Open Door: Preparing for a Renaissance in Education and Exploring Our Collective Purpose

Fall 2023

By Debra P. Wilson

open door fall 2023

This article appeared as "Driving Forces" in the Fall 2023 issue of Independent School.

Not to tilt my hand too readily, but I have a passion for purpose. When I look back at my education, I realize that the times I was highly engaged and did well was when I truly understood the reason, or at least usefulness, of whatever I was working on. This is not revolutionary; it’s neuroscience. And yet, much of education in the ’80s and ’90s (or the late 20th century, as my kids like to say), was devoid of attempts to create relevant ties to the real lives of students. 

Law school and my entry to the working world helped me see how personally important usefulness and application to curriculum were to me. I had the attention span for such scintillating topics as trusts and estates and constitutional and administrative law. But whether I could see myself using that information for some purpose later became a focus as I looked beyond school. And, as I moved into the working world, I better understood my personal drivers. I worked briefly for the U.S. Department of Justice in a prestigious program doing tax litigation. However, when I started doing the work, and once I felt I could do the job, I didn’t know why I was doing it. Yes, it was advancing very necessary work for the federal government, but I was not personally engaged in what I was doing or even why I was doing it. 

That’s when I paused to truly think about what I wanted to do with my one “precious life.” I didn’t focus on what I wanted my day-to-day job to look like, but rather what I wanted to be a part of, to help achieve something greater. For me, that answer was in education, and independent education specifically. When I started working at NAIS, I wasn’t trying to do anything all that earth-shattering, but I thought if the work I did could help schools and school leaders worry less and focus more on what was really important in their schools, that would be a worthy outcome. That initial job grew to something much more substantial over the years and now has ballooned well beyond my initial musings, but the basic thread is still there. Honestly, every day I think about what a gift it is to work in our sector, which does so much good and with such exceptional people in our schools and in our wider ecosystem. 

Over the past three years I have noticed a remarkable shift in interest around purpose in our community. Increasingly in my work with school leaders, new and experienced alike, we have engaged in personal-purpose conversations. School leaders are deliberately seeking values alignment, and some leaders are resigning when they see the values diverging. Others have taken a step back to see if the work still feeds them or if they want to recalibrate their lives and engage with our schools in a different way. Either way, these questions around purpose are combining with ideas around what makes for a healthy, fulfilling, and successful life in ways that will impact our industry and workforce, but also the work we do in our schools for years to come. 

Purpose of Education

It’s only natural that as school leaders and people from industries around the globe wrestle with questions about personal purpose and fulfillment that the dialogue would evolve to include the purpose of education. I suspect the schools that engage in these reflections about purpose, both personal and institutional, will lead us to an independent school renaissance that will make us not just stronger, but more vibrant. These questions are addressing the shifting sands we have been experiencing in our industry and in the world around us. And while there are many threads in the conversation schools are having about purpose, I have been hearing a few key themes emerge. 

Student success. Most independent school parents and administrators say they want their students to be successful. But the definition of success often varies by school and student, and occasionally contrasts with the definition of the parents. What has become clearer, however, is that the next step on the student’s ladder may be more ambiguous than it was two decades ago, or less driven by traditional brands in higher education. As the purpose of higher education, both as a sector and for individuals, is called more into question by cost and politics, and the college admission process becomes more opaque and potentially subjective, that outcome in and of itself is unlikely to stand the test of time. Given that the independent school industry has defined itself as “college prep” for decades, this purpose may take on new definitions. 

Student preparedness. Our schools have often defined their own version of success through Portrait of a Graduate work. And yet, the nature of work and ways of living in this country and around the world are changing rapidly in the face of technology acceleration, geopolitical shifts, ongoing climate concerns, and an uncertain economy. Our students will have more choice in terms of how they work and where, and the kinds of work they engage in will be fundamentally different than the experiences of recent generations. The inherent flexibility and less in-person time will require a different set of skills and perhaps deeper personal understanding to live successful and healthy lives. 

At the same time, mental-health data about adolescents and adults has been ringing alarm bells for many years now. Arguably, this generation of students and those coming after it will need different skills, traits, knowledge, and support to live in this moment and into their adult years. In his book From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child, Michael B. Horn calls out five key areas to better prepare students that I believe are worth exploring: the teaching of content knowledge; the development and practice of skills (i.e., communication, collaboration, critical thinking); the explicit teaching of habits of success or character skills (i.e., executive functioning, self-efficacy, emotional self-control, and growth mindset); exposure to real-world problems; and the embracing of health and wellness (how we relate to and take care of ourselves and others) as the base of the pyramid upon which the other four are built. 

Public purpose. Our industry has long struggled with our public purpose in the wider world. The reality is that most of our schools have insufficient financial resources to make them widely accessible. It’s important to provide this access, and we should do as much as we can—and continually seek out other ways to have a public impact. 

Independent schools can engage in public-private partnerships by being part of organizations like the National Network of Schools in Partnership, which helps schools develop their community engagement and partnership programs, and the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is helping make competency-based learning more widely available. Independent schools can also continue to move forward on social justice, diversity, equity, and belonging initiatives in ways that our public counterparts cannot, particularly in this time of political pressure and interference in the classroom. 

Responsibility and Purpose

When people ask me why I’ve chosen to work with independent schools, I invariably reflect on the uniqueness of our schools and the education we are providing, which I truly believe is fundamentally different. The work our schools do every day around social-emotional learning, character development and consideration, and integrity may never be more important than it is right now. Independent schools develop leaders, and creative leaders of sound character who can collaborate thoughtfully and with an empathetic eye will serve us all well. 

We are fortunate in our community of schools to have quite a bit of latitude in how we conceive of and deliver education. Our independence is core to our purpose, and it is truly the foundation of all our schools. As with so many things in life, with that independence comes immense responsibility. There are very few things that impact a person’s life more than their early years in education—a time that can forge learning, engagement, mastery, excitement, and community. It can also sow boredom, shame, low self-esteem, and isolation. Students do not exist in a vacuum at school, of course, but their time in our hallways with the adults we select, train, and provide includes many of their waking hours, and our duties to them are sacrosanct. 

In almost 25 years of working with independent schools, I have never seen our schools or the people in our community so focused on the fundamental questions of education or personal commitment to our work than I have in the past few years. And I am so looking forward to exploring our collective purpose and supporting you and your school as we move into this renaissance period together.   

Debra P. Wilson

Debra P. Wilson is president of NAIS. Previously, she was president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools and general counsel for NAIS.