her work, we rarely get to observe her actually doing it. Each of us at Marin Academy, however, benefits from the clear effect of her purposeful and compassionate engagement with students and adults alike. Although our students have their moments of stress, the overall environment of the school reflects a fairly healthy balance. There is an openness at MA reflective of her skill in gently challenging individuals to both own their voice and see the world from different perspectives. As a community, we have faced several challenges in the last five years that have called upon our emotional engagement all while maintaining our clearest professional boundaries. In thought, word and deed, Joani has provided wise counsel, a dynamic sounding board, and perspicacious advice. Of course, this isn’t a surprise. She’s an artist, a therapist, and one of us.

Lindsay Neville

Many of us would like to think of ourselves as the voice and face of Marin Academy. But let’s be honest. Lindsay Neville is the voice and face of MA. For some of us, hers is the first we hear in the morning and the last in the afternoon. There is not enough room in the office to store all of the hats she wears. Think of this: receptionist, keen observer of students, nurse, sympathetic ear for over-wrought parents, counselor to our mailman, organizer of health forms, producer of the planner, mail clerk, stocker of all the things we take for granted (tea, coffee, popcorn) and even someone who good humoredly cleans up after the most negligent of us. Lindsay keeps us on the rails. In her free time she is a number one supporter of Marin Academy athletics, the mother of two, and the corraler of three Boxers. On the very few and very infrequent days when Lindsay has been home sick, many things have fallen apart. Where’s the attendance list? How do I find more tea? I need to get the emergency forms, where are they? Lindsay, without you a Marin Academy day unfolds with glitches, headaches, and general unpleasantness. I’m not going to say that a day without Lindsay is like a day without sunshine. But a day without Lindsay means that we often appreciate the importance of what she does in an entirely different way. Let’s all try to do that more not only in her absence.

20 years of service

Alejandro Higareda

It is true that sometimes I drive around Marin Academy on Sunday mornings to make sure everything is ok. Each time, the only person I meet on campus, and who has gotten there before I have, is Alejandro. When the palm tree caught fire this fall, Alejandro was there. When the water main broke because someone was trying to steal the copper, Alejandro took care of it. But it’s not just the response to the inevitable emergencies that surround our school that many of us don’t deal with, it’s also his understanding of how our campus works and works together. It is easy for all of us to take for granted the beautiful place in which we work and teach. Day in and day out we are the beneficiaries of Alejandro’s commitment and understanding. No task is too great. No need is too small. And somehow he makes it that there’s always enough time, even when in truth there isn’t. My only concern about Alejandro is his persistent attachment to his motorcycle. Many of us talk about Marin Academy as a family or as our home, but it is truly Alejandro’s. If we take Micky out of the equation, Alejandro is literally the oldest brother of this group. With Leo as his brother, and David and Robert as his first cousins, he is the leader of the pack in and out of school.

35 years of service

James Shipman

Five years ago, when I did James’ appreciation, I noted that he often reminded me of Walt Whitman with his hat and drive to be outdoors, connected with the natural world in which we live. That hasn’t changed, but this moment has for James. No analogies tonight, no references to literary or historical figures, just a spotlight on someone who has literally made Marin Academy his life’s commitment, James. It would be easy now to launch into a recitation of his accomplishments: Vision Quest, Aikido, his commitment to all things classical- there are not many of us on campus who can read Latin or Classical Greek or wax poetic on the relevance of ancient Greece and Rome today although James can. Some of us know about his famous lunch time cribbage/card games with David LeCount, his skill at poker, or the delicious parchment chicken that he and Beau have been known to make for those of us whose life changes have benefitted from a meal delivered. We could say all of that. But let us step back and reflect on what underlies James’ 35 year commitment Marin Academy, to this place and his practice. It seems to me that James believes in creating transformative experiences for his students that place them at the center of their learning. He wants to know what they think, and he wants them to experience what they are learning as they are doing it. Whether in practicing Aikido, marching as Greek soldiers do, or soloing on Vision Quest, James believes that learning requires his students to be what they are learning. In this way they are connected and only in being connected can they truly grow as individuals.


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Appreciating those with 10 years of service

Jamie Collie

Here are some of the most obvious things to note about Jamie. At 6’5” he is the tallest person on campus. In his early years, many of us noted the ubiquitous presence of his small brown pad on which he would take notes or jot down ideas. Now he doesn’t. The most obvious signature move of Jamie Collie, one that you can see any day when he is teaching in the BBLC 214 or coaching at the pool, is his kneeling down to work with his students or players as they struggle with a problem or a stroke or a strategy. And, frankly, this move says it all. No matter the complexity of the challenge or the frustration of the student or player, Jamie models patience, engagement, and encouragement. As the quintessential teacher/coach, Jamie demonstrates his faith in and commitment to his students through his purposeful and honest feedback and his unrelenting respect for them as individuals. It is always about them, their learning and never about him or his ego. But, let’s make this moment about him.

Krista Curtis

From her Midwestern twang to her genuinely kind heart, there is no one I would rather bump into on a Saturday afternoon at MA when I come in to do a couple hours of quiet work. And there have been a number of Saturdays where we have run into each other. Her students praise her for being kind and challenging, and her colleagues rely on her for her skill as a teacher and her can-do attitude. It was great day for Marin Academy when Krista decided to step away from the business world and her MBA to teach Algebra 2, Geometry, and Calculus. There isn’t a student who has had the privilege of being in your class who doesn’t learn that kindness and commitment not only makes the classroom a great place to be, but is also the best path towards meaningful learning. There isn’t a rock that you have left unturned as a former cross-country coach, as a current study coach, and everything in-between. You have truly put your commitment to community into action.

Nicole Stanton

There are not very many people either by will or skill who can engage in an argument about the most important 19th century British and American novelist to teach. Should you find yourself wanting to engage in such a enlightening conversation, Nicole Stanton is your person. Unbeknownst to many, independent schools bare a lot of resemblances to the 19th Century novel. The layers of social interaction, drama, fashion, manners, and in all of these Nicole always maintains a sense of openness, compassion for the characters, and a recognition that each and every one of us is more important both as individual and a member of the community. As the school’s inaugural Dean of Faculty, she brought judiciousness, compassion, and a strong sense of responsibility to every decision she made large and small. We often regret the moment when a master teacher leaves the rank of teaching to become an administrator. In this transition, however, Nicole never lost her commitment to her colleagues and her singular focus on what was most important for our students. And it’s a rare person that has the courage to follow her heart and return to the thing that is most important to her. In Nicole’s case, she followed her heart, returning to the classroom, ever committed to making MA the best, the most inclusive school focused on educating the hearts and minds of our future.

Rebecca Gustin

Although Rebecca graduated from that other school in the city in 1995, that school across the bridge when she lived in Marin, I am most grateful that Marin Academy has been her home as a teacher and a leader. Rebecca’s commitment to all of our students, and especially to our students with learning differences and involved in the study coach program has been so thorough and profound that I can’t remember what life was like without you before you took on learning services. Her ability to see beyond what may be a painful moment of struggle for a student to how that individual can grow as a learner and self-advocate makes her the perfect person to do some of the most challenging work in our community. Her aspirations for the students and programs she serves and lead have made Marin Academy stronger academically, and more intentionally compassionate in the experience we provide. As a trustee, she always modeled engagement and a fondness for insightful questions. Thank you for what you have done not only for our individual students, but also for growing our school with a deeper awareness of how students learn and develop.

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Appreciating Faculty & Staff

Every year around the December holidays, the MA faculty and staff gather to not only celebrate the holiday season but also appreciate those who have worked for the school for 5, 10, 15 and sometimes even 35 years. Seeing how much of the work of the faculty and staff goes on in a very public arena, I thought it appropriate to share the appreciations with the larger community. Over the course of the next two weeks I will be posting the appreciations. I hope you enjoy them.

Celebrating Five Years of Service to MA

Ellie Beyers

When I interviewed Ellie five years ago, I asked her, as I asked all candidates, how she taught stoichiometry. And her answer made that complex concept critical for all students of chemistry as clear as I have ever heard it. Ellie has brought a sense of warmth and enthusiasm to the study of science. Her own commitment to being a scientist and her willingness to try things on have made her the teacher who can explain complex chemical processes and also put on boots and head out to do field work with her students. As the leader of the science department, she has been integral in helping us create a program driven architecture for the Science and Innovation Center. She’s also a two-time ironman finisher, and has forged deep connections with students as a regular outings leader. The gift of Ellie is she sees the connections between life inside and outside the classroom.

Robbie Gutierrez

Without Robbie’s constancy, integrity, and work ethic, we would not be able to execute on some of our core values at MA. Very few people understand the integral role of database management, and the need for a sharp eye when it comes to knowing who our parents are, expressing gratitude in a thoughtful and timely manner, and in making sure that we can move quickly and accurately to recognizing others for what they do. In fact, Robbie’s job is so much about taking care of others, that I am grateful for this moment to thank her publicly for her generosity, her gracefulness, and her absolutely invaluable role in the growth of our school for the past five years. She is a true professional with a kind heart.

Evie Koh

It is a little known fact, and she may not even remember it herself, that on her second day of work Evie came into my office and said — I really want to learn and grow, so please don’t ever hesitate to give me feedback. And thus began, at Marin Academy, the work life and contributions of the Formidable Evie Koh. Very few people have had two jobs at MA in five years. And very few have had such jobs that are so integral to the work of MA. We all know the many ways in which Evie was able to serve faculty and students as the registrar. She played a major role in critical analysis that allowed us to make important moves around Science and Innovation Center. As the Senior Associate Director of Admissions she has been able to combine her analytical skills and creative skills with her thoughtful and engaging presence with students and families. I believe she has truly found her calling in Admissions.

Beth Sherman

Several people in this room participated in what was essentially the founding of our school. Tonight I want to recognize Beth Sherman who has played a key role in ensuring the foundation of MA. As a member of the class of 1996, and in her role as Director of Alumni Relations over the last 5 years, Beth has brought an unwavering commitment to her school and has laid more than a few important bricks in the foundation that is MA. Her engagement with alums, recent and in the distant past, has allowed MA to build a strong database of over 2600 living alums — well over the majority of individual who have graduated from MA. Her tireless work in connecting alums to their past, while engaging them in our vision for the future, has made all the difference.

Scott Young

Perhaps it’s the Woody costume from Toy Story or perhaps it is his gracious smile and endearing laugh, but he almost immediately engenders a sense of trustworthiness from those with whom he spends his time. Once in a joking moment a colleague asked that if he had won the lottery for $100 million, would he stop working. His answer was no. And truthfully, I believe him. I am often reminded of Diana Ross’s rendition of “Aint’ No Mountain High Enough”. And when I think about the task at hand, whether it’s a high mountain or a wide river, Scott is always Marin Academy’s guy. He holds equally a sense of the right thing to do with the understanding of the people and the issues at hand.

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Navigating the Complexities of Parenthood

Based on statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 4,358 people under the age of 21 die of alcohol related incidents every year. In 2008 alone, more than 190,000 people under the age of 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol related injuries. We are not immune.

These kinds of statistics have shaped me as a person and an educator.  Today, I address a ubiquitous threat to the health and safety of our students and the well being of our community.  It is a threat that parents tacitly, perhaps unknowingly, play a role in. As the Head of the School, as an educator, and a concerned adult, I feel called to share my views on the topic of drugs, alcohol and adolescents, as well as on the parents who explicitly or implicitly allow drug and alcohol related parties to take place in or around their homes.  I want to avoid a tragedy, especially one that we can all work together to prevent.

Let me be clear, MA is explicit about its stance on drugs and alcohol from an educational perspective, a health and safety perspective, and a discipline perspective. I am talking about those choices that students and families make beyond the school confines, beyond school time, but not beyond the reach of our care and concern as a school, or my care and concern. I can no longer have my integrity and remain silent on this topic. And I enter into this conversation with great humility, the clear understanding of the complexities and challenges of parenthood, and a deep and abiding knowledge of and respect for adolescents.

No one ever asks me, “Is it ok if I let my kid smoke cigarettes?” You’d be a social pariah if you did. And it’s time we started thinking that way about drugs and alcohol. Because of brain science we now know how the adolescent brain responds to drugs and alcohol. And we must accept that because of their effect on the adolescent brain, they have a detrimental physiological, medical, and mental impact. In the same way that we know what smoking does to us, we know what drugs and alcohol are doing to our kids. We know.

Teenagers can wear us down. I understand the reasoning behind wanting your child to learn how to drink at home where it is safe, or the comfort that a parent tries to create by collecting the car keys. Although understandable that parents reach these conclusions, they do not address the real issues at hand when it comes to providing a place for impossible-to-supervise parties, binge drinking, and the use of drugs.  Here’s what I want every parent to know:

  1. Parents need to be really clear with their children and our students about their values and what the consequences will be when rules are broken. Families need to have these conversations frequently. Parents who step away from their authority step away from their responsibilities.
  2. Making those decisions for your children is your right and responsibility; it is not in your purview to make those decisions for other people’s children. Let’s be clear: drugs and alcohol are illegal. And there are consequences. So when you choose to serve adolescents drugs or alcohol in your home, or to allow their consumption tacitly, you’re making decisions for other people’s children. And that’s not ok.
  3. Parents have to be clear about their boundaries and hold their children accountable. I encourage parents to call other parents and to ask them if they’re going to be home when a party is happening or to ask if drugs and alcohol are going to be served. Only then you will know the landscape in which you are making your decisions. At some point we have to trust our  kids, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be checking in about these things.
  4. Provide your child with an out. Let them know that they can call you any time to get them out of a uncomfortable situation or a mistake they’ve made or that their friends have made.
  5. Be your child’s ally. Social pressures are challenging to resist and it can be complicated to remove yourself from these situations. Don’t minimize that for your child.  And if you believe that they are unable to make a wise choice, even when they insist that they are, avoid putting them in that situation.

Marin Academy will continue to do what we do best. Provide excellent information through our two-year Human Development program, featured speakers, and the opportunity to practice wise decision making. Continue to be crystal clear about our expectations, rules and consequences. Support parents by providing parent education and by being a strong resource. Thoughtfully review all programs to ensure that we avoid mixed messages or inadvertently place our students in untenable situations. Share compassionately and clearly our best practices and recommendations.

Here is what I hope parents will do. Resist the urge to host these kinds of parties. Call other parents to determine the nature of any social event that you consider sending your child to, and ask the difficult questions. Recognize that your adolescents need your brain and your wisdom even when they compellingly argue that they do not.  

Let’s all work together on the most important piece of our partnership: educating your children and our students to make healthy choices in order to become adults who are compassionate and contributing citizens of our world.


Suggested links for further reading:

  1. Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage : NPR

  1. Drinking and Risky Sexual Behavior – Fact Sheets – Resources – Center

for Alcohol Marketing and Youth – Centers and Institutes – Research –

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

  1. Teenage Drinking: Understanding the Dangers and Talking to Your Child

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Some time to do nothing

Every year at this time of the year, I am confounded by how quickly time can pass. No matter your celebrations, December marks a 50% completion of the school year we’re engaged in. Looking out my window with the rain clouds in the wind, I marvel at where August went and how we got to this moment. Our 9th graders are no longer new. Our seniors are fully engaged in discovering and creating their next steps. Is it possible to stop and take a breath? We have to make this possible not only for our children but also for ourselves.

At this time of year, I believe that reflection, encouragement and enthusiasm are the necessary antidotes to regret and the anxiety about how to get it all done.  I guess it’s the moment where we have to decide if we look at the glass half full or half empty, nostalgia for what’s passed, or  anticipation of what’s to come. For me, December is always about anticipation about what’s to come. Our students have completed one portion of their endeavors on all fronts, academic, athletic, artistic. They have the rest of then year to build on what they have begun, change plans, shape approaches, and anticipate with curiosity the inevitable unexpected that a second semester will bring. For sure, a reflection on how it went is the key to creating an engaged and productive second half of the year. But before that, let’s press pause. Let’s rest. Let’s read a book or watch a movie. Let’s fully engage in doing nothing for a space of time.

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Making successful students and people

Graduation 2015-147aA lot of parents often ask me how to create reflective, self-disciplined and resourceful kids who know when to ask for help. What parents are really asking is, “What makes a kid successful?” I think the keys to success transcend every lesson. And the goal is to create compassionate, self-reflective and self-regulated kids.

Compassion comes with perspective and understanding. It comes from an awareness of how their lives differ from ours. And it comes from an awareness that what may be easy for us could be challenging for others. To me, the way you teach compassion is to teach perspective. That’s why people get more compassionate as they get older because as we age we shed our own self-directed sense of the world. And we also understand, this idea from the Greeks, that you never know when something is going to come down from the gods. You also teach compassion by being able to reflect. Compassion is understanding in action — the root of the word means “to suffer with”. That’s why community engagement is important because believing that we all have a role and responsibility to play in the world regardless of self or self need is an act of looking outward. It informs how and why we need to suffer with others. In and out of the classroom we try to put our students in positions that stretch them, positions where they have to shift perspectives so they understand that theirs is not only one.

And connected to the idea of compassion is self-reflection. Schools are pretty good at teaching this. Self-reflection is in part about reading something and reflecting on it, and then seeing how it connects to you. Self-reflection is making sure that part of a process in a classroom is a student having an experience and then the time to look at that experience; in other words, to have some sort of meta-experience. This meta-experience takes students out of themselves and offers a time out of sorts. A moment when they can reflect on what’s happened and what’s going to happen, and to see all of the options ahead of them and the decisions that led them there. Some times I think this is the easiest skill to teach, but it’s one that requires more practice than some might think.

That brings us to self-regulation — this is the challenge of adolescence, and the challenge of parenting and teaching adolescents. It’s easy to do with your kid when your kid is a child because you are the source of everything (the food, the comfort, the shelter, the clothes, etc), and so you’re making decisions. But that’s what’s so critical about adolescence and why kids need to practice their autonomy. That’s why we have grades and comments in first quarter. We don’t wait to do that at the end of the semester. We want kids to get feedback along the way and learn how to advocate for themselves and their habits. Self-regulation is also about critical and candid feedback. It’s about understanding more than just what’s in front of you and thinking about consequences. That’s important because during our life we have opportunities to indulge or to exercise caution. We have opportunities to be sloppy or lazy or to do the right thing or make an extra effort because it’s helpful for us or helpful for others. To me, this is also connected to integrity. Integrity is what you do when no one is watching. That’s what real integrity is. Growing up means that, slowly, the eyes of the world and your family and your friends look away from you. You’re left more to make your own decisions, float your own boat, and be accountable for your actions.

Much in our society relies on people becoming compassionate, self-reflective and self-regulated, but those are skills we often push into the back of our minds. So when people ask me what makes kids successful, I tell them to plan backwards. If you want your kids to be able to be all of these great things, make sure you map an idea, a skill set to get them there. It’s true, I want my boys to be able to quote what Keats thinks poetry is. Some people may want their children to know how to do XYZ or that they draw from perspective drawing. All of these things feed into our education here; however, compassion, self-regulation, and self-reflection are the takeaways that trump any individual lesson. If they haven’t learned to exercise those muscles, our students will become those young adults who struggle to thrive in the challenging transition to college, adulthood, and beyond.

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