For the Storms and Between them—The Context for Resilience

The Reading Room of The Boston Public Library where I wrote most of this piece.

At the annual The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) conference in Boston earlier in the month, we had the opportunity to hear Richard Weissbourd, of Harvard’s Kennedy School and its Graduate School of Education speak. The title of his talk was “How Schools Can Develop Caring, Achieving, Justice-minded Students.”

Coincidentally, I had just spent the better part of the day before with James Honan, also of both the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education. Jim’s insight and remarkably broad base of knowledge leave me both inspired and challenged. Beyond the content of our conversation, his enthusiasm for both Harvard and for the culture of the University and of Cambridge struck me and made me a bit envious. Jim clearly knows how to benefit from, create, contribute to, and lead engaged and challenging learning environments.

My intersection with these two men set the stage for my final piece (no. 4 of 4) for The Resilience Initiative Executive Series. Resilience exists in a context, and thus context exerts a defining force on an individual’s ability to sustain a resilient posture against the waves of challenge that inevitably arrive for all people. However, it is not just in crisis that one needs resilience; as importantly, it is also in the living of our everyday professional and personal lives that resilience is vital. Resilience provides the well of strength from which individuals can draw strength for long term devotion to a purpose greater than themselves alone.

Dr. Weissbourd spoke briefly of resilience; however, he did so only in adjunct to the subject of what schools might do to help raise “caring, achieving, and justice-minded adults.”

That said, I left with an insight into how an individual’s resilience is both born within them and produced/reinforced by the context of their upbringing. By hyper-valuing achievement above happiness and even by a greater degree, caring, we have, to use Dr. Weissbourd’s words, “den[ied] children of coping strategies.” So, the ever-lengthening list of all the things parents and schools do to protect our kids, juxtaposed against losing perspective on the appropriate balance of caring, happiness, and achievement, diminish a young person’s ability to sustain and build resilience. The mental health issues, the ever-increasing demand for counseling services, the failure of so many high school graduates to transition to the independence requisite of successful college students each point more to changes in how we (families and schools) are raising these young people than it does to changes in the innate potential of the young people themselves. [Note: Dr. Weissbourd’s primary content was hugely valuable, particularly his description of “The Four Failures of Moral Education” and “Six Key Strategies for Promoting Caring for others and the Common Good.”]

Jim Honan’s work at Harvard, which focuses on “financial management of nonprofit organizations, organizational performance measurement and management, and higher-education administration,” has been positively impactful on non-profits, schools, colleges, and universities for several decades. I knew this before arriving at his office filled with the clutter of exams, projects underway, and a framed needle-point of a large “NO” dwarfing a small “Yes.” What I didn’t know is the extent to which his specific learning environment impacts his work and creates a context for his openness to new learning and ideas of everyone around him—students, faculty, and colleagues spread far and wide around the world.

He loves Harvard—it is evident in everything he told me about it, and over the course of a couple of hours, he gave me not only an amazing tour of the University, including the stunning Kennedy School, and the town of Cambridge, but in addition he gave me insight into how immersed he is in the life of the University itself. There is resilience borne of such settings where one is known, has the opportunity (and the expectation!) to grow, and has myriad chances to contribute. Just as he plays a part in buoying the University, he is also buoyed by it. In this way he is part of the backbone of Harvard, while it serves as a key part of his backbone as well. Such is the nature of an individual’s resilience—it exists within the individual and in conjunction with the community in which that individual lives and works.

For both students as well as for professionals with decades of experience under their belts, the truth is similar regarding resilience—communities where people are challenged, cared for, known, and supported in turn produce people who challenge others, care for others, know others, and support them. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between individual and community (school, college, non-profit, or for-profit) both produces resilience and gives it legacy. It also helps produce individuals who are prepared to face tasks with resilience and humanity when they move beyond the confines of that community. The benefits of resilient individuals and resilient communities transcend merely the membership of that specific group and inevitably impact the larger communities of which they are, or will become, members.

Let me take this opportunity to thank Watson Jordan for the invitation to serve as the inaugural writer in The Resilience Initiative Executive Writers Series. The conversation about resilience is vital, and I am grateful to have been given a voice on this platform.

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Ross Peters is a Senior Consultant for AAL: The Academy for Advancing Leadership. He focuses on Independent Schools and their national and regional associations in the areas of strategic planning, change management, board practice, and curriculum development. His extensive background in these areas also prepares him to serve in higher educational and professional educational settings as well. Prior to his role at AAL, Ross had a number of titles: Head Tennis Coach, Mountaineering Staff Member, Department Chair, Dean of Faculty, Assistant Head for Academic Affairs, Upper School Head, and Head of School. He derived his understanding of how a school should work and what leadership should look like from the classroom out, building his understanding of a school one) from the powerful relationships built with students in classrooms where high expectations and nurture are symbiotic and two) from the example of extraordinary school leaders who modeled servant leadership molded to the demanding environment of an independent school. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Ross was a thirteen-year graduate of St. Christopher’s School. From there he went to Sewanee: The University of the South (B.A., English), followed, after six years teaching at Providence Day School, with an M.Ed from the University of Georgia. While deeply appreciative of the remarkable gift of education he received at every level, his best learning has resulted from being an educator working with students whether as a classroom teacher or as a school leader. At the core of his belief in the value of an independent school is this idea: in order to create the education our students need and deserve, schools must mirror the qualities we demand of those we teach; thus, our learning curve should remain steep and our dedication to holding up the values we name as most important should be unwavering. This commitment to match the expectations we have for students in the way we think, act, work together as an institution guides his work in leadership, and it has allowed him to play a significant and lasting role in several outstanding schools. Since his eight years at Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC, he has made an impact as a teacher and administrator in a fascinating range of schools. From founding an integrated Humanities Department to establishing an Honor System at a small, hundred-year-old boarding school (Asheville School), and from reinventing the use of time to creating an urban campus in two schools ready for significant innovation (Hawken School and The Westminster Schools), Ross has had the chance to immerse himself in strategic and aligned school cultures to a degree that has allowed him to help those remarkable places move forward within the context of their mission and culture. At St. George’s Independent School, he mobilized that experience to help a younger school maintain the forward-thinking qualities that make it unique in Memphis. Ross is active in the Memphis Community and beyond. He currently serves on two Boards—the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, and the National Association of Independent Schools. He is a former Board member of Bridges USA, which operates from the belief that “great leaders, regardless of age, must appreciate diversity, lean into courageous conversations, and build bridges across deep philosophical and physical divides.” He and his wife Katie also serve as members of the Family Partners Council at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital where their daughter, Eleanor was first diagnosed as a Type I Diabetic. Katie (Ph.D., Emory University, Religious Studies) teaches at Rhodes College. His interests include hiking, travel, photography, and mediocre guitar picking. A widely published poet, he has completed work on a collection of poetry entitled, The Flood is Not the River, and he has provided the foreword and over one hundred photographs for a book entitled, Sacred Views: St. Francis and the Sacro Monte di Orta due out in the next year from Punctum Press. You can find his thoughts on education, as well as anything else he might be thinking about, on his blog—Ross All Over the Map. A long time ago he had hair:

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