In general, resolutions get on my nerves. When I inevitably forget again to clean my sock drawer or change the goldfish’s tank, I feel I’ve failed. Who needs failure so early in a new year? So in place of resolutions for 2016, I am thinking, instead, about mantras and mottoes — those phrases I come back to over and over to help me remember that which is most important at school.
Last fall, I gave a talk that centered on the ways in which we, at Laurel School (Ohio), attend to the social and emotional well-being of girls. The evidence is clear: When a girl’s emotional house is in order, she performs better. At the end of the day, outcomes matter for independent schools. If girls who feel well perform better in all aspects of school, it behooves us to weave a practice centered not only on academic excellence but also braided with the components of resilience: growth mindset, creativity, self-care, purpose, and relationships.
After my talk, an audience member approached me.
“You’re so clear about your school’s mantras,” she smiled. “We don't have those kinds of shared understandings in my school.”
Our mantras? I paused. I think of mantras as phrases to repeat during yoga, such as “Watch the breath” or “Be curious.” But it is true that we have shared understandings at Laurel School, and I often return to certain phrases — or mottoes, or mantras — that I have gathered over my decades in independent schools.
If the following phrases are helpful to you, use them and pass them on. For me, the best gifts, regardless of the season, are those we use again and those we share.
Heart, head, and hand. Right after college, I was a bright-eyed English and drama teacher, the very young female dorm parent on a corridor full of senior and PG boys at Northfield Mount Hermon School (Massachusetts). D.L. Moody, founder of NMH, believed in heart, head, and hand — encouraging a child’s spirit, intellect, and ability to make meaning through purposeful work. His educational enterprise flourishes today —and I carry that slogan with me in all I do as a teacher and a headmistress.
Put the child at the center and all the adults will do the right thing. This one goes back to my days as a young teacher under the brilliant leadership of Mildred Berendsen at The Chapin School (New York). It’s true. First cousin to this mantra is, “We’re all on the same side, and it’s your child’s side.”
Dare to fail gloriously. This motto is attributed to the legendary acting teacher Michael Chekhov. We adopted it at the Ensemble Theatre Community School, a summer program my husband and I founded and ran for 27 summers; now it’s crossed over from my days as a drama teacher into my leadership at a girls’ school. If you’re going to take a risk, don’t hold back. Be bold. This is a particularly good motto for high-achieving, potentially risk-averse girls.
Whole child, whole time. This one reminds us that we, in schools, are wise to consider a child’s social and emotional well-being all the way through her years at school; that even older girls need to know they are cared for; and that we are interested in every aspect of their social and emotional well-being.
Don’t give away your power. Girls need to grow up knowing they have power. Sometimes they forget that as they seek to please parents, teachers, friends. When “grinding” became a default on the dance floor, I talked with Laurel girls about the dynamic implicit in that type of dancing: Boys enjoyed it a lot, but what was in it for the girl — beyond pleasing a boy? I wish our mini-consciousness-raising had changed behaviors; for most, it did not. But not giving away your power remains an important concept to continue to put in front of girls. At Laurel, we empower girls to claim their voices and change the world. To achieve that lofty goal, it’s vital for them to know that each one of them has personal power to put to use for good.
You’re a Laurel Girl 24 hours a day — in school, out of school, and on the Internet. Our middle and upper school girls know this one by heart. If social media is the Wild West for girls, then it’s particularly important that the school hold the envelope and be clear about what behavior is and is not acceptable. Empathy and kindness are virtues to care about beyond the boundaries of the school day. Actions have consequences. Does the knowledge of this mantra prevent every unkind post or tweet or text? Of course not. However, does it help girls who are trying to respect one another? We think so.
Feel free to blame Laurel for your good behavior. Forging a strong moral compass, an intrinsic understanding of right and wrong, is work all children and young people must do. Ultimately, I want every girl to have the proverbial courage of her convictions, but as she is getting stronger and braver, she may find it helpful to lean on the school’s expectations as an excuse not to choose to participate in particular activities.
It’s not the mistake but how you move forward from the mistake that matters. This is such a sensible, growth-mindset approach. In a school that encourages risk-taking and growth mindset, we know we cannot all be our best selves every minute of every day. Mistakes are powerful teachers; we must let our ambitious, high-powered girls know that we all make mistakes and that we all have the opportunity to learn from them.
Finally, a smart mantra from Joyce Evans, who was head of The Town School (New York) during our daughters’ time there. I use this phrase at many parents’ gatherings: If you believe 50 percent of what they say about us, we’ll believe 50 percent of what they say about you. It’s a good reminder. We all want to trust our children to be faithful reporters, but feelings sometimes color the way in which any of us present the facts.
May the new year offer the opportunity for you to compose your own list of mottoes and mantras — much less pressure than a list of resolutions!