As we race full steam ahead through spring, I’d like to ask all of us to pause for a moment. Spring can be a season of “external indicators of success” - college acceptances, academic prizes, acquisition of new leadership positions, standardized test scores, athletic victories, exam grades, final GPA’s and Canterbury diplomas. There’s no denying nor escaping these indicators, and as a parent myself, I can get just as caught up in them as anyone (we are already discussing my son’s first “real” exams in May and the likelihood of his travel baseball team advancing this summer). This is the ether we live in. And, these are the external indicators so often taken into consideration by admission offices and employers. I keep thinking of the new iPhone 7 commercial with the iMessage stickers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBfk1TIWptI), a reminder that it can feel like we each carry “badges” attached to us: B in physics, proctor, headed to College X, interning this summer at engineering firm, daughter of a physician, etc.
Yes, this is not news. So why am I asking us to pause? Let me explain. Two recent New York Times articles quickly caught the attention of parents and educators this spring:
The first, written by Rebecca Sabky (a former Dartmouth College admissions director), notes: “The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper.” In other words, if we are all attempting to use excellence - in whatever form or venue - as a differentiator, we are creating an incredibly limited/limiting playing field. Ms. Sabky goes on to write: “Yet in the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness.”
The second, written by Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking), reminds us that seeking leadership in order to check that box on an application - motivated by external rather than internal factors - is all too common and concerning on multiple levels. Moreover, being a team player or a “courageous, honest and credible” follower are invaluable roles. With apologies for the lengthy quotation: “What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all. What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand’?…. [If] we seek a society of caring, creative and committed people, and leaders who feel called to service rather than to stature, then we need to do a better job of making that clear.”
And so . . . how do we model kindness? Empathy? Service? Resilience? Patience? How do we ensure that as parents - and as the adults choosing Canterbury as home and work - we communicate the importance of intrinsic motivation, of goodness, of actions which simply cannot be measured by an external set of criteria? Our children rarely find this modeling in the news or on social media. We hope they see it among their friends and peers. But we can make the promise that they learn it from us.
One of Rebecca Sabky’s final thoughts perfectly reflects what we so deeply believe and actively embrace at Canterbury: “Colleges should foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit.” Yes! Spirit!
Thank you for making time to pause, read, and hopefully reflect a bit on our students and the world around them. We can’t control how external indicators are measured and valued, but we can take ownership of what we believe, how we model these core values, and why we determine what matters most.
Rachel E. Stone
Head of School