A Community of Care

By Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics.

I recently had an opportunity to host close to twenty beginning teachers from schools in our regional association, I.S.A.S. (Independent School Association of the Southwest), for half a day on the Hill. After a campus tour and classroom observations in the Upper School, the teachers gathered to share overall impressions with myself and Laura Ross, Head of Greenhill’s Upper School. The first participant to speak up commented how, “students at Greenhill truly care about each other.” It was a profound statement to make after merely three hours on campus and one that has stuck with me for the past week. Yet despite the richness of that observation, it did not come as a surprise to me. Beyond the academic engagement and personal growth students experience on an everyday basis, having a community of care is at the core of who we are as a school. In a competitive and often divisive world, the Greenhill community is tied together through genuine interest in connections and a desire to grow from the wisdom of others.

I am not sure what classes the particular beginning teacher observed, but clearly that visitor saw something impressionable. I, too, see the care for others during my own drop-in visits to Greenhill PreK-12 classrooms. It surfaces in different forms and here is a just a sampling:

  • A Preschool student who stops to help a frustrated classmate during morning play (between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m.) and reminds her how to “settle her glitter” and practice deep breathing to change her state of mind.
  • Lower School lunch table discussions where students express concern about whether a classmate is eating enough of the “good stuff.”
  • Middle School recess when a student standing on the sidelines is welcomed by another to join a group activity.
  • Upper School freshmen who don’t bat and eye in celebrating Homecoming by eating together at the ninth grade dinner before the dance instead of going their separate ways.
  • Collective problem solving in an Upper School math club competition where more experienced juniors and seniors are intentionally teamed up with freshmen and sophomores to tackle challenging questions.

A direct result of our entrenched core values of honor, respect, and compassion, caring for each other runs deep on the Hill. It happens when collaboration is valued over individual success, when students and adults create and act upon opportunities to build rapport.

Greenhill’s 66th Founder’s Day

On Friday, September 9th, all Greenhill students and faculty assembled in Phillips Gymnasium to celebrate Founders’ Day. Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics discusses the meaning behind Founders’ Day.

Greenhill’s birthday falls on the infamous date of September 11th. For a date that will be etched in history as one filled with hatred and sadness, Greenhill’s 66th birthday last week was filled with honor, respect, and compassion. Sitting on the floor of Phillips Gym, the vibe was especially joyous this year. The second graders around me swayed, arm in arm, as all sang “Best Friends Should Be Together,” new community members were welcomed with great cheer, and all marveled at the mini history lesson Mr. Tom Perryman ’81, the Assistant Head of School, delivered.

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As a history teacher myself, Mr. Perryman’s descriptions of segments in the school’s past were inspiring. He brought the 1500 plus audience members back to Greenhill’s first day in 1950 when an opening bell started a new adventure for thirteen faculty members and sixty-two students. He spoke of fishing down near the creek for crawdads as a student, and dancing the night away in the school parking lot at Homecoming, surrounded by Lower School students, teachers, and even parents.

The evidence that Greenhill has changed since those early days was quite clear. What has remained constant, however, are the school’s core principles and best practices. One look at page 8 of From Humble Beginnings: The First Fifty Years of Greenhill School, written Mr. Perryman and his brother David ’83, speaks to our foundation. On that page, an advertisement for the school’s inaugural year describes how Greenhill emphasizes “personal development through teacher-pupil relationships.” That statement still reflects the kind of school we are today.

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The more I listened to Mr. Perryman’s vivid descriptions of other eras, the more I became acutely aware of our core principles in action during the Founder’s Day assembly. Here are some samples:

• Honoring the school’s history by celebrating three students from the class of 1998 who had the foresight to create the Heart of the Hill program, a multi-age group tradition designed to unite us all.

• Respecting the need for peace and unity in a world that can sometimes be filled with anything but that by singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.’

• Showing compassion for new students and teachers in greeting them with thunderous applause and cheers, knowing that everyone was once in their shoes as a new kid on the block.

• Honoring the Greenhill Legends (faculty and staff with 25 years or more of service at Greenhill), Faculty Leaders, and Penny Nicholson Award winners.

• Respecting the developmental needs of our early learners by building in time during the assembly for them to stand, stretch, and move.

• Listening intently and demonstrating compassion for one special fourth grader who announced plans for the day’s ice cream social.

In all, I felt even more committed to carrying out Greenhill’s mission as I left the gym. I also realized I should probably revisit From Humble Beginnings: The First Fifty Years of Greenhill School, from time to time, to remind myself that the core of our School is both strong and timeless.

A Window Into Social Emotional Learning on the Hill

Social Emotional Learning has become a big part of the day for Preschool and Lower School students. Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics, takes a look into the program in this week’s blog.

Imagine a school day, with all of its typical excitement and exhilaration, starting with a centering activity to ready students for their upcoming adventures. Instead of jumping into school work, imagine slowing down in the morning to prepare for the day to come. That’s what is taking place in the Greenhill Preschool and Lower School as teachers and students engage in intentional core practices, or centering activities, to help their brains think more clearly. With the recent adoption of the MindUP curriculum for our youngest students, the goal is to make Greenhill an even more harmonious center of learning.

Evidence of core practices can be found in multiple areas on campus, from classrooms to hallways, during designated class time and in transitions from one area of study to another. I recently observed it unfold at the weekly Lower School assembly. After some singing, announcements, and acknowledgement of the School’s core principles in action, a fourth grade student leader sounded a small chime and over three hundred students and adults in the lobby settled in. All were given directions for a simple breathing exercise.

Take calm, slow breaths…Keep your shoulders relaxed…If your mind tries to think about other things, bring your attention back to your breath…feel your stomach rising and falling…open your eyes slowly and take another slow, deep breath with your eyes open.

I engaged in that breathing exercise, but admit that I opened my eyes to take a peek at the students. All appeared to embrace the one to two minute exercise. Instead of rushing off to their first class of the day or starting the day on a hectic note, the students used the power of silence and breath to set a tone. Once the exercise ended, grade by grade moved quietly and intentionally to their first class of the day.

For our youngest students who are often bombarded with stimuli, I appreciated the calm that settled over them. This very core practice is occurring three times a day throughout the Preschool and Lower School and I have to think it’s eventually going to lead to greater self-awareness, self-management, and improved relationships. Not to mention much happier and healthier students and teachers.

Welcome Back!

Below is a letter sent home to Upper School families from, Head of Upper School Laura Ross.

We had a wonderful first day back at Greenhill today. I enjoyed seeing all of your children’s happy faces – it reminded me of how much I miss them over the summer months.

As we do each year, we have an opening assembly that welcomes our students back to campus, identifies new faces, shares announcements, and most importantly, sets the tone for the school year.

Given that the education of your children is a partnership between the School and the family, I wanted to share some of the remarks that the Upper Schoolers heard this morning.

Head of School Scott Griggs opened our assembly with the following message:
“As you know, our theme for the year is respect. In my mind, there is not a better time for us to have chosen this theme – and, I want to thank the Advancing Core Principles committee for offering up this opportunity.

It is during times like we’ve seen this summer and recently that I’m especially thankful to be a part of the Greenhill community. I’m thankful because we are a community that is counter to the discord, anger, fear and hate we hear and see too often in today’s society. We are far from perfect however, and it is imperative that we strive daily to be the best we can be, so that we can serve as a model for others.”

I also shared some thoughts on respect with the students, recognizing the important work that we must all engage in, in order to have a healthy community that values our individual differences:

“We don’t have a very good model for what a healthy community is supposed to look like from the world around us. I talked about this at the beginning of last year as well and I am so sad to realize that this is even more true this year. So what does that mean for us? How do we look each other in the eyes and actually see our common humanity – the hopes, fears, and goals that make us more alike than we are different?

I’m a huge fan of the practice of yoga. Over the past 20 years it’s taught me a lot about compassion, suspension of judgment, and the value of being present in a particular moment. I have a yoga teacher who always closes class by saying the following: “the light, student and teacher in me bows to the light, student and teacher in you.” This phrase has struck a deep chord in me, and I think it applies to what I really think respect means. It means that we all need to look at each other and respect the gifts that other people bring to our lives. It means that we all respect the humanity of each other, and the fact that we are all students and teachers alike. We all have something to learn and to teach. Even if on the surface we think that we have nothing in common with each other, we bow to the fact that every person around us has an equal gift to give and it’s our job to both be teachers and students, and to respect that aspect of the way we interact.”

Student Council President Zach Rudner concluded our formal speeches by bringing our themes into the context of day-to-day life for Upper School students:

“This year, join a new club that might be fun for you, take that extra class that sounds like it might interest you, and in the cafeteria, on pound cake day, you should take an extra slice of cake if that’s what makes you happy. Make the most of this year in every way that you can. Doing so will be to your benefit and to our community’s benefit.

We cannot know everything about the nine months that lie before us but we know that every day we will make choices about what we do, what we say, and who we are. This year, let’s choose to live honorably, respectfully, and compassionately and there is no better day to start that, than today.

I am incredibly excited about the year ahead of us. Our choices are endless and our possibilities are limitless. Let’s each be the best that we can be and together we’ll have a spectacular year.”

As Zach mentioned, this year is full of possibilities. I hope that we all take the time to respect those around us and build an even stronger community.

In closing, the light, student and teacher in me bows to the light, student and teacher in you. Have a wonderful year, everyone.

Greenhill Kids These Days

Every other week, Head of Lower School Michael Simpson sends a letter to parents. The letters cover topics ranging from parenting strategies to events and activities he’s witnessed at school. Read below for his most recent reflection on Greenhill kids these days. Enjoy!

I’m not sure what’s wrong with your children, but SOMETHING is. They are out of control. First of all, every morning when it’s almost time to let the children enter the Lower School building, they form a big crowd, practically a MOB, and I have to hold them back until I finally let them into the building. They want to run and I have to tell them to walk. I mean, they’re leaving the PLAYGROUND to go into school. What are they so excited about?

And that’s not all. Once they’re in, they want to go see all their previous teachers. Who does that? Don’t they remember those teachers made them do WORK? What’s up with all that hugging? The teachers know it’s coming so they kind of stand near the door so they can greet BOTH their current and past students. What a pain!

And then, they bring in all this STUFF. Today there were students carrying chairs into school. Yes, chairs! Something about a stamp tax in 4th grade and protesting and the Sons of Liberty. Or they have some project or drawing or diorama or award or book or poem or instrument or artwork or letter or SYB or photograph or poster or creation that they want to show their teacher. Ugh! What happened to just having your textbooks? What makes them think the teachers are interested in any of that stuff?

And they’re so distractible. So Susie dropped her books, so what? Keep going and mind your own business. Do you REALLY have to stop and help her pick them up? Why is it your concern if someone looks lonely on the playground? Who said you have to look out for them, can’t you just keep playing and forget about other people’s problems? Compassion Shmumpassion. And call this a pet peeve, but why do you need to hold the door for others—aren’t they capable of opening doors themselves?

And finally, they’re so OPINIONATED. Every chance they get they’re offering some input or having some discussion about something. Why can’t they just sit there and absorb the information they’re getting, like we did? Who taught them they need to express themselves and dialogue about everything? Not to mention they are under the impression that they can solve the world’s problems, or any problem, lots of different ways.

Clearly school has changed from when we were young. I have no idea whose fault this is. I just wanted to let you know.

Intrinsic Motivation

On Tuesday, September 29, 2015, the entire Upper School gathered in the Phillips Gym to celebrate the academic accomplishments of the School’s top students. In her opening remarks, Head of Upper School Laura Ross discussed the role of intrinsic motivation in student success. Read below to read her address in its entirety.

Good afternoon and welcome to parents, grandparents, students, teachers and friends. Today we take time to recognize students who achieved an average of a 3.5 or above for the 2014-2015 school year. We will also recognize seniors who have distinguished themselves from their performance on the PSAT last fall.

Every year, as I prepare to write this speech, I spend time thinking about what it takes to succeed in schools like Greenhill. When I talk to my peers at schools like ours around the country, what we always discuss is ways we can work to try to instill intrinsic motivation in our students, and ways to help them manage the stress that can come from high expectations. Every Head of Upper School I’ve spoken to recently has talked about the impact of stress on their communities. National statistics show that these concerns carry over onto college campuses as these students transition to the next level from communities like ours. As a student said to me recently, “I love to learn in my classes, but I wish that the grades I get didn’t matter so much.”

I think that if this generation of students in high school had a collective motto, it would probably be something like the quote I just read. We have really amazingly smart, creative and talented kids, and they love to learn. However, they are growing up in an era, unfortunately, where students feel like every move they make has consequences – every extracurricular choice, every quiz, every community service commitment. If you are following the national media you all know that this conversation is a very hot topic right now with great conversation spurred by books like Julie Lythcott-Haims’s “How to Raise an Adult” and William Deresiewicz’s ‘Excellent Sheep.”

So what’s the answer? What are the best ways for schools like ours to help mitigate the effects of this sort of pressure on our kids? In education articles and blogs, there’s lots of discussion about making sure our classrooms allow for real thinking and exploration of ideas given all the external pressure on kids. We just got the results of our yearly HSSSE survey – the High School Survey of Student Engagement. They highlighted places where Greenhill outperformed other independent and public high schools in certain areas. The three top areas they recognized were that our students feel like Greenhill “emphasizes analyzing ideas in depth, asks them to think about the “why” in all situations, and engages in discussing ideas in class that have no easy answers.

Seeing this made me really happy. I want our students to be in classrooms where they get to remember why they love to learn. I want them in classrooms where ideas are discussed in ways that lead to reflection and growth. I want them to have opportunities to discover areas of interest and ways to give back in the world they are about to enter, and not to just see their time here at Greenhill as a means to an end. Another way to help students relieve some of the stress is for them to be able to have outlets for their creativity and love of healthy competition, which is why we are committed to the participation of our students in the arts and athletics. I know from my own experience as a member of my high school choir and our varsity soccer team that there were many days where I felt anxious or stressed and how when I left soccer practice or choir rehearsal I felt as if a weight had been lifted because I had access to joy and camaraderie and lightness of spirit because of those activities.

These kids behind me have excelled in the classroom and given of themselves across this campus. They throw themselves into their lives with grit and resilience and positive attitudes. I really believe that the most successful students have learned the real benefits of Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset. In a 2012 interview about her work Dr. Dweck characterized mindset as the following: “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

This growth mindset is connected to the concept of intrinsic motivation, which I referenced at the beginning of this speech. The entire Greenhill faculty read a great book this summer by an author named David Streight who runs the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. He defines intrinsic motivation as when “actions are performed for the pure joy of it. The experience of spending time with things we’re intrinsically motivated for, especially if they challenge us appropriately.” As educators and as parents, we all hope, to paraphrase Julie Lythcott-Haims from her book, to educate or parent our way out of a job. We want to help our students and our children find resilience, value in the rewards of hard work, joy in learning and being, and intrinsic motivation. With those four traits I think our students will be ready to take on college and what lies beyond. It’s our job as educators and as parents to help these amazing kids get out there and soar. Thank you.

Compassion Means Seeking the Why

Greenhill School’s campus filled with energy to the point of “buzzing” this week as approximately 1290 students flooded campus for the 2015-2016 school year. Students and teachers, new and returning, welcomed each other with smiles and hugs. Division Heads across campus implored them to think about what they’d like to accomplish this year. Each division head also talked about the annual theme for the year, Compassion. Read below to see Head of Upper School Laura Ross’ poignant address to Upper School students.

As you all hopefully already know, our theme for the year is compassion. So what is compassion? If empathy is defined as taking on the perspective and feeling the emotions of another, compassion can be seen as the action step after empathy – it’s empathy with the desire to help or to take some other positive action. But here’s the big question – how do we develop empathy, the first step on the road to compassion, in the first place? Well, we all have to actually begin to listen to and actually know each other. If we talk about each other and not to each other it’s very difficult to develop empathy and then to behave compassionately.

We have approximately 70 new members of our Upper School community this year, including both teachers and students. What are you going to do to make them feel welcome? What are you going to do when you see someone you don’t know in one of your classes or in the locker room? How will you begin to get to know them? This responsibility is on all of us. But here’s the wonderful secret: this isn’t a difficult duty that takes anything away from our lives. The cool thing about compassion is that practicing it has long-lasting effects on your emotional and even physical well-being. Research studies on the lasting effects of even short-term compassion training programs show them to have a profound impact. I am going to email all of you a link to the Greater Good Science Institute after this meeting to give you some more information and further resources about the benefits of compassion after this meeting.

I heard a child psychologist speak at a conference this summer and she said something simple that I found extremely compelling. She said that it was our job as educators to always “seek the why.” I would expand that definition to be true for everyone who is together in a community, like the one we have at Greenhill. What it means is that if you are confronted with something you don’t understand in another person, it’s critically important not to just say, “wow, that’s a crazy opinion/idea/perspective that I absolutely don’t agree with.” It’s important to engage in respectful dialogue with each other to “seek the why” – “tell me more about that and why you feel that way?” rather than dismissal of something that doesn’t feel right to you. We all come to this community with different backgrounds, families, faith traditions, and parental expectations. We are all shaped by a multitude of factors that give rise to different perspectives on how we view the world. We work hard to make sure that the Greenhill community is composed of people who are going to have lots of independent ideas and are not going to agree on everything, but if we just put the community together and walked away and said “we’re done!” we’d be failing our school and each other.

Compassion means seeking the why. It means active engagement. It means attempting to understand why someone feels a certain way and taking action to truly understand their perspective. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everything everyone says, but it means we have a responsibility to each other and to this community to try to understand each other. I know that we don’t exactly have great modeling of this kind of engagement in the greater world at large. We live in a time of internet shaming, Twitter feuds, and extreme partisan behavior. Our country seems to be increasingly polarized along political and social lines, and no one seems interested in actually listening to each other. There are sensitive, thoughtful and compassionate people to be found in every part of the religious, societal and political spectrum. Just because someone tells you they identify with a particular political ideal or religious tradition does not mean you can then assume everything they believe. We are all intelligent and complicated people and we cannot and should not ever make assumptions about others without talking to them first. In my opinion, it’s hurting our country and it will hurt our school community too if we let that happen here. Frankly, I know it has happened – and it’s our job to all work together to do our best to not let it continue to happen.

So again, it all comes back to compassion. The active act of attempting to know and understand another person. So let’s commit ourselves to that ideal this year, and let’s talk about it and do something about it when we see it not happening. We owe it to each other and we owe it to ourselves. Welcome back to school – I couldn’t be more excited to see you all. Have a great day.

Click here to read about Compassion and please take the time to learn more about Tina Payne Bryson’s work by visiting her website.