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Head of School Reflection— 2021-22 Opening Remarks

Kelly Slonaker

The following is an excerpt from Head of School Rachel Stone's Opening Remarks to faculty and staff on August 23, 2021.

Welcome to the official start of the 2021-22 school year. To be gathered in the Chapel this afternoon as colleagues and friends; as teammates preparing to carry forward some of what we learned last year; as new community members who have chosen Canterbury for your next chapter; and as the group of adults who simply cannot wait for the spirit, noise, needs, questions, joy, and enthusiasm of our students to return to campus; yes, to be gathered together this afternoon with sights firmly set on a new school year, we are fortunate indeed.

Before we begin, I would ask that we pause to acknowledge that the world events surrounding us can be unbearable, as fires rage and earthquakes and floods destroy, wars erupt and politics divide, and Delta persists. Let us not forget that we are here for one another and that the world needs our prayers.

As returning faculty and staff know, I keep these opening remarks in the back of my mind throughout the summer as I consider a variety of issues and inspirations. Fortunately, after hearing author David Epstein speak at a CAIS conference in April, I decided to buy his book—Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World—and enjoyed reading it earlier this summer.  And so this afternoon’s framework is the idea of RANGE.

Mr. Epstein opens this work of nonfiction research by comparing the journeys to excellence of golf icon Tiger Woods and tennis icon Roger Federer. On the one hand, a simplified version of Tiger’s story goes like this: choose an area of passionate interest early; practice deliberately, intensely, and frequently; and leverage that comprehensive preparation into tremendous, enduring success. On the other, Roger’s path started with a “sampling period” of sports, from basketball and soccer to badminton and squash. It wasn’t until high school that tennis began to stick.  And stick it most certainly did.  

The author goes on to describe two types of environments—wicked and kind—as coined by psychologist Robin Hogarth. In kind learning environments: “Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. [...] The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.” (p. 20-21).  

It should come as no surprise, then, that: “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” (p. 21).

While I cannot begin to give Mr. Epstein’s extensive research justice, his thorough approach to looking at hyper-specializing versus a diversity of experience includes […] an entire chapter devoted to Education and the concept of “desirable difficulties”—how the ultimate goal for a teacher is to create an environment in which your students struggle to retrieve information in order to solidify their understanding and develop deep and broad connections within and across disciplines.  Academic RANGE that makes the knowledge stick.

If I were asked to summarize the book, I might go with this: If you want to be a professional chess player, golfer, or fighter pilot, I would encourage you to hone those skills early and often and be unrelenting in your approach. Otherwise, the breadth and depth of your life experiences—including your academic pursuits; the relationships you build; your professional experiences, exposures, and failures; and how you navigate challenges—those experiences have a far better chance of preparing you for whatever comes next. Those experiences will give you RANGE.

And this, of course, is where the book intersects with all of us.  The concept of RANGE got me thinking about what I might share this afternoon and how it might resonate as we kick off a new year.  

First, the RANGE of skill, flexibility, patience, and persistence demanded of those choosing to make boarding school their career strikes me as even more weighty—and impressive—than I could articulate prior to reading this book. Your RANGE as members of this school—a community designed to welcome, know, stand by, challenge, and graduate teenagers—is beyond description. One moment you may be teaching the art of balancing equations in chemistry and the next you are consoling a tearful advisee before drawing up a defensive scheme on the turf. Perhaps you begin your day thinking you are tackling an electrical issue, technology upgrade, or classroom project in Hume only to embrace a new triage list based on the needs of a student or colleague. 

Our collective charge as faculty and staff is to understand the needs of each and every student so that their high school journey prepares them for all that comes next. From the youngest Third Former to the postgraduate opting into an extra year—and from the hundreds of parents and thousands of alumni—I do not believe that there is a profession that relies more heavily on RANGE in a normal year, let alone during last year—a “wicked environment,” indeed. While we are all more than ready to turn the page to 2021-22, please acknowledge with gratitude to yourselves and one another that you did not simply rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19; rather, you drew perspective, developed new approaches, and moved steadily forward—and will continue to do so—because of your RANGE of experience. Thank you. 

Second, I would like to extend the idea of RANGE to two other areas, and I hope David Epstein does not mind if some creative license allows a right turn.

This time last year, we were reeling from the early months of the pandemic and a summer that brought social injustice, systemic racism, and human rights to the fore. I think I can say with confidence that we all struggled to articulate what it “looks like” to engage in impactful and enduring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work; to understand our personal emotions and figure out how to channel them productively; and—most of all—to learn how to engage colleagues and students in honest and at times uncomfortable conversations. To be sure, there is no shared playbook for living a life committed to aggressively acknowledging and fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any type of discrimination. These are difficult, deep, and broad issues that long precede our lives and that do not benefit from the guilt some of us fall into; as we know, neither guilt—nor hope—are strategies to tackle injustice.  

But the framework of RANGE might be.

What I am asking you to consider this afternoon is a commitment to better understanding the RANGE of experiences others carry as one avenue by which you embrace DEI work. Specifically, the range of experiences in which we (and others) do NOT exist in the majority.  

Let me explain. What if we each did some honest soul-searching about our life experiences based on how often we—as individuals and as individual voices—were in the minority due to: our native language; faith; gender identity; race; health; ethnicity; family structure or disruption; sexual identity; socioeconomic status; and/or cultural tradition.

If we started with: how has this student, colleague, friend, neighbor, or newcomer been impacted by the RANGE of their experiences when their voice has not been heard or has been quieted or dismissed, we just might have a better chance at finding common ground that propels us forward rather than the fractured ground that isolates us because we see difference as frightening or even threatening.  

And remember—the goal is not to feel shame or guilt if the RANGE of your life experiences fall largely in the majority. No, the goal is to acknowledge the difference. To know it. And to work in earnest to ensure that the voices and needs of more people are more often in the majority. We all must play a role, some role, in the work of justice.  

As part of this work, we look forward to introducing our community to the Saints Promise, a set of guiding principles founded on Canterbury’s Five Values, inspired by the student members of our Community DEI Committee last year, and now a roadmap for cultural norms and conversations. More to follow in the days and weeks ahead.

Finally, as much as we draw energy, passion, and purpose from our work with students on campus, ultimately we must foster in them as much RANGE as we can and then expect them to take that framework with them to college and beyond. Think about the friends they make while on our hilltop, the languages they learn, the new sports they explore, the independence they gain, the healthy risks they embrace. Some fall in love with travel; others find a home-away-from-home on campus or with day students. Some learn to sing, or draw, or build, or code. Some discover spirituality while others deepen their faith. All learn to be more open-minded and to consider the ideas and beliefs of others as they grow in their ability to develop thoughtful, informed opinions. There is simply no better small boarding school experience—an experience that fosters RANGE—than what all of you have built here at Canterbury.

Take a moment to think about any student you have seen grow up on our hilltop. Think about the RANGE they developed while here. Amazing, isn’t it?

And so, in just six days, the spirit of our Saints returns. Let us approach the year ahead with RANGE in mind.  

Thank you.