New View EDU Episode 51: Full Transcript

Read the full transcript of Episode 51 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, which features NAIS President Debra P. Wilson and bestselling author Jennifer Wallace joining host Tim Fish for an in-depth discussion of the research surrounding the damage achievement culture is doing to American students, and what Jennifer learned through the process of writing her book Never Enough that may be helpful to educators and parents.

Tim Fish: Welcome to Season 6 of New View EDU! It is so great to be back with everyone. You know, during the last five seasons, we’ve talked a lot about the ideas of stress, anxiety, depression, and well-being. I think about our conversations with Denise Pope and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Wendy Fischman and Shimi Kang and many others. We know there’s a problem. Our educators feel it every day. And we also know we have got to do something about it. And you know what? If we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to own up to the idea that the achievement culture present in so many of our schools has contributed to this problem.

So how do we make progress? How do we design healthy schools that also prepare our young people for the complex future that lies ahead? What should school be more about and what should it be less about? Well, that is where we’re going to focus our attention today, friends, and to get at it, I am thrilled to introduce our audience to Jennie Wallace, author of the bestselling book Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic, and What We Can Do About It. 

Jennie is an award-winning journalist and a frequent contributor to The Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and many other periodicals. Jennie is also a mom to three teenagers, and one of the things I love about her work is her vulnerability and honesty. She is transparent about her own journey with achievement parenting. 

And we also get a special treat today: Debra Wilson, the NAIS president, is also able to join us! You know, this topic of student health and well-being has been a passion of Debra’s for years. In fact, she’s the person who introduced us to Jennie. This is going to be a great conversation, so let’s get at it!

Jennie and Debra, thank you both so much for joining us in the studio today. I cannot wait for this conversation.

Debra Wilson: I'm so thrilled to be here. And Jennie, I'm so glad that you're here too. Tim already knows that your book sent me into spirals of concern over my parenting techniques over the years. And so, and Tim you don't know this, but as I was reading the book and I was leaving it lying around on the floor, the “never enough” is in really big type. And so my husband kept seeing it by my bedside or like on the floor, on the counter.

He was like, you know, could you please cover the title? Like that book is stressing me out.

Jennifer Wallace: I'll tell you, as I was writing the book I kept saying to myself, you know, it would be late in the evening and I'd say oh my god, it's never enough. I'm still working on this book. Never enough. Never enough. So I get it.

Tim Fish: So Jennie, you’ve got to introduce our listeners to the book, right? Never enough: when achievement culture becomes toxic, and what we can do about it. Why did you write it? How does it connect to your personal life? You know, as a parent, when I, when I read it, as Debra just said, I was like, oh man, there's so much I've not done well enough. Tell us about how you ended up in the place of writing this book.

Jennifer Wallace: So I am both a journalist, by trade. I was, you know, I've worked for 30 years as a journalist, but I'm also the mother of three teenagers. And I was noticing over the years just how different my childhood growing up was from my children's. And I, you know, have similar values to my parents. I love having family dinners, and yet I was noticing that family dinners were sort of a thing of the past.

Homework and extracurricular activities were taking over, our weekends that I really wanted to kind of enjoy as a family were often fractured with, you know, my husband and I going in different directions with the three kids. And so it's, I've been noticing over the years, and a little confused, as to why this was happening. 

And then in 2019, I wrote an article for The Washington Post covering two national policy reports, one by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the other National Academies of Sciences. And what I found was that students attending these high achieving schools that my kids are going to, they were now officially an at risk group, meaning they were two to six times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and depression, and two to three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. So I wanted to know, what could I do in my own home, to buffer against what the researchers were calling an excessive pressure to achieve?

Tim Fish: Well, I'll tell you, you know, when you spoke about that, that is something that I've seen and felt. And I think not only in our schools, but also in our home and our household. As a parent, it's something we felt, and Debra, I don't know how it resonated with you when you first heard about the work that Jennie was doing. I know that you also, Suniya Luthar's work is something that you have been so connected to for a long time, and how this also is connected to something you feel really strongly about.

Debra Wilson: Yeah, yeah. So, and actually it was through Suniya that Jennie and I met when she's like, I think you first started working on the book, you'd maybe published that article, because Suniya, I think, was one of the first researchers to actually label this group an at-risk group. And as you know, Tim, my focus on wellness goes back, for students, probably 10, 12 years ago now, when we first started, you know, sort of the advent of social media and we had just a lot of calls about depression and anxiety, peer to peer sexual assaults. Like I was getting a lot of those calls at NAIS when I was general counsel. And it really led us as an organization to do that deep dive into student wellness and say like, what is going on here? 

And it was when those numbers first started to spike, and so Suniya introduced Jennie and I, when Jennie started to work on the book, and just said, you two should really talk because Jennie's digging into this and really kind of paving the way to how do we think about counteracting this crisis? Because when you talk to schools, and I think schools across the board are really aware of this, aware that students are having a very different childhood and they're seeing them struggle within the schools, but it's kind of a hard, messy thing to get your hands around, like how do we help? How do we offset just some of this, the pressure that they're feeling, and what we see in our student bodies today?

Tim Fish: Yeah. You know, Jennie, there's so many things I love about the book. And as we start to dig in, right, I just, one of the biggest challenges I had is where to even start in having this conversation with you. And so I'm going to jump right into one of the most interesting things for me, is where you talk about, essentially, the root of our societal push for achievement. I'm curious about the bet that parents and schools are making when we push kids, right? How does it sort of relate to our desire to maintain status? And sometimes I wonder, after reading your chapter, are we in some ways even more interested in status than we are in happiness? And maybe that's even subconscious. 

Jennifer Wallace: I was digging into the roots and trying to figure out why my kids’ childhood was so different from my own. And so there were two threads that I really focused on in the book, the evolutionary experience of status and status safeguarding, as sociologists call it, this idea that, you know, to our brains, status matters. When we are in a status ascent, meaning our kids get into a, quote, “good college” or we get the promotion or we even get the good table in the restaurant with the pretty view, our neurochemicals reward us with a pleasant cocktail that says “Ooh, more of this! Keep doing this!” This is good, evolutionarily speaking. But when we are in a state of status descent, when our kid gets cut from the team or they get rejected from Michigan, or any number of things. We get the bad table, or we're seated at the wrong table at a party. Our brains also kind of punish us with a painful chemical, neurochemical compound that makes us take notice. It's alerting us. You're doing something that's not in your advantage, evolutionarily speaking. 

And parents don't necessarily think about child rearing as, you know, evolutionary success, reproductive success, but it is. And actually I have this funny quote from a woman, a researcher in California, who talked to, who said to me, you know, you might say you're anti-status, but if you put a bunch of anti-status people in a room, they will soon create a hierarchy of who among them is the most anti-status. That we are just wired this way. Now, it doesn't mean that we have to live our lives this way, because unfortunately in our modern society, we get a lot of false alarms. You know, we get the threat when our kid doesn't make the team or doesn't get the invite to the Friday night party that there is something, you know, an alarm going off in our head, but it's really just a bagel burning. The whole house isn't going down. 

So our status detectors are very sensitive, but they are not accurate in today's modern world. But the second part of your question, talking about status safeguarding. So when I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, life was generally more affordable. Housing was more affordable, healthcare, higher education, everyday items like food were more affordable, there was slack in the system. So a parent could be relatively assured that even with some setbacks, even if your kid was a late bloomer, that most likely they'd be able to replicate the economics of their parents, if not do even better than their own parents did. But modern parents today, we are facing a different reality. We are seeing the first generation, the millennials, who are not doing as well as, as their parents. And we are, you know, as you said in your question, we are betting big that early childhood success, getting your kid into a quote, unquote “good college,” we hope will act as a kind of life vest in a sea of economic uncertainty. But unfortunately, what those, you know, national reports were finding and what I saw in my own research is that, that very life vest that we're hoping to put on our kids to protect them is drowning too many of them.

Tim Fish: You know, the thing about it for me is this idea that, I definitely agree with you on the getting into college, but what I notice, and Debra, I wonder what your thoughts are on this, is like, it's not just getting into college, it's getting into the travel soccer program at seven, right? It's like, it starts really, really young. Like, is my child identifying letters early enough, it just gets pushed all the way back. 

And you talk about in the book, this notion that there's like this, this like string that connects. And if you don't get in that, if you're not in the right reading group in first grade, like that's, the bus has left, like that's it. And you've now missed your opportunity. And I, and I can feel it with parents, and I've been a parent who's felt it. So I'll tell you, when they first told me my daughter was going to go to pre-first, I was like, oh man, I thought I, we thought we completely failed as parents. And it turned out to be the best thing in the world for her.

Debra Wilson: Well, and you have time, you know, I do think, I mean, Jennie, I love, you know, the way you kind of just tie it to, you know, kind of the false signals in our own head. You know, when you're looking at your five-year-old or your six-year-old or heck, I've got a 20-year-old, right? Like, they have time, they have time to figure things out. Like, I feel like there's just so much pressure around that. The right thing at the right time, like pre first grade, or they didn't make the travel soccer. I mean, you know, my son was like, picking flowers in the soccer field when he was doing soccer in kindergarten.

Tim Fish: Me too, Debra.

Debra Wilson: And I was like, that's probably not going to be his thing. And it definitely wasn't his thing. But it was funny that in that soccer team, like you had a five-year-old who was doing slide tackles. I'm not even sure that's legal in a five-year-old soccer team, but that's kind of the competition that you're seeing, right? And, and it is triggering those signals for parents when, you know, we all know from our own life experiences, I mean, I think Tim and I grew up basically the same time frame that you did.

You need that time. Some people develop later, some people develop sooner, and different things develop at different rates. And I think the overwhelming expectations to be extraordinary across the board and absolutely everything all the time is just, it's an incredibly heavy weight to put on our kids, but to put on ourselves as parents, too, as our kids are growing up, and they feel it.

Jennifer Wallace: I completely agree with you. And I also wanted to understand, you know, as a parent, I was feeling the same worries and fears and anxiety about my kid's performance early. And what I have found comforting is that we tend to personalize instead of contextualize what's going on in the world.

And so Melissa Milkie and Catharine Warner up in Canada, they're two Canadian researchers who study motherhood. And they were looking at intensive parenting and this quote, unquote “helicopter parenting.” And what they found was that parents, particularly mothers in our society in America, generally are noticing fewer and fewer guarantees and social safety nets for their kids. And so we are tasked with weaving individualized safety nets for each one of our kids. That safety net, we hope, will carry them through. So instead of blaming ourselves and pointing the finger at intensive parents, I think we need to zoom out and look at the larger context and realize how few supports we give mothers and families, and how much as a parent we feel burdened to make our kids a success and/or to create those safety nets for them, because we sense that those safety nets are not going to be there when they're older.

Debra Wilson: I'm intrigued by what you're talking about there on the parent front. Where have you seen schools really help support or build some of that safety net or help with that safety net for parents? Because it strikes me that our school communities can be such a place to create that connection. It doesn't...doesn't have to be and certainly is not always that competitive landscape, but kind of helping build some of that village to help support parents and children?

Jennifer Wallace: I was so lucky to be able to travel and visit schools all over the country. And I saw real deliberate efforts by schools, like you said, to create those larger social structures for parents. So I think a lot of the reason, and this is not breaking news, we've been reading about this now for years, but parents, particularly mothers, are exhausted. And what these schools are doing is helping mothers replace ourselves, is how I put it in the book. Meaning, who are the adults in my children's life who can step up and teach them new skills, be a sounding board, expose them to new opportunities? 

I was speaking with a group of parents at an investment bank, and a mother said to me, how can I balance? I work 60-hour weeks, and then my daughter is in intensive sports, and I can't make it to everything, and I don't know what to do, and I said, you shouldn't have to do it all.

We are not meant to do this alone. It does not serve us and it does not serve our kids. They need other adults in their lives who show them that they are valuable, that they are worthy of investment and support. And when we try to be everything to our kids, we rob them of that. And we also rob ourselves of that support and we wear ourselves down.

Tim Fish: One of the things that you talk so much about, Jennie, is this idea which I want to introduce here, which I think sometimes comes into this conversation, which is the concept of conditional regard. You know, when I, when I heard that in the book and you were talking about it, I was like, it was as impactful to me in many ways as when I first came across the notion of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, and that whole idea of how we sort of think about intelligence. So could you sort of help our listeners understand what conditional regard is and how it can really impact young people?

Jennifer Wallace: So…I have yet to meet a parent in all of my years and including researching this book that does not love their kids unconditionally. But what I heard so often in my interviews with young people is that a parent's love sometimes felt conditional. So I'll give you an example. I was talking about this with a friend of mine. So when we talk about conditional regard, what we are talking about is, it's unique and separate from conditional or unconditional love. So researchers talk about it as positive conditional regard and negative conditional regard. So the positive is, let's say your son or daughter or student does really well on a test and you shower them with praise and you're really warm about it and you're like, oh my gosh, let's celebrate and have a dinner. You worked so hard on this. That could be seen as positive regard.

Negative regard is, they get cut from the team, or they don't do as well in their math. And so you kind of are a little bit cold and distant, and you are, even not consciously, withdrawing love and support. And it's interesting, I pulled up a few, I interviewed, for the book, 500 young adults, ages 18 to 30, but most of the kids really were in college at the time. And I asked them about this conditional love and how it was felt by them. And so I'd love to read you just a few of the findings. 

More than 70% of the young adults I surveyed reported that their parents valued and appreciated them more when they were successful in school. More than 50% went on to say they thought their parents loved them more when they did well in school, with 25% of students saying they believed this a lot, the highest degree the survey allowed. When I asked the young students how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I feel like I matter for who I am at my core, not by what I achieve,” a surprising 25% of students either agreed a little or not at all, meaning that one in four students thought that it was their performance, not who they were as a person, that mattered most to their parents. So that is where the messages of conditional regard come in. We believe we love our kids unconditionally, but it doesn't always hit that way to our kids.

Debra Wilson: How do we control for that, Jennie? So I've got a 13 year old and you know, there's a few different versions of her that can walk downstairs on any given point in time, right? She’ll, you know, this is my third time through 13 year olds, so, you know, what we do and how they read it at any given point in time…. I mean, I remember one exchange with my older daughter, and I looked at what she was wearing and I said something along the lines of, is that going to meet dress code? And she's like, do you want me to change? And I said, no, I just want to make sure that you're making choices that don't get you dress coded. You know, so like, how do we control for that piece, right? Like the, how the teenage brain processes this kind of feedback, because I feel like having lived through that a few times, you don't know which way they're going to take something.

Jennifer Wallace: So I think you did control for it, when you separated the deed from the doer. So you weren't saying to her, you're always pushing the envelope, you're, I can't believe you're, whatever it is, really making it about the person, and who they are as a person, versus the very real fact that they could get dress coded. I mean, that to me, so it's the same thing. So it doesn't mean not having expectations for your kids. It does not mean, you know, not having expectations for their behavior or even for their academic success, but it's how we communicate it to them. And to just be aware, you know, one of the, I don't know if I just told the story, I think I got sidetracked, but one of the women that I spoke to for the book asked her son if he ever felt like her love was conditional in his academic performance. And he said, Well, the mood in the house does seem a lot lighter when I'm doing well in school, when I bring home an A.

Frankly, when our kids are not doing well, that is when the warmth really needs to be turned up. So instead of going cold and withdrawing, it is turning the dial up and really bringing in the warmth when they need it the most, right? When you're down and out and you're feeling low and you've messed up, what do you want? You want the people around you to remind you of your inherent worth, that you are worthy, you are not your failures, you are not your successes. 

Tim Fish: Yeah. And for me, it's this notion of like, the danger of positive conditional regard, that idea that when the good stuff comes through the door that I bring on the let's go out, let's, da da da, right? And then I don't, I might say, “Hey, you know what? It really doesn't matter” when you bring in the other stuff. But there's that implicit message that you didn't get the big celebration because you didn't bring the straight A's in or whatever, right.

And the other one for me that you talked about was the parents in the book who, the report card showed up and they didn't do anything. They didn't have any conversation for three days. And in their minds, they were thinking, we want to give him some space. We don't want to sort of jump on him. But what he heard, right, was a very different message. And I think it, and I wonder sometimes with my own kids, it'd be like, Hey, I'm having trouble navigating this whole how to deal with your not great report card thing. Can we talk about that?

So like, it's just like you just have vulnerability and just say, hey, honestly, help me out here. Like I don't know, I'm trying to be there for you. And I'd love to know more about sort of what happened or whatever, right? I wonder if vulnerability and just honesty can sometimes really help, particularly with kids that are a little older.

Jennifer Wallace: I agree with you, and Madeline Levine, who I interviewed for this book and I asked her specifically about that—how you communicate when you feel like your kids are not doing as well as they could be doing—and she said, that's one of the most challenging emotions for parents to regulate. And the advice was to get curious, not furious, about why they're not performing. That we need to understand that children want to do well. They want to do well in school.

So what is getting in the way? Is there a learning difference? Is there something in the classroom? Are they not feeling connected to their teacher? Are they feeling, you know, disconnected from their peers? And so, you know, using all those cognitive resources trying to figure out the social scene in the classroom. So getting curious and getting on the same team as your child, that to me I think is the most powerful thing we can do as educators and as parents, is to let our kids know explicitly that we are on their team. 

I don't know any teacher that has gone into teaching for reasons other than wanting to better students and better our society. Let our kids know that. Let your students know you are on their team. Doesn't mean you don't have expectations, but those expectations can be communicated, that you matter so much to me as a student that I want this for you. I know you can reach higher. I want to help you. How can I help you reach higher? So it's communicating to them that your regard for them is not based on their performance, right? That you respect them and you value them no matter what, but you still have these expectations because it's for their benefit.

Tim Fish: eah. You know, as we turn the corner, and one of the things I love so much about the book is you talk about the achievement culture becoming toxic and what we can do about it, and what I love is your focus on what we can do about it. You know, the way out of this thing. You know, because what was interesting to me is that I think one school of thought could say, well, we're just going to simply back off, we're going to remove any struggle from our kids, we're going to put our kids in a bubble where they don't experience any real challenge or stretch or complexity or the potential of failure. 

But that's not what I think we should be doing, right? That's not, I don't think the world that we hope that our kids will be living into. What I think we want instead is the story of the student that you describe, Adam, in the book, and his journey and how he ends up seeing the world. And I wonder if you might, Jennie, just for a moment, introduce our listeners to Adam.

Jennifer Wallace: Isn't Adam great? What I loved about researching this book is I got to follow students over the course of four years. And so I met Adam, he was in high school. And then I fast forwarded a few years and I got to see him on his college campus and walk his campus with him. So Adam was a student who had severe dyslexia, had been attending a dyslexic school, transferred, was mainstreamed into his high achieving school on the West Coast, and really wasn't challenging himself because the school was like, let's just make this a smooth transition. 

And he was really feeling disengaged. He did well, but he wasn't really understanding what he was performing for. And then there's a dramatic scene in the book where he goes on his first search and rescue mission near a waterfall. And he was tasked with trying to rescue a boy his age, he and a team of search and rescue trained volunteers. And the mother of this boy had found a suicide note. And unfortunately soon, the search turned into a rescue. The student's body was found at the bottom of the mountain, and for Adam, this lightbulb went off in his head. You know, what am I doing with my life and what can I do to prevent this from happening in the future?

And it set him on this extraordinary path. He wouldn't call himself extraordinary. He actually said to me in the book, I quote him, I'm just an ordinary kid, but I will tell you what Adam had was the fire of purpose in his life. And boy, did it—he leaned into his strengths. He overcame, he was still dyslexic, you never lose that, but he was able to use his strengths to achieve. And he got himself from, you know, a severely dyslexic student all the way to UCLA on the pre-med track, going to medical school. And what Adam exemplifies is, you know, I went in search, for this book, of the healthy strivers. I wanted to know what they had in common. What was home life like? What was school like? What were their relationships like with their peers and with a larger society?

And what these students had, what Adam had was this high level of what researchers call mattering. Mattering is the idea of feeling valued for who you are deep at your core, and being relied on to add meaningful value back. And Adam felt this high level of mattering. And importantly, he felt depended on to help. He joined an 800 preventive hotline. He started shadowing doctors in the ER. He joined EMS. He really felt at his core that he was called to prevent young people from committing suicide. And even though math was hard for him because of his dyslexia, he was able to take advanced math classes, able to take advanced courses in science, because he had a goal that was bigger than himself and it motivated him. 

So I agree with you, what you said earlier, school should be stressful for our kids. They should be pushed to their capacity. Where it becomes toxic is when there is no time in our children's lives to recover, or, and, when they believe that who they are is so wrapped up in their achievements that they are afraid to take risks, that they are afraid to fail. 

So what these kids who enjoyed a high level of mattering like Adam had, was their failures and setbacks were not an indictment of who they were. They were just something that they needed more help on, more support with. So instead of hiding from a failure or feeling dejected and depressed, Adam reached out to people. He reached out to his teacher or to mentors to get help when he was struggling. And that is ultimately what saw him through, what helped him achieve.

Tim Fish: Debra, I'm wondering, what do you see when you're out there and you visit so many schools and have worked with literally thousands, have you seen places where that has been true, where we've been able to have students who are what I would call good rigor, what I would call sort of healthy rigor, if you would. I feel like, that I'm on this campaign, I want to redefine rigor and sort of reimagine what it could be. And wondering, Debra, what you see as you're traveling around and working with schools.

Debra Wilson: I love that story about Adam in part because I think it's easy for kids to lose the forest for the trees, right? That when it feels like one hoop after another hoop after another hoop, and they don't…they don't understand what they're working for anymore. You know, we know that the college admissions process has gotten so much more random. There are so many more, not applicants, but applications. And, you know, I think it's hard for them to see that. 

And particularly this generation, you know, there's really interesting research going on about kids and hope. And even this generation coming up, particularly around climate change and the importance of actually feeling hopeful for, like, the future of the world and things, like, it's, I think we're dealing with a very different generation. So that, that notion of purpose and that notion of understanding your larger path. And I love that Adam had such a specific thing. But when I talk to my two older kids, I don't know that it has to be specific, but they understand that they are purposeful beings and they can have positive impact and they can do positive things in some ways because they've had success at younger ages. 

And Tim, as you know, I'm not a ta-da person. When I go to schools, I look for, are older kids given the chance to read to younger kids or to help out in younger classrooms? Montessori does a lot of this, where you have multi-age classrooms and they're working with each other, or they're getting to engage in really meaningful community work or connections. And they see themselves having that impact outside of AP Physics. And they start to understand where AP Physics fits into it. And as somebody who loves physics, I hope they love it too, but they understand it goes beyond what's happening in the classroom. And the classroom can be an extraordinary place, right? To have responsibility, to feel like you matter, to feel interconnected. Just those kinds of connections are often what I'm looking for in the school settings. And you see it everywhere. 

I think what we forget, sort of gets back a little bit earlier in our conversation, is that letting students take the lead on some of these things and supporting each other. They don't actually need us as much as we think that they need us. And then sometimes it's probably better for us to get out of the way. 

When I get down to the kernel of the work that Jennie's been doing, I think our schools are, they're so uniquely situated to embrace mattering and to provide those circumstances for students to feel that way. And they're often small enough to know when students are falling through the cracks and to provide more opportunities and engage with them differently. And Jennie, as you pointed out, I don't think, that's not a, let's not be rigorous, but it's a different kind of rigor. It's getting more into skills and character, which I think are just going to become more important as the century continues to unfold. So I know, Tim, I'm sure you see it all over the place too. I mean, it's really inspiring. That's usually the, those are the things that I'm looking for when I go visit schools.

Tim Fish: Yeah, I love that. I love what you said, Debra, also about like, it's not the ta-da, it's not the sort of super, you know, it can happen in a lovely new STEM building, but you don't have to have a lovely new STEM building to do it. It's about mattering, as you put it. And it's just, you know, we quote this guy, Matthew Barzun, who's been on the podcast, who wrote a book called The Power of Giving Away Power. And he talks about this notion of being seen, known and needed, and feeling needed. And I think when you feel you matter, you feel like you're needed, right? 

And for me, it's this idea, and I love the way you put it, that people can rely on me. People are relying on me. This idea that I don't feel really good, I kind of have a cough when I wake up in the morning and I say to my mom, I have to go to school. They need me there, right? How often are we actually designing for that?

And that leads me to sort of my, my last topic for the two of you, is it's time to design a school together. It's time to sort of make one up, decide what would be in the Wallace school that we design, that is built around this idea of having kids committed and doing excellent work, full engagement, being all in and doing it in a healthy way.

What would that look like? What would our school look like and how would we build it? Jennie, I'm wondering, what would you do in your school? How might it be different now that we're empowering this team to create the Wallace School?

Jennifer Wallace: That is so exciting. I think what I would do is I would take some of the best things I saw in my four years of researching this book. I think I would start with a motto that I got from St. Ignatius in Cleveland, which is “Not better than others, but better for others.” So really putting the idea that we are individuals who are tasked with creating a community, that there is something more important than our own resume. We are not just doing this for our resume, we are doing this to better our peers, our society. So I would start there, I think, and then maybe I would go and take some lessons I learned from the Archer School in Los Angeles, where they really model healthy interdependence among the teachers.

They have the teachers go through and do instructional rounds. So the teachers just drop in and sit in each other's classes to get ideas. And so the kids see that, the kids see the teachers working together to better themselves. And then they talk about, in these high achieving schools, what's the elephant in the room? And that's envy. And not allowing things like envy to get in the way of peer relationships and classmate relationships. And so...really normalizing big emotions that come up in our achievement culture and saying, you don't have to judge yourself for feeling envy, but you have to hold yourself accountable for how you act on it. 

I'd also love to go back to St. Ignatius, and what they do among their sophomores is they have a community service course that is right plugged into the curriculum, right next to science and physics, talking about how to give our kids these skills of interdependence, how they can locate their strengths so that they can be better for others. And really just make time in the school day to help them see their place in the greater good.

You know, one of the things that I visited a school and at two o'clock every day, the lights went out for two minutes and they heard about a genuine need in the world. They weren't lectured at, they weren't told they had to do this, but they were exposed to all of these needs and why they should be working on their writing so that they could be a voice for others, so that they could be a voice for people who don't have the privilege of getting an education. 

And then the last thing, the last piece of the puzzle I think would be what I saw at the Mastery School in Cleveland and in Hewitt in New York City, this idea of real world problem solving. So showing students that they have the skills already, that they can make an impact on their immediate community and giving them real world problems, having people like a mayoral candidate come in, like I saw at the mastery school, and say, I need a bigger voter turnout. How can I encourage people to come out and vote? And having students take these multi-semester, you know, this project and really building it out and giving it to someone in the community so that they could make an impact.

Tim Fish: I love it. You know, for me, it's this idea that you're hitting on there, which is like, I feel like I matter when the work matters to me, right? It reminds me, back, we had this great podcast episode with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and how she talks about this inseparable relationship between learning and emotion, that you cannot, literally cannot, learn about something you don't care about. Right. And I think when, when the stress gets ramped up is when the rigor is disconnected from me feeling like I'm mattering, and I don't feel like the work matters. When it's just being handed to me and I have to do it. I think that's such a powerful, imagine what that school would be like. Imagine how, how we could design for that. And yeah, there'd be some things we have to give up along the way, but I think they would be worth giving up.

Debra, I'm curious. Anything you would add to the Wallace school now that we're starting to put this thing together and starting to see this connection?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, I mean, whenever I have a conversation with Jennie, it's always a “that, and” conversation. And I, you know, Jennie, your envy comment reminded me, I was listening to a speaker at a conference a bit ago and he was, his name's Lee Rubin, and he was actually talking about successful teams, basically, what makes an extraordinary team. And he was talking about competitiveness, but not competitive with each other, but for each other for a common purpose. And I really think, and it's so hard, but when you start building in project-based learning, and particularly if you can harness and teach kids how to harness that power of being collectively competitive for a common cause, for a common purpose, and to start mapping that with what we want them to learn, I just think that's an incredibly powerful piece of the equation. 

And then what you're talking about at the Archer School with the teachers, and I know you're starting to look at your next book, that mattering piece for adults and helping the teaching community, the faculty, the staff, being competitive together for that common purpose of providing excellence in education just really resonates with me, right? Like when you walk into a school that's humming with everybody moving in the same direction for the same goal, for the same purposes, and they can be really in it and really driven for it. But it's, you know, it's that, you know, Jim Collins level five leadership, right? They're in it for that bigger purpose, that it's not about them, it's not about the individual. And that interdependence that you can create in those really healthy moments, I just think is extraordinary. It's extraordinary when you see it anywhere, but I think it's extraordinary in schools. 

And the idea that we could work with students to develop those skills and that kind of mindset early on. And I really think we can, actually, I think kids naturally start in that place. And just think about what a difference it would make to group projects, right? I mean, all three of us have probably had kids and they're like, oh man, we have a group project and it's with so-and-so who’s not going to do any work, right? Like, why doesn't so-and-so want to do any work? Like, and a lot of it, I do think is, is it a real world outcome? Is it something they can really sink their teeth into and become truly invested in? Because that's ultimately probably what the three of us would say is part of being a healthy adult, right? Like that's a huge part of, do you feel good in your own skin doing the work that you're doing, that you can actually work purposefully like that on something that has meaning to you in a way that you're supported? So, yeah.

Tim Fish: I love it. You know, the thing I would add to our lovely school would be, um, chores. And you write about chores in the book, Jennie. And, and I, you know, I happen to have gone to an all boys Catholic boarding school. I was thinking about becoming a missionary priest, and in this little school that I attended, there was no janitorial services, the boys, every day, cleaned the school. 90 minutes a day. And you owned something.

Whether it was all the stairwells in the academic building, or it was the classrooms on the top floor, or it was doing dishes after dinner, you owned something. And the community relied on you. And relied on you not to necessarily actually do something that was incredibly impactful other than the toilets are dirty and need to be cleaned. Right? And I just, I've always wondered about that idea. I've always wondered about sort of 20 minutes at the end of the day where everybody gets a dust mop and says, hey, I'm going to go clean the hallways and take care of the place. Because we all use it together, right? And I also wonder if there would be parents who would say, I'm not paying $38,000 for my son or daughter to push a dust mop. And then you would say, well, maybe we're not actually the school for you. And how—wouldn't that be a pretty powerful way of separating folks who were mission aligned or not mission aligned?

So I just, I throw that out as my sort of contribution. Everybody would do chores every day.

Jennifer Wallace: I think that's so important. Oprah actually credited her third or fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, who was the first one that she said really made her feel like she mattered, who knew her, who noticed her, who heard her, but also importantly, who gave her the task of watering the classroom plants. And so not only did she feel valued, she was relied on to add value. She made an impact, even a small one, in that classroom with her peers. She had a responsibility to the greater whole.

Tim Fish: Well, this has been, Jennie and Debra, I know we could talk for a few more hours if we had time. And I just want to say thank you both so much for really spending time with us today. This has been a great conversation.

Debra Wilson: Thank you so much, Tim.

Jennifer Wallace: Thank you so much for having me.