For as Long as We Draw Breath

Sent earlier this afternoon to families, faculty and staff at The Children’s School

Dear TCS Families:

The birth of a child is a cause for celebration. In that moment, I’ve heard from my own parents and others, the instinct to protect that child at all costs takes over. We want to do everything within our power to raise that child in a caring, loving family, and community. We encourage, inspire, and nurture them. We love, celebrate, and empower. We tell our children: “You can be whatever you want to be.”  

Those words ring hollow right now for people of color in our country. Last week, I heard from one of our Black faculty and staff that she and her husband had to have The Talk with their barely ten-year-old son that every Black family painfully knows too well. To modify the words of Jefferson and Orwell, all men are created equal but some men are treated less equally than others. A Black and Brown child in the United States is born and raised in a culture of trauma, a system that dishonors their humanity in a myriad of ways.

At a time when institutions all over the South were defying Brown v. Board of Education, The Children’s School was founded to defy segregation and separation between people. The Wolf Pack knows that we rise and fall together, and we live and breathe together, too. We cannot ignore that we are vulnerable as an entire community and country as long as there are those who feel vulnerable among us. Our strength is not based on any one, it’s dependent on the strength of every one.

We have a choice, again, to be the country of King and Lewis. We can be the heart of Angelou and Lorde. For as long as we draw breath, the Wolf Pack will speak up for those who can’t breathe.

For our Black and Brown children,

Nishant N. Mehta
Head of School

A Framework for Leading Change in a Post-COVID Environment

In my last post, I used the print to digital shift in media as an analogy to describe what might be happening now in education. I wrote:

When print-based newspapers first moved to the internet, they tried to force the internet to fit their print-based context. Websites were clunky and slow, and navigation was awkward and ineffectual. That was their 1.0 effort, or even their beta initiative, just like the last few weeks have been for schools everywhere. Now, the successful media publications start with a digital and mobile-first mindset, designing first for the medium where they will find their audience.

With hundreds of millions of kids globally pushed into a distance (or remote) learning environment because of the coronavirus spread, teachers and schools are doing things within days and weeks they wouldn’t have touched pre-2020 without years of discussion, debate, compromises, and training. If everyone feels like a rookie, it’s because decades of teaching in a physical classroom and campus have not prepared us for this dramatic and abrupt transition. This is no snow day. We didn’t contemplate, or take seriously, the possibility of an actual pandemic that would radically disrupt our lives. For many of us, it’s challenging our workplace identities as we grapple with a medium that is both flexible and limited in its uses for teaching, learning, and creating connections and community. For educators, almost all who take their work personally, this disruption is no less than a transformation of their philosophy and practice. For schools and colleges, this will simultaneously affirm and undermine current missions, core values, and value propositions. If onsite learning cannot be replicated online, then the same is true of those missions, core values, and value propositions. Each of those was contemplated and approved for a pre-COVID world. Whenever we can safely return to our campuses, we will find we are not the same institution anymore; there’s some familiarity but some things have been forever altered in us. The coronavirus, whether we catch it or not, has already made its presence felt in all of our lives, infecting our sense of self and value as individuals and institutions.

If we know now and accept the landscape is dramatically altered, then what can we do to better prepare ourselves for the next disruption? This post, as the ones before it, is less about giving concrete solutions; I myself can currently see the outcomes more clearly than the paths leading to them. Instead, I hope to offer again provocative questions and a framework we can use to determine possible pathways to whatever solutions we will need over the next several months to sustain and strengthen ourselves and our institutions.

Eighteen years ago, two Harvard professors, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, wrote an article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” in the Harvard Business Review. In it, they discussed two types of changes, adaptive and technical. Adaptive change “demands that people give up things they hold dear: daily habits, loyalties, ways of thinking.” Heifetz and Linsky use words such as “difficult but necessary” and “wrenching” to describe this type of change. Adaptive change will “upset an organization’s equilibrium.” Technical change, on the other hand, “can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes.” It’s clear to me, four weeks living and working in the brave new world, that we must stop searching for and applying technical solutions to these adaptive challenges. Our technical muscle is necessary but not sufficient in a post-COVID world. As Heifetz and Linsky write, “adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organization to alter their ways.” Like the media industry’s 1.0 efforts when they went from print to digital and mobile, educators everywhere began with technical solutions that would not fix their adaptive problems. Many schools took their whole schedule online in the first week, expecting students would log on and attend classes on Zoom or Google Hangouts like they did on campus. That didn’t work; students and teachers were exhausted, and engagement and community suffered.

To further illustrate what I mean, I’ll use the same example Heifetz and Linsky use in their article. A car with mechanical issues has an easy fix. Take the car to the mechanic and s/he will change the oil, replace the filters, install new brake pads, etc. If the problem, however, is with the driver, no technical fix or replacement will repair the underlying issue because the problem is not with the car. The problems with distance (remote) learning, as teachers discovered within their first few days of going remote, are not about ease and training with the technology with a full, or near-full, online transfer of the physical schedule. Instead, distance learning, because of the medium’s flexibility and limitations, challenges the fundamental assumptions upon which every physical classroom and campus, school calendar and class schedule is currently based. What works in one context won’t work in another, and the solutions are not simple fixes but require a radical rethinking and redesign of what we value and how we learn and teach now.

This crisis is going to redefine our institutions. In one of his daily briefings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said people keep asking him when we will go back. There’s no going back, he replied, there’s only going forward. The coronavirus spread has already turned, to use Heifetz and Linsky again, life upside down in every organization. The question is no longer “if” but “when” we can expect to face these challenges again. As one association leader recently said to me, families just want to make sure that our remote learning implementation today “doesn’t suck,” however, they will be less gracious next year if we go remote again and do not show adequate preparation, execution, and communication. Any technical fix we have employed thus far is just a patch that will carry us through the short-term. Next time, those won’t be enough.


There’s something very predictable about the school calendar: the first and last days of school, holidays, conferences, traditional events and programs, and graduation. The same is true of the school day: carpool drop-off and pickup times, the first bell, the Monday schedule, Tuesday schedule, minutes per class, midterms, finals, lunch and recess. This predictability offers comfort and continuity. It makes everything easy for teachers and parents to plan. Other extracurriculars, club sports, ballet and gymnastics, and other after-school activity and events can be organized accordingly because it’s obvious what we mean by the simple words, “after school.” Even children’s dinner and sleep/wake schedules are organized around the daily school calendar and schedule. In the United States, families choose their home based on proximity to the neighborhood schools.

For the last month, COVID-19 has upended that predictability, creating chaos in people’s work and home lives. School campuses nationally (and internationally in many countries) are closed, and teachers and administrators have moved their schedule and curriculum online. Untethered from a physical location, teachers and administrators are no longer tethered to the confines of the school calendar and daily schedule. There’s no daily commute to and from school, no bells, no lunch or recess at the same time for everyone. Remote (or distance) learning has unstructured the day, requiring of the students and adults – parents and teachers – to create new structures and new routines, each one different from one home to the next. Teachers are providing some live instruction, but remote learning is ill-suited to many hours of live instruction. Synchronous, or live, instruction is appropriate for some direct teaching, but it shines when creating connection and community in the virtual classroom. Asynchronous, or independent, learning is best suited for deeper learning and application.

Bigger chunks of asynchronous learning means students have greater control. While on-campus learning is organized around adult needs and priorities, giving the teacher and parent a higher degree of control than the student, remote learning wrests that same control away from the adults and hands it over to the student. The conventional schedule and structure direct the student on what to do, where to go, and when to get there. The student has very little autonomy except in between transitions, and even those are timed and there’s a consequence in traditional schools for missing the bell and arriving tardy. There’s no such restriction or direction with remote learning because the teacher cannot provide several hours of live instruction daily, and every home environment – effectively now a classroom too – is set up differently. In many ways, remote learning is the ultimate form of differentiated learning.

Besides the pandemic and the ensuing human health tragedy, this forced move to remote learning globally for millions of students has created other kinds of chaos and tragedies too. Remote learning is not effective for every student. That level of autonomy requires self-direction and self-discipline. (The same can be said of remote work and teams.) Developmentally, not every student has mastered or gained the executive functioning skills necessary for this complex navigation and management of one’s class and assignment load. Not every student can work backwards from the end of the day or week to create their own class schedule that replaces what has so far been provided by the school on the first day. Very little changes in the school year once it has begun, and whatever changes is carefully managed and controlled. Not anymore.

It might sound like I’m in favor of this type of school or learning all the time; I’m not. Although there are clear benefits for the student of a certain type and age, it has many downsides which make it unsustainable for very long. However, it is worth reflecting here that it’s almost certain we will be in this position again next school year. We don’t know when or for how long, but in the absence of a vaccine to treat the coronavirus, it will once again fracture life and the school year for everyone. Everyone’s been really gracious and forgiving for the last few weeks at school because it’s our first time, but they won’t be when it happens again. So what do we do? How do we plan?

If the traditional school year and day are all about predictability, and teaching and leading in a COVID-19 world are not, then we must design for two environments, one that offers control and another that requires flexibility. But designing for two environments is exhausting and few schools, if any, have the resources to set up and prepare for two schools. Learning and assessing aren’t the same when done remotely, so we need to consider if there are lessons of flexibility and student autonomy that can be interwoven into the physical campus and classroom environment. How might we design the class schedule with flexibility in mind? How do we create flexibility in the school year? Schools have been talking about innovation and innovating for almost two decades now, but almost all have offered tweaks so far, afraid to start over. It required this forced move – this untethering – to shift mindsets, act with nimbleness and new imagination, and reconsider what’s really sacred.

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message.” When print-based newspapers first moved to the internet, they tried to force the internet to fit their print-based context. Websites were clunky and slow, and navigation was awkward and ineffectual. That was their 1.0 effort, or even their beta initiative, just like the last few weeks have been for schools everywhere. Now, the successful media publications start with a digital and mobile-first mindset, designing first for the medium where they will find their audience. School and college campuses are not going away, but where will we now invest our time and resources? What will we create and do when our students may literally not be able to get to us, as they have for decades? The process of untethering has not been comfortable, but it also means an unshackling. The online medium has created a tinkerer and entrepreneur out of every teacher and administrator. It will be a shame if we only mourn this newfound freedom. We have an opportunity in this crisis to advance new business and pedagogical models. What will we tether to when we can safely return to our campuses?

Finding The Win in A Blended Future

What’s your win? What’s the win here? Is there a clear win or victory? Maybe in the short-term, maybe today as people, everybody scrambling, everybody tense and overwhelmed, extend grace and appreciation for their safety and the safety of the community right now. We’ve made plenty of good decisions in light of what’s going on. But that grace could be gone the longer this goes on, the more vulnerable people feel, and as I make each decision with bigger consequences for individuals and our school, and upset different people, using every bit of political capital I have earned and saved up in the process. At the NAIS Institute of New Heads on whose faculty I’ve served now for two years, an early lesson I share with the new heads is one of accountability and responsibility. Heads are almost never responsible but always accountable. I make few decisions over the course of a day; collectively everyone else makes many more decisions than I do. Yet, if something goes wrong, I’m accountable even though I wasn’t initially responsible. Now, over the course of a few weeks, the landscape has changed for our world and we are reacting every minute to a course and destination that are both unknown and uncertain. So what’s the win here? What will be our victory? The wins are important so we can build, not just conserve or use, the capital and credibility we need for the long haul. I wrestle with those questions now, and ask my team, as we build our leadership muscle and resilience for the next several weeks to steer our school.

I haven’t worked as hard in seven years as I have in the last two weeks. I believe that’s true of most of my peers; I’ve heard that said over and over again in conversations with other heads of school, less and more tenured than me. Each week has felt like a year; we are dealing with the changing news, developing questions and developing problems to which we don’t have clear or straightforward answers, and the pressures of moving individuals and an entire community from age three through grade 8, and the full ecosystem of teachers, support staff, parents, and caregivers into a virtual space that resembles, as closely as possible, the school’s values, pedagogy, and curricular lessons and activities.

I asked this question, “What’s the win?” of other heads in a 1:1 phone call. I was curious how they saw the road ahead and how they were building their school’s capacity to sustain this mad sprint and retain and strengthen their enrollment and employment ranks. In one conversation with a dear friend, another head of school in the Seattle area, she spoke of opportunity that would arise from these circumstances. As her school went virtual, her faculty had to make choices of what to retain and what to cut; they chose what they deemed essential to their school’s ethos; the rest they cut. She believes that as schools consider the length of virtual learning and the possibility it could extend into, or happen again, the next school year, whatever is fluff or non-essential will be shed and every school’s value proposition will at least have the chance to be more clear, more distinct. I don’t disagree. I think it’s a brilliant answer; it captures the spirit of Day One thinking and leadership. My concern, as I laid it out to her, was its impact on people. Who decides what’s essential and what’s not? And, as non-essential programs and services are cut, won’t the people who are currently employed and provide those services also face termination? Schools, like healthcare, are usually recession-proof. This is one crisis that could prove that experience wrong.

Let’s lay out the rationale and subsequent impact further out. Virtual learning eliminates the need for expensive facilities, student-teacher ratios will be reconfigured, and schools will review their tuition tiers and add one more for hybrid or blended school. None of these are innately bad outcomes. School reformers have been pushing these conversations for years, but schools and school leaders have usually offered a whisper when a shout is needed. This pandemic will accelerate problems and solutions and reshape the entire industry. It will accelerate school closures, probably the ones under-resourced and under-funded first, and it will create space for new businesses and services. The market will likely consolidate, mergers and acquisitions will increase, and competition will both increase and decrease simultaneously. This crisis will effectively resize and reprice independent schools. (Add colleges, too. Would you pay room and board for a full year at current rates if your son or daughter may come home for weeks or months next year?)

I’ve heard from parents or students in high school or college that they even prefer this style of learning. The user’s in charge of how to organize their experience. Because most remote learning is asynchronous, it releases students from the shackles of the 8-4 school day. Apart from checking in on live classes, the student has more freedom and control over their day’s organization and agenda. Remote learning is not as simple, though. Independence is rewarded here. So if your student is blessed with good or great executive functioning skills, then remote learning can be a wonderful experience. For the student who needs additional support with organization and managing their time and work, remote learning can create challenges and frustrations for them, and those who support them.

School, however, is more than just academic learning. Overly simplified, school is relationship plus knowledge equals application. Learning remotely, in this way, prioritizes knowledge over relationship. Remote learning trades relationship for efficiency, and so we trade effectiveness too. Here’s my first draft of essential questions for this new paradigm (and by that, I mean, 100% or majority virtual school):

  • How do we maintain a three-dimensional relationship in a two-dimensional world?
  • How do we keep the lines between real world and virtual world separate and distinct?
  • When might we forget those boundaries if our only real relationships are with whom we live?
  • When does community no longer hold any separation based on the mediums we use, and it’s all just one type, our ability to understand the difference also eliminated?
  • What do we lose when we lose the teachable moment, the humor, or the quiet or loud rebellion?
  • Where is the collective pause in our meetings or lessons when we are working from home? (Even the pauses in our day are no longer shared with our colleagues or students; they are private, meant only for ourselves or our families.)

I’m really conflicted because there are aspects of this life I actually like. However, I miss the social times, the drop-ins in my office, the walkthroughs of a classroom, recess four-square battlefield, or our campus playgrounds. I miss the spontaneous sharing, the visitors, the little feet and big feet running around, laughing and chattering away about something completely irrelevant to school except what school makes possible for them with that moment. In the end, two weeks in and with the outlook of at least the next several weeks still sitting in my home office, running a school remotely and from behind a screen, I know that the future is blended. Neither option, especially when we consider the older students in a K-12 environment, is fully efficient or effective; the answer lies not in an either/or but in a both/and. There’s a win in that answer.

BONUS: I was interviewed a few weeks ago on school leadership by two educators, Michael Lomuscio and Matt McGee, for their podcast, The FullStack Educator. The episode was just published here.

It's Day One, Again

There is no precedent or past to lean on and use as a guide or mentor for these extraordinary times. Tuesday, Mar. 17 was Day One: The Children’s School (TCS) faculty initiated our remote learning plans. Like schools around the country, and in many others around the world, our campus is now closed and I sit every day in my home office running a school from behind a screen. This is not how I envisioned ending my tenure, living and working in a two-dimensional world, connecting with others via Slack, email, and Zoom. For the grief I feel for our children, families, faculty, and even myself, there has been little time to absorb the scale and impact of what is happening globally.

A few hours ago, I sent the following message to our faculty and staff:

I hope all of you found time and space for self-care this weekend. Honestly, I can’t believe it’s not even been a whole week since we moved to remote work and remote learning. In this short time already, I have seen incredible sacrifices and efforts on your part to support each other and your children and families.. And, I know there is a lot that you wish we could have done and managed differently. It’s not perfect but we cannot let perfect be the enemy of good enough right now. These extraordinary times call on all of us to be nimble, flexible, and patient with ourselves, our families, and each other.

There’s a lot that’s being asked of you right now, at home and at school. If you’re not overwhelmed, then please share the secret with me because I sure am. I know, too, and I see it and hear it from you that we are feeling like novices right now, not always the experienced educators and professionals we are at other times. So I want to tell you in return that it’s okay. On some things and some days last week, I let good enough be good enough. It isn’t my usual stance but it’s what I could give in that moment. So I’m learning too.

There are important questions in front of us as a school, over many of which we don’t have a lot of control or even knowledge currently. I don’t know when we will return to our campus, whether we will have graduation like we always have, whether we will be able to say goodbye to our children/families/each other in person. I don’t know what the summer or fall will look like. So right now, my focus is on this coming week. I control that, as do you. I control today, how I manage and respond to the next day, and the day after that. Take one step when you can’t take two, take half a step when you can’t take one. And ask for help from those around you to take whatever steps you and we must.

(Maybe we’ll be giving out more than one rubber chicken award at the end of the year!)

I see everywhere the values of The Children’s School, in our community and on the news. Kindness matters. Compassion matters. Family and relationships matter. We matter. Our purpose has never been stronger or more needed in the world than today. So, I know – and now remind you – you do you and then TCS will do TCS.

I’m proud of you and I’m proud to be a part of the TCS community at this moment in time. Thank you for the awesome ways you continue to deliver value and on our values.

Good enough on Day One is pretty remarkable. One silver lining, if there’s one to this massive disruption to all of our lives, is the iterative and entrepreneurial thinking and action it requires of all of us who are not-so-secret perfectionists. Teachers like to plan and then tweak over time. Many tweaks have at least a year’s worth of planning behind them. Not so now. We have no choice but to offer a beta version now. So what was impossible yesterday is made possible today.

But in this quest to ship the beta versions more rapidly and squash bugs along the way, I worry if this technology-filled work life will trade relationships for efficiency. What happens when we see people as images and words, instead of their full three-dimensional selves?

It’s clear that this is not just a new normal but a brave new world for all of us. No individual, family, institution, or even a nation, will come out of this pandemic fully whole and the same as they were two weeks or two months ago. One of my administrators asked me on Saturday when we’d collect and apply everything we’ve learned, and still learning, to what school can be. The challenges and stresses overwhelm now, but there will be a time when we will recover and renew, and it will be a shame then if everything just returned to business as usual. But now, I replied, is not that time to apply; now is the time to listen and learn and do. Now is Still Day One.

Purpose, Connection, and Service: Creating Community in Virtual Spaces

I was supposed to spend this weekend in St. Louis chairing the spring meeting of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education’s (CSEE) Board. We meet twice a year and this meeting, the last of the 2019-20 school year, would have also been my last as a board member and board chair. We also had five other members rolling off and, as we have in previous years, we planned to say goodbye to each one and thank them for their service to CSEE. We still had our board meeting but it was online. Instead of St. Louis, we sat in our home offices and logged into Zoom on Saturday at 9am EDT. World events transpired, out of everyone’s control, and we went, as so many schools and workplaces are doing too right now, to our contingency plan.

There’s another page of board members who also participated in the meeting but cannot be seen in this image screenshot.

At the start of every meeting, the CSEE Board spends an hour checking in with each other. The check-in, usually a question, prompt or reading, is an opportunity for reflection to bring us together physically and emotionally. The check-in is a presencing activity so we can bring our full selves to the group and to our purpose of being there. As the chair, I was responsible for this check-in. Less than 24 hours before, all of us had closed down our institutions for the foreseeable future. We had sent out communications to our teachers and administrators, students and families explaining the uncharted territory we had just entered, a twilight zone of sorts, for which we had no historical example to reference. We had prepared for the reality and, yet, we all knew this was not a reality we still understood. It hadn’t bent to our will so far, it wasn’t moving with any predictability and it was unlikely it would for at least some time. In this context, I thought about my check-in question and how I’d bring together this group of educational leaders representing schools, universities, regional and national associations, current and retired heads and senior administrators. In the midst of uncertainty, I wonder what brings us joy. In the midst of an anxious and unknown future, I wonder about our capacity for goodness. So I asked the question I asked earlier on this blog, “What Does a Good Day Look Like?” What’s a good day for you right now?

The responses started to come in. They were varied and particular to each individual. They made us smile, laugh and curious. We leaned in, literally, as I could see from Zoom’s Gallery View at everyone’s body language. And, there was a common arc to all of them. Each of us talked about purpose, connection, and community. We spoke of how each of those brought meaning to our lives, to our days, and how we took care of ourselves by taking care of others. Our collective responses spoke of the profound loss of contact and community the world over right now. As we adjust to this alternate universe, one that is unfamiliar to all of us, we cannot forget what makes us human. Social connection and community, not social distancing, makes us human, yet the irony of our current circumstances requires social distance so we can care for each other; we impact our greater community most when we step back from each other. Here is a raw summary of our conversation and responses to the question, “What’s a good day for you right now?”

  • The academics will take care of themselves if we remember to care for the social-emotional well-being of our community.
  • A sense of purpose. Autonomy, relationship, and competence.
  • A sense of accomplishment. Being helpful to someone else. People are better but dogs have to be in there.
  • What do I want my epitaph to read? I used to work in corporate before joining schools. I didn’t want my epitaph to read: “R made a lot of money for a lot of people.” Now, every day, I feel like I make a difference in the lives of others, including children. We are not alone right now.
  • Frederick Buechner, a theologian said, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger coincide.”
  • Music, connection, and service to others. I’m learning to play the harp.
  • A sense of purpose for myself through giving a sense of purpose to others. Moments of joy are connected to my relationships to my community.
  • I’d love to be an architect if I could start my life all over again, but maybe I’ve been an architect of children. I’ve helped them build and rebuild as some of them now turn fifty.
  • I’m prioritizing comfort over joy and happiness right now. It’s at least more sustaining, I think. I’m exploring in various communities of practice what connection looks like in virtual spaces, and I’m curious about what a good day looks like in a changed world right now.
  • Yesterday was a good day. It was the first day in over a week where I felt I was being proactive. This has not been a fire or medical emergency, but it required so many quick decisions, even changes to decisions made just hours before. That’s not my MO. It wasn’t comfortable.
  • I saw a parrot outside my window the other morning and I wondered about the peace he has right now, what he doesn’t know.
  • Level 1 = Plan and prepare. How do we get back to Level 1? What has settled us before is not going to settle us now. So what will be the new psyche of our educational institutions when we emerge from this crisis? Is there a Level 0?
  • There’s an absence of the kind of resilience in our culture that people who have lived in turmoil have developed over the years. We will have to learn to live differently for a longer period of time.
  • We need to acknowledge the uncertainty we are feeling right now. This isn’t normal.
  • TOUCH YOUR COMPUTER SCREEN. It’s warm. It’s the computer’s CPU that is generating that heat, but the heat helps with connection.
  • Responsive Classroom begin each day in a circle, so how can we be circly? How do we make community?

It was an enriching conversation. More importantly, it was a connecting conversation. We created community from afar; we joked around; we debated important questions, the state of the association and its future; we applauded each other; and we said goodbye to those rolling off the board this year. There were lots of things on our agenda that we tweaked or cancelled to make room for this virtual reality. But we didn’t forget our purpose and we cared for each other and our association. When we adjourned the meeting at 3pm that afternoon, we all agreed, it had been a good day.

Our Health Also Depends on Social Connection and Community

These are unprecedented times. While we are preparing round the clock, as is every teacher and school leader right now, for any possible closure of our Community to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I wonder about what it will mean for a Community that lives and breathes that word with a Capital “C” to go online for any extended period of time. I’ve always maintained that my work cannot be done from home. The visibility of any leader in a Community like ours, or yours, is essential for the building and sustenance of relationships. What will happen to that Community when it is behind a screen and contained within four walls but never the same four walls?

There are schools in Washington, California and New York that have closed for several weeks. Harvard asked their students to vacate the dorms by Sunday and classes will be conducted online for the remainder of the spring semester. Several other universities have taken similar measures. Google asked all of their North American employees to work from home where and when possible. Other companies have also given their employees the freedom to do so. The State Department and USAID has suspended nonessential travel to international destinations. Italy has suspended all commercial activity except grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, and public transit. These uncharted waters are not just about learning and working from home. The New York Times followed a second-grader and his family through this remote learning experiment, sharing their experience. We lose so much when we go into hiding, even when it’s hiding from something we cannot see.

I’m not dismissive of the seriousness of this public health emergency. Earlier today, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. The White House is considering declaring Europe a level 3 travel advisory, discouraging nonessential travel. The State Department and the CDC have both issued guidance discouraging travelers from cruises, long plane rides and large crowd gatherings, especially for the elderly or with a compromised immune system. Big events like South by Southwest are now cancelled. This is a big deal. So IF it’s imminent that I, a head of school, will be staying home in the foreseeable future and performing my duties from my home office, what will I gain and what will I lose? What, in the absence of that human connection with my colleagues and our families and students, will I miss about all of the reasons I became an educator in 2001?

Community depends on connection. How will we authenticate and establish those connections online that, so far, have been in person? We assume any closure will be temporary, but an article in The Atlantic imagined, using real examples from Hong Kong the Colville School District in Washington State, about what happens to student learning when school’s out for 3-5 days, two weeks, a month, or longer. The article didn’t really go far enough and it shared many obvious (at least to an educator) conclusions. When I discussed that article with our leadership team on Tuesday, here are some of the questions we asked ourselves:

  • How will we check-in regularly with our Community, and create those informal and impromptu opportunities, the serendipitous moments when a colleague stops into my office, or I go to the playground and run around with our preschoolers, or open the car door and wish the student and his parent a good morning and good day? What will replace those moments for us?
  • Do we establish office hours via video conference?
  • How do we set limits around channels of communication for our colleagues, students and families, so text, email, Slack, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and Zoom are not all blowing up constantly around us?
  • How will we communicate daily with our families, and not just communication from their classroom teacher?
  • What are the limitations of our remote learning tools?
  • How will we care for the social, mental, and emotional needs of our students?
  • How will we support students and families remotely when they know someone who has passed away?
  • Could we provide childcare for families that need it?
  • Could we ask neighborhood Communities where our students live to organize recess for the children?
  • Are there families who will need laptops or iPads? For families, especially those with younger children to whom we don’t provide any iPads or laptops, will they have enough devices at home so parent and child do not have to share a device to access and complete work and school assignments?

These questions, at their core, are about maintaining connection, fostering Community and continuity for our students and families. We need to address those same needs for our faculty colleagues. How will we manage and create Community for them? We’ve considered several possible solutions and I know that we’ve only scratched the surface so far.

Social connection is critical to healthy child development. It’s what the best elementary schools offer and coach their students and families. Social connection and the development of healthy relationships are also the keys to true happiness and a long-life. What happens to our mental and emotional states when social distancing, not social connection, becomes the norm? I worry if this virus, and the anxiety associated with it, lasts for a long time. It will make learning and working from home normal for the current generation of students and come at a significant cost to their growth and maturity that we will not fully absorb or understand until years later.

We don’t have all of the solutions worked out yet. Just thinking about myself for a moment, I’ve not fully contemplated working from home for weeks and months without the regular check-in, meeting in person, lunch or dinner with colleagues to discuss work and socialize, and the evenings and weekends at the theatre, cinema, concert, restaurant or some other big social event at the botanical gardens and the public park. We lock down these places, including our schools, to mitigate the spread of the virus and bring down the rate of illness, but for how long? Like everyone else, we are managing the day-to-day, while still planning for this unknown and uncertain future for our school. We stay flexible and we adapt. Yet, how do we as leaders also mitigate the long-term consequences and recognize the short-term measures that will also inevitably cost us dearly?

For seven summers till 2014, Tony F. and I would talk about leading and managing for diversity and inclusion to approximately eighty independent school teachers and administrators at the NAIS Diversity Leadership Institute. Tony was a head of school at the time and he would speak to the non-heads in the room about what it’s like to be one. There are two lessons he’d always share with the participants:

Lesson #1: People think a lot of what we [heads of school] deal with is black or white. Either this or that. It’s not that simple; it almost never is. It’s all grey all the time.

Lesson #2: When I was a teacher at 22, I thought the head of school was a doofus. I knew I could make better decisions most of the time.

Then I became an admissions director and I had a clearer picture of what happened at the admin meetings. I still felt that the head of school didn’t know what he was doing. I could have done better than him at least 60% of the time.

I became an assistant head and now I was the #2 guy. I was closer to the head’s reality than all of my colleagues. Even then, Nishant, I just knew that I could do better. The guy had no idea and made so many avoidable mistakes. I would have made a better call at least 30-40% of the time.

Now, I’m the head of school and everyone else says that about me.

What Tony said. It is all grey and it’s easy to second-guess the decision makers. But as we make plans to go remote, I hope we will consider beyond the academics and beyond the meetings that can happen online, and create real, not just virtual, solutions to drive the human connection and Community that are the foundations of any solid relationship. Our health depends on it.

P.S. I’m well aware of the many valid and real questions that come up now and affect millions of families, if not in the billions, the world over as workplaces and schools go online right now. Currently, over 300 million students worldwide are not going to “physical” school. The US stock market has entered bear territory, 20% below its high, and layoffs have begun as a result of the economic decline affecting small and midsize businesses. It’s not just individuals that are vulnerable; institutions and businesses are as well. There are issues of equity too. For many students and families, school is a safe haven. It provides stability, meals, and childcare. School can literally be a source of nourishment and relationship. It’s the social safety net in many vulnerable communities. The spiral continues as schools close and workers are told to stay home. The vulnerable population grows. We have responsibilities to our own families and Communities, but what about the larger neighborhood? Our communal health depends on a strong Neighborhood, a vibrant and healthy Community.

What Does a Good Day Look Like?

Krista Tippett: What does a good day look like? This is the question that transformed Atul Gawande’s practice of medicine.

Atul Gawande: The conversation I felt like I was having was, do we fight, or do we give up? And the reality was that it’s not do we fight, or do we give up? It’s what are we fighting for? People have priorities besides just surviving no matter what. You have reasons you want to be alive. What are those reasons? Because whatever you’re living for, along the way, we’ve got to make sure we don’t sacrifice it.

On Being with Krista Tippett, Oct. 26, 2017

I’ve spent an entire week and weekend, and I’m not alone in this at all, on the coronavirus (or, COVID-19) and preparing my community for its inevitable spread across Atlanta. It’s true the hysteria has gone viral, spreading faster than the virus itself. There is information and misinformation too out there. There’s calmness, and then there’s fear and anxiety. Since Feb. 28, we have sent out three communications about our contingency preparations to The Children’s School community. The latest communication, which we just sent out a couple hours ago, took us almost three whole days to write it. It’s not what we sent eventually but what we didn’t include in the final draft that took the longest. We don’t want to spread any unnecessary panic or create chaos for our families or faculty. Yet, how do we also take appropriate measures to prevent and be a part of any solution to slow down the spread of the virus? There’s a push/pull here as every leader and community does its best to be responsible stewards and citizens.

This is new territory for everyone and I’m no health expert. It’s my responsibility, however, as it is for all of us that care for and work with the most precious in any community, to remain calm and united. How do we stay grounded right now? What will we hold onto, and what will we not forget? We rely on our values, our purpose, and our personal and professional relationships now more than ever. It’s not what we say and what we do when things are good that define us; it’s our words and actions during these chaotic, uncertain times that are the true measures of our strength and character. This question, then, “What does a good day look like?” is an appropriate one for all of us to stop what we are doing right now and consider with serious intent. What are you fighting for? What are your reasons to be alive? What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

P.S. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, is on my list of books and writings that have influenced me. Highly recommended.

A Secondary Line of Defense

‘We had a very fortunate upbringing,’ says Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson. ‘It was filled with good times. We were like every other family. We had love and discipline. We had caring parents….It wasn’t unusual at all. It wasn’t that everyone had both parents in the house, but it certainly wasn’t like it is now, where you find single-parent families everywhere. Folks went to work, people were excited to get good grades….People would laugh about folks finding out you were getting in trouble. People had mothers at home. So if someone broke a window, you always found out about it. You had a secondary line of defense.’

“American Girl,” p.51, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This notion of a secondary line of defense came up again three years ago, in November 2017, when I was at a student’s bar mitzvah. The ceremony was about more than celebrating this young man’s transition from boyhood to manhood. There were traditions that stretched back to God, Abraham, Moses, and the earliest Israelites. The shawl he wore during the ceremony was over a century old. The bar mitzvah was a reminder to this young man, and to me, that he has a secondary line of defense, a community beyond family that cares for who he is and who he becomes.

In August 1996, I left my primary line of defense – my family – to come to Asheville, NC to attend boarding school. I knew no one in Asheville at the time, no family or friends when I started there. We had chosen Asheville School sight unseen and based on the recommendation of one of my brother’s former classmates in Bombay, who had just graduated from this small boarding school. The first few months were difficult; I wore the wrong clothes, ate the wrong food, and spoke with a funny accent. In every way, I felt different and the outlier to everyone else’s normal. (That wasn’t true, obviously, but call those feelings teenage angst and add the layer of an immigrant boy far away from anything he knows and everyone who loves or cares for him.) On my first trip to the local mall, I put chili on my nachos, not knowing it was beef. It didn’t look like anything I knew and I didn’t know what to ask. I was a strict vegetarian then and had never eaten any meat, let alone beef. The move to the United States was an isolating experience, a lonely transition to a new culture and community and I didn’t have my safety net with me. I knew, of course, that I could call my parents and return home if I wanted. There’d be no questions or criticism, and no shame or embarrassment. I couldn’t do that, however, and frankly, I didn’t even consider it. I didn’t want to worry them anymore than they already were, my mother upset that she had just lost her youngest to a country 8,000 miles away, from which she was certain he would never return.

I made friends eventually, and the adults were kind and generous with their time and counsel. They still weren’t family and, at the time, I didn’t really feel I could confide in anyone, or expect that anyone could understand me. I wasn’t sure who was really looking out for me, making sure that my mental, emotional and social health were developing well. We had advisors, and there were teachers I felt close to, but those relationships were less personal and more academic or intellectual. I took comfort in the intellectual, something I thought I was good at; it also had to make up for, and to the degree any teenager can hide from his peers, my social awkwardness. I dreaded the usual holidays, especially the long weekends. They were too short to go back to India, and while I had extended family in New Jersey, I didn’t want to spend money every long weekend or longer holiday break to go visit. Calling home was expensive too; there were no computers or cellphones at the time. Instead, we used the payphone in the dorm common room, and I used a calling card, prices ranging from 60 cents to a dollar a minute, to call India. Every now and then a friend from school invited me to go home with him for the long weekend and I’d say yes. However, that wasn’t the same either and I never felt I quite fit in as this Indian immigrant going to boarding school in the 1990’s American South. If I was different to everyone else, everyone else felt different to me. America and I had yet to find our rhythm.

It wasn’t until college in St. Louis, and even later in 2001 when I started my career in independent schools, that I began to form relationships at work that felt on solid ground. Not family but I was past that initial awkward phase. Work – teaching middle school history in Dallas – also gave me confidence. I was good at it and felt accepted by my colleagues and my students. I had been in the United States only five years at the time and my first job was teaching American history to middle schoolers in Dallas, Texas, but neither students and their families, nor my colleagues question my capability or competence because of my immigration status. In 2005 I co-chaired the NAIS People of Color Conference when it came to Dallas, and since that year, I have built a network of friends and mentors in independent schools that has looked out for me, guided me, coached me and cared for me, when I needed them. They have been, and still are, my secondary line of defense. I rely on them, call on them, and know they will show up when I need them.

Every one of my moves in the United States since August 1996 has been driven by my choice of work. My personal life has always been secondary with each move for the last 24 years. With no immediate family – no primary line of defense here – personal life played less of a role in my decision making, something I’ve only begun to acknowledge and lament in the last few years. Dallas, the location of my first teaching job, was good to me personally too but it was by accident. One of my college friends lived in Dallas and decided to move back home after graduation. He and I rented an apartment together. And, one of my cousins, someone I was close to and became closer during my five years there, had just gotten married and moved to Dallas the same year that I accepted the teaching job. It was comforting to have her and her husband nearby, so when I had the choice between Alexandria, Virginia and San Francisco, I chose Alexandria, a big factor being the presence of another cousin and her family in the area. I couldn’t articulate it fully then, but I wanted someone close by, not some colleague at work, not something that was temporal but someone and something that felt more solid, more concrete and that’d transcend any job or my time in the job. I wanted that secondary line of defense since my primary would remain thousands of miles away.

Craig Robinson’s quote from “American Girl” resonates with me too, even though our two families couldn’t be more different. I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in a seven story apartment building in a Bombay suburb. Every evening, after finishing our homework and before dinner, my brother and I would rush down to play with the other children of the building. We played every possible game, like hide and seek, cricket, and marbles. For the most part, people stayed in the building for a long time and even passed on the apartment to subsequent generations. I grew up with those kids. Their parents knew my brother and me, and they knew my parents. The adults took an interest in other people’s children too, not just their own. If I left the building – and I could easily do so – without telling my mother I’m going somewhere, I knew that in any direction for at least a couple blocks on the street, there were several people I knew, and they knew my family. If I ever felt any danger, I could rely on so many around me. If I got in trouble, the strangers would rush to my aid but it wouldn’t be long before someone called my parents and found them. My mother never worried about us leaving the house or the apartment building; she knew this too. There were secondary lines of defense everywhere around us.

Neighborhoods like those feel like they belong, or exist, in a different era. Families, like migrants, are constantly on the move now. Professional tenures are down everywhere as younger generations change jobs more frequently. I wonder what, and who, continues then. As I make my transition from The Children’s School, at least for a year, I’m also leaving the world of independent schools. It’s the trade I’m making as I go back to Bombay, where I grew up and my parents still live, to reclaim and reconnect with that primary line of defense. It’s possible during this transition that my secondary line of defense in the United States will fragment, just like my relationship with my parents has over 24 years, and especially if this one-year hiatus from independent schools becomes two or five or more years. Or, maybe the whole purpose of having a secondary line of defense is that it comes with me everywhere I go, just like my student’s bar mitzvah ceremony assured him, even if where I go is to the other side of the world. I’m betting on the latter.

What’s in a (Starbucks) Name?

What’s your name?


Is that with an “ea” or an “haw”?

Ummm… An “ea.” S-E-A-N.

Sean (or, Shawn) is my Starbucks name.

I’m not the only Indian, Asian, or brown person who has a Starbucks name. I don’t like it, but I tell myself that I’m doing it out of convenience. It’s easier. I won’t have to spell out my name. They won’t butcher it with their spelling or pronunciation. I’m not holding up the line. Those who are listening will see I’ve accepted the American way. I’m no threat to anyone. Plus, it’s convenient. I just want a chai or latte. (I’ll even call it a “chai tea latte,” even though that’s redundant and I just ordered a “tea tea latte.”) Why create a hassle for the barista or me and turn an order that only needs five seconds into an extended minute with the correct name and spelling? Yeah, let’s go with Sean.

I used my real name at a Starbucks in Philly last week. I even spelled it out for the barista. It’s still misspelled.

My name’s not Sean. It’s Nishant. N-I-S-H-A-N-T. That’s how I spell it. NISHA = Night and ANT = end. End of night, dawn. My parents also liked to say when I was young that they took letters from their names, Nitin and Harsha (NI + SHA), and added the “ANT” to signify that there’d be no more children for them. I’m the second of two children of Nitin and Harsha Mehta.

Only a few can pronounce my name correctly here. They’ll usually put the stress on the first syllable and end with a hard “t” sound. When pronounced correctly, the stress is on the second syllable and it ends with a “th” sound, the “h” almost unheard. I didn’t correct people for my first few years in the United States. Well-meaning individuals would usually apologize before or after and seek my forgiveness. I’d try and teach them, if they asked. Some would get it, although it didn’t always last long. Their facial habits and accents, long established, would regress to the first syllable emphasis and a hard “t” sound. For a while, I wondered whether I should adopt, as so many Indians and East Asians had, a Western name. Gaurav became George. Mithun became Matt. Should Nishant become Sean?

I never did, although I’ve thought about the name change quite a bit. My name is the one piece of me that still belongs to my heritage and to my family. Few things still fit in that category now. I’m an American citizen now and I’ve renounced Indian citizenship. We didn’t really have much of a choice since India doesn’t allow dual citizenship. I could be Indian or American, not Indian American. I didn’t think much of renouncing the citizenship, but I don’t think I can renounce my name. I won’t be Nishant and Sean. Nishant has a meaning, it has a story that connects to my immigrant roots. Sean has no story. Sean is convenient, Sean is not connected to anyone but a barista at a Starbucks. So I reject the change each time.

Recently, I’ve stopped giving Sean to the barista. I still do it but not as frequently anymore. I will give my real name and spell it out. I‘m tired of giving up my power and my identity for the sake of convenience. I can’t preach about belonging if I can’t accept who I am in front of everyone, even strangers. Those few seconds when I place the order tell others who I am. They won’t know the story behind my name, they won’t know the meaning of it, but when they call out “Sean,” I just know that it’s not me.

Four years ago, in February 2016, I interviewed someone for the Controller position in our business office. Sitting across from me on the couch in my office, I asked him my first question, “Willie, actually, is that what you prefer to be called?” He hesitated for a moment and then shared he prefers to be called Tim. Willie’s his first name and Timothy his middle, and while at work for the past 28 years he had been Willie, at home and with family and close friends, he’s known as Tim. I asked him what he’d prefer if he came to TCS. He said, “Tim.” I wondered at the time what it’d mean for someone, for so long, to go by a name other than how they identify. How did Tim feel when his work friends and colleagues called him Willie? At least Tim and Willie are names he was given at birth.

All this time, my reasons for using Sean have blamed others. It’s convenient. I’m making it easy. I won’t have to hear them butcher it, and they won’t feel embarrassed for getting it wrong. Wrong. I’m butchering my own name, before anyone else can, by giving it a Western equivalent. There is no equivalent; Nishant and Sean are not the same, the latter is pretending to be someone he’s not. It’s taken me a while to accept, even just realize, that those little compromises at Starbucks are acts of denial on my part. But I’m doing more than just compromising or engaging in denial; I’m sacrificing the generational stories and people that connect to me. In one small act every time, I deny and sacrifice not just myself but everyone who made me. Lots of bad things have been done, or justified, in history books everywhere for the sake of political expedience; our individual histories are no different when we choose ease and comfort over authenticity and commitment.

So I own my name even if it’s difficult for others to spell or pronounce it. I learn their names the first time; and I’ve learned two kinds of English, British and American. So why can’t I ask of them what is also asked of me? My name has value; it has meaning and a nice story that connects to who I am and where I come from, but no one will know it, or respect me or my name, if I don’t do it myself, even at Starbucks. If I say Sean, then Sean I will be, and become, to others. But I’m not and never have been. I’m Nishant. N-I-S-H-A-N-T. Stress on the second syllable, soft “h” sound after the “t.” It means end of night, or dawn. The combination of Nitin and Harsha and the last of their two sons. I was born to them in India and I’m a citizen of the United States. I’ve renounced my Indian citizenship but I don’t renounce my name.