The Secret List

Several years ago, I was in Maine on vacation, rounding up the canoe paddle and life vest and ready to get on the water early before the October mist lifted, when a parent called me. His voice was full of the fervor you might find in someone who just discovered a rare bird species. His must-share idea: teaching our high school kids about cybercrime. 

Convinced he’d found the “missing link” in modern education, he didn’t inquire if cybercrime was already in our curriculum or if I was even listening. He just needed to download his pitch. I silently earmarked his passion for cybercrime as an idea to add to my unique repository: the list.

What’s the list? It’s an unwritten collection of good ideas and suggestions gathered over the years that don’t have a place in the school’s curriculum. Just as an ecosystem thrives through balance and interdependence, so too does educational philosophy and mission. In this vein, the list serves as a conservation area for ideas that, while good in their own right, don't necessarily fit into our native habitat of pedagogy.

Staying Focused 

After about 20 minutes, he finally came up for air. “I’m in Maine,” I said, looking out at my canoe, upright and ready to shove off. The trees across the lake were tinged with new colors and starting to bleed through the mist. Unperturbed, he dove back into his monologue. 

I genuinely like this dad, and I understand his passion. Plus, I’ve heard worse pitches for required high school classes: estate planning, drone piloting, home repair. These ideas make sense for some students, and I hope they will find ways to learn them. However, The Grauer School (CA) aspires to be the best, balanced, small, college-prep, relationship-based, intrinsic motivation-oriented, naturalist independent school in the world. We are the BBSCPRBIMONISITW—and there isn’t much room in the curricula, or in this acronym, to add more.

It takes many years to build a team of expert teachers and leaders who are all embracing and devoting themselves to a well-synthesized, clear vision. In this life’s work, what we won’t do is as defining as what we will do. 

A half an hour into the call, he gave a brief pause, and in a new tone that bordered on guilt, he asked, “Oh, how have you been doing?”

“I think I’m coming down with a cold,” I said. He went back to his pitch without missing a beat. I know he is a good father. 

“Our kids need this,” he restated. As in most pleas, there is the stated reason for the call, and there is the “real” or underlying reason for the call. In this case, he is likely worried about his son and his finances. He is a warm and loving man, and if these “real” topics were to come up at a later date, I would be ready to address them.

Defining Curriculum                                      

The calls for “indispensable” subjects aren’t merely the chatter of passionate parents. Universities, politicians, and entire school districts all chime in with their agendas. True educational leadership, much like responsible stewardship of nature, is not about planting and adopting every well-meaning idea. It’s about cultivating what makes our ecosystem uniquely robust and focused. This means we must prune or adapt the rest.

I, too, have my own list of courses I’d love to sow into our curriculum: sailing local waters, wildlife tracking for middle school kids, mind mapping, dance. I am constantly drawn to expand on our naturalist ethos. I still believe survivalist skills would make a fantastic required course. However, I also understand that this would push some of our teachers, students, and parents off balance. We never stop weighing this unique, defining balance; it is a perennial leadership team and board discussion.

After 40 minutes pass by, I find a pause in this passionate father’s discourse, and politely thank him. As I dragged my canoe into the lake, I returned to my own contemplation of what thrives and what withers in our educational landscape.

Caring is What Makes My School Great

In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins famously phrased his “hedgehog concept” like this: “If you cannot be the best in the world at your core business, then your core business absolutely cannot form the basis of a great company.” Leadership is the relentless focus on what exactly makes your organization great. In this case, what will make Grauer great is not cyber-curriculum but caring about this family. Empathic listening, even amidst the disturbances of my own inner dialogue and urges to multitask.

However “urgent” our demands and mandates, the art and science of maintaining a clear, articulated focus on our mission in every conversation—even those that seem to have other aims—makes all the difference. To create a balanced ecosystem, a school leader must stay the course and endure through the seasons. And when the leader can get out on the water early, that’s a great thing for balance, too.

Once I got my canoe in the water, the mist had lifted, and I could see far into the distance. This dad’s perspective and love had taken its place in my secret list, among a medley of ideas, like seeds placed in a vault by caring parents, waiting for the right time and place to grow.

Note: This story is excerpted from his long-awaited book on small school leadership, The Way to Pancho’s Kitchen, due out in early 2025.

Stuart Grauer

Stuart Grauer is founding head of school emeritus at The Grauer School in Encinitas, California, and director of the Small Schools Coalition.