Refocusing Community with a Mission-Centered School Pledge

Spring 2023

By Mariandl Hufford

This article appeared as "Adult Conversation" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

Like the city surrounding us, the student and employee body at Miami Country Day School (FL) is richly diverse, representing 30 countries; 19 different languages are spoken at home. I have never worked in an international school, so when I assumed the headship at MCDS in July 2019, it immediately struck me how different cultural backgrounds influence the expectations families have for the school, how those expectations impact their interactions with teachers, administrators, and even other families—and how our community and culture are shaped by them. And in a community as international as ours, the school also provides many families an anchor in a city (or in some cases even a country) they are navigating for the first time. For many families, we quite literally become “home base.” 

Independent schools have always prided themselves on the strength of their communities, the deep-rooted relationships with dedicated adults that surround students with support, encouragement, and inspiration. A strong school community and culture is not just a nice-to-have aspect of the experience; it’s vital and has far-reaching benefits. A strong school culture increases students’ and employees’ sense of belonging, strengthens employee morale, and results in stronger student outcomes. 

Independent schools are also a microcosm of the world that surrounds us—a world that has become increasingly divisive and in which perpetual culture wars produce screaming headlines that influence the campus experience like never before.

The MCDS community has not been immune to this. As it did in every aspect of life, the pandemic disrupted a hallmark of the independent school experience. The relationships we hold dear were strained, and many of us witnessed a breakdown of trust in our institutions. How and what we taught and stood for was scrutinized, dissected, criticized, and, at times, rejected. What was considered home base for our specific community became a distanced concept, both physically and metaphorically. Remote and hybrid instruction deftly eliminated the boundaries between home and school and the resultant audit of our daily practices dissolved the rules of engagement across relationships. The resulting strained and stressful interactions weren’t limited to school personnel and parents; every single one of us, every adult in our community, was struggling to varying degrees in those difficult days. And those internal struggles spilled into the very relationships we all hold so dear.

A Path Forward

Enter Rob Evans and Michael Thompson’s NAIS book Hopes and Fears: Working with Today’s Independent School Parents, which became a well-marked-up and much thumbed-through publication for me in the summer of 2021. It brought me and my leadership team much-needed perspective. All of a sudden, it seemed, what we were experiencing at MCDS did not feel unique to us—we were not alone. The authors’ suggestion that schools must be the “senior partner” in the relationship with parents seemed to provide one path forward in reestablishing the community norms that we lost in the chaotic times of 2020–2021. 

The book was also a powerful reminder of the most essential components of our schools’ shared purpose and expertise: While parents know their children best, educators are the experts in teaching those children. This simple notion should be the springboard for a well-functioning and student-centered dynamic. And while we, as educators, may grow weary of the onslaught of parental demands, heightened during the uncertainty of the pandemic, parents often have legitimate concerns that, while uncomfortable to hear, must be considered. 

Like many schools, we had managed admirably through the pandemic, and we had, remarkably, thanks to the leadership of our board, adopted a new strategic plan and updated our core values and mission statement in the midst of it all. We’ve grown clearer about who we are and what we stand for. Our values now include “purpose,” in addition to “honor, respect, compassion, and wisdom,” and we have adopted a mission statement that is evident in all aspects of our decision-making, even when it takes no small measure of courage to do so. And yet, I noticed that the civil and community-focused conduct we wished to see from adults was, more times than I would like to admit, sorely lacking. 

I started to reflect on what happens when the adults who have the responsibility to shape the lives of students are themselves not consistently modeling what we wish to see in young people. Like so many other schools, our student handbook details the desired behaviors of the young people in our care; we clearly state what behaviors and language are unacceptable in our school. But not as it relates to the adults.

So we asked ourselves, what would happen if we created a written commitment for conduct to which every adult in our community would adhere? Could such a statement help shape the student experience and build a stronger culture for every member of the MCDS community?

Model Behavior

It was in this context that the Spartan Pledge (with a nod to our school mascot) was born. Throughout the summer of 2021, I met with a team of administrators, including the director of community and culture, several times to discuss what the pledge should say and worked through a few revisions before settling on a final version. It states clearly the conduct we expect of every adult associated with Miami Country Day School. It is positive, not punitive, and sets expectations for the kinds of interactions we want to see on our campus. The pledge reflects core elements of our mission statement and incorporates our core values. It creates a partnership between home and school that signals we all have the same goal in mind: keeping our focus on our children and their well-being. It is clear and concise:

As a member of the Spartan Community, I put children at the center of all I do and say by modeling our values of purpose, respect, compassion, honor, and wisdom. I value diverse perspectives, shared experiences, and uphold the dignity of every member of our global community. 

The idea at the outset was to have every adult in the community sign this pledge at the start of each school year. First, the entire senior administrative team as well as division heads and directors signed the digital document in our employee portal, and we committed to starting each meeting by reading the pledge aloud. Then, during the opening meetings of that school year, every teacher and staff member signed. The entire board of trustees also signed the pledge within the first month of the 2021–2022 year. In my welcome letter in August 2021, I invited all parents to sign the pledge through our parent portal, and in that first year, many did. It was an auspicious beginning that brought with it a sense of hope that we would let the pledge guide our conduct. And yet, in that first year, there were many times that we faltered in that commitment. 

Picture Perfect?

Despite our optimism that our lives would feel much more normal as the new school year started, we quickly moved into what I referred to in a faculty and staff meeting as “uncivil times.” In October 2021, I told the gathered employees: 

I have noticed something peculiar this school year. The beginning of it felt so hopeful, so light. We had proven we could weather the worst of times and come out stronger. There was a deep appreciation for the hard work and, yes, sacrifice of teachers and staff members who had shown up for our students despite real anxiety and fear about safety and health. We built up enormous goodwill among our parent community, amongst our students and ourselves, and we were steadily moving toward more in-person events.

All that goodwill, all that positive energy, seems to have lasted, as someone told me recently, ‘just half a day.’ There exists an impatience, an increased crankiness among everyone—and it weighs on us. It is a reflection of our larger society, not our own community—and while knowing that may not necessarily help, it does put things into context.

My words resonated with our teachers and staff, and while it helps to name the forces at play, it did not make experiencing these forces any easier. We were all reacting to a state of constant uncertainty and upheaval. Grappling with our own, let alone others’, anxieties in both our personal and professional lives meant that, for all of us, patience was wearing thin, and the crushing weight of bone-weary exhaustion made finding joy and purpose in our daily interactions harder and harder. 

In fall 2021, adult interactions were often fraught with overreactions, impatience, and animosity. Many times I wondered if I was the only one who thought the words of the Spartan Pledge recited at the beginning of a leadership meeting were falling flat, especially considering the impatient, cranky, uncivil behaviors we were still regularly seeing. 

And yet, we persisted. Our leadership team was committed to the goals of the pledge and persevered in highlighting it in every meeting. There is power in repetition—the resonance of the pledge at the start of each meeting centers us, reminding us why we are there and what matters most. It provides for me a brief moment of contemplation, of mindfulness. It is a constant reminder of what providing a student-centered educational experience entails and, slowly, this has shaped our mindset and ultimately, our conduct.

Work in Progress 

In this, the second year of the Spartan Pledge, I am truly pleased to note a few things: Every board and board committee meeting starts with a reading of the pledge. The building at the entrance of campus that people see first has two statements written on it: our mission statement on one side and our Spartan Pledge on the other. Our parent association president, without any prodding, now starts every meeting with it, as we do in every faculty and staff meeting. Our office for global initiatives, equity, and belonging translated the pledge into 19 languages for our website, reflecting the global community of which we are a part. 

During parent coffees hosted by our enrollment management team at the beginning of this year, our chief enrollment officer opened the meeting with the pledge and remarked on the pride she feels that our community of adults seeks to model the values we wish to cultivate in our students. At our new parent reception, which also started with a reading of the pledge, I told our parents that as a mission-driven institution, we expect all adults to join us in building community—by participating in community events, keeping up-to-date on what is happening on campus, and signing our pledge. 

It is, of course, all well and good to start a meeting by reading the pledge. But in this second year, can we point to a difference in the actual conduct in those meetings? While it is difficult to measure, anecdotal evidence suggests a marked decrease in contentious meetings and a marked increase in positive outcomes of those meetings, and certainly a willingness to work together on behalf of students.

There is a remarkable link between the words we use to describe culture and community and the values we uphold, how we reinforce those words through conduct, and how that ultimately shapes the essence of our identity. If the Spartan Pledge, among other institutional documents, is an integral part of shaping that identity, what evidence do we have of its effectiveness?

Our human resources director checks in with new employees at 30, 60, and 90 days. And I ask every new (and in many cases, returning) employee to meet with me for 30 minutes at some point during the year. In those conversations, what rises to the top of the feedback for both of us is that as a school, we “walk the talk,” that our community stands for something, and that our mission, core values, and Spartan Pledge are a palpable part of the daily experience. New parents remark on the strength of our community and are grateful for the warmth of our welcome. Recently, in a search committee meeting for a new leadership position, one faculty member expressed his hope that any new leader would want to build on the culture of compassion and grace that has become an integral part of the employee experience. 

The process and outcomes have not resulted in an idyll. We are by no means perfect, and there will always be ways to improve all aspects of our school operations and culture—and the Spartan Pledge will continue to be a part of what we ask of every adult in our community. But our community has risen above much of the upheaval of the past few years, has reaffirmed its values and mission, and has committed to being what our students need us to be.
Mariandl Hufford

Mariandl Hufford is president and head of school at Miami Country Day School in Miami, Florida.