Let Our Teachers Go Surfing

Mike Davis, Head of School
Colorado Academy, Denver

In light of last year's economic meltdown — and longterm challenges for independent schools with greater competition and rising tuition — I felt it would be valuable to challenge our faculty and staff to think about school operations and our mission in business terms. Most educators I know recoil in horror at the thought of a school as a business. Leaping to mind are images of cut-throat capitalists like Alec Baldwin's character from Glengarry Glen Ross speaking about a sales competition: " ... first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado ... Second prize is a set of steak knives. This prize is: your're fired."

Yet one of our faculty members suggested that we look at the innovative outdoor clothing company, Patagonia. Company founder Yvon Chouinard's book on Patagonia's corporate philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing, reveals a surprising number of parallels between how a successful company functions and how a school might go about creating a high quality education program, particularly his chapter on the philosophy of product design.

This past summer, Henry Barber and Ric Hatch, two former Patagonia executives, ran a workshop for our faculty to explore how another organization manages and creates change in order to fulfill its mission. The took us through a thought-provoking exploration of what schools could learn from a socially responsible company known for excellence. Bringing a business perspective into a faculty culture is not easy. Henry made several trips to Colorado Academy and interviewed over a third of our faculty in preparation for the workshop. He and I worked together to customize the program to meet our school's needs.

Like independent schools, Patagonia has suffered from an image of marketing to the elite because of the product's high cost. The term "Pata-Gucci" causes believers in Chouinard's vision to squirm, just as the description of independent schools as "elitist" causes many school heads and teachers to feel uncomfortable.

Using Ptagonia case studies, Henry and Ric challenged our faculty to think about the critical changes we need to make to better realize our school mission. In one exercise, they suggested putting down some "stakes in the sand" How do we connect our values to our day-to-day endeavors? How are we limited by outmoded models of education? How do we think beyond the box? By identifying "stakes in the sand" we will not only differentiate ourselves in the market place; we will also better serve our students and families. They also challenged our faculty to think strategically about our future as a school and to take bold action to make our education more relevant and meaningful.

Given our school's connection with experiental learning , they challenged us to think about how we could connect with some local issue in a mission-specific way and then connect with students in pursuit of learning. As small groups of teachers in all three divisions and from every discipline worked together, the ideas began to flow. The reports from each group were exciting and allowed us to imagine a broad brush across curricular issues and to see the potential for experimenting with ideas without boundaries and for measuring purpose, product and outcome.

The worshop was incredibly well-received, with 93 percent of the faculty saying, in a follow-up evaluation, that they would recommend the seminar to other schools. Long-time faculty came to me and said it was one of the best professional development days they had ever attened. Descriptive comments from teachers included inspired, tangible, and stimulating. Some observed that the dialogue forced teachers to be uncomfortable and to look at issues with fresh eyes. But then that was the idea — to be renewed by being uncomfortable!

Chouinard's book opens with a bold statement: "Patagonia is an experiment. It exists to put into action those recommendations that all the doomsday books on the health of our home planet say we must do immediatly to avoid certain destruction of nature and the collapse of our civilization. We're collectively paralyzed by apathy, inertia, or lack of imagination. Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business"

Alter his language a little and think about how this philosophy might apply to your school: "Independent schools are an experiment. They exist to put into action all those recommendations that the doomsday books on the state of education say we must do immediately to ensure our young people are prepared for the immense challenges they will face in the 21st century. We exist to challenge conventional wisdom and to present a new style of innovative and responsible education.

And, as we do so, we strive to be true to our mission and mindful of the challenges in seeking excellence.

Colorado Academy, Coed Day, enrolls 908 students
PS — 12. Mr Davis was appointed in 2008.

The Head's Letter is published by Educational Directions, Inc., a national consulting firm that works with independent schools. www.edu-directions.com

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