Building a Culture of Collaboration

The following is a typical example of a road trip scenario from the 1990s:

Driver:  “I know the way to our destination.”

Passenger: “Are you sure?”

After more time elapses and there is a feeling that the car is going in circles,

Passenger:  “Why don’t we stop here and ask for directions?  He/She looks like a helpful person.”

Driver:  “No, I am sure I have it now. I know how to get there.”

Repeat the last few lines several times over the course of the next half-hour, ending the scenario in frustration and despair.


Although any number of apps rescue all of us from this type of archaic pathfinding, it remains the perfect illustration of our proclivity to do things on our own and without help.  Why are we so resistant to asking for help?  In educational terms, why are we so resistant to working together for a solution?

I think if we inserted two Harpeth Hall students into the above scenario without the modern convenience of a smartphone, they would come to a solution more happily and quickly than the driver and passenger described above. Our girls are accustomed to working together both in and out of the classroom. How do we solve this problem? Plan this project? Clean up this mess? The answer always points to collaboration.

Research touted by the National Coalition of Girls Schools indicates that girls prefer an atmosphere of teamwork and find it most beneficial in math and science. “According to the Center for Research on Girls, studies have identified several benefits of collaboration for women in STEM.” One that resonates with our students and teachers is the fact that collaboration leads to “higher quality work produced in less time than when working alone, improved understanding of course material, improved performance on exams, and increased enjoyment of activities.”

I know what you are thinking. You are remembering several dinner table conversations, which revolved around complaints that Suzy, your daughter’s classmate, was not holding up her end of the bargain on the most recent social studies project. Your daughter ends up doing all of the work. You also know that our girls are so over scheduled; it would be so much easier if they could just do their work by themselves without having to work with classmates who have their own schedule challenges.

It can be a slow process to learn how to collaborate successfully. We must keep in mind our goal of teaching our girls to think critically in the 21st century. When we turned the corner on this millennium and century 16 years ago, collaboration was exalted as one of the essential skills for success in our daughters’ lifetimes. Yes, it is seemingly a lot of trouble, especially for our younger students, but in the long run, collaboration cultivates a diversity of opinion which is how we make the best decisions as leaders and how we engage the most people in the learning and decision making process. It takes work to develop a culture of collaboration, and we are pushing it in age appropriate ways in each grade, fifth through twelfth.

Adam Grant writes in a recent New York Times article about why grading on the curve, can create a “toxic” environment. He describes an atmosphere that is “pitting students against one another. At best it creates a hyper competitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.” At Harpeth Hall we work to cultivate the opposite of that culture. When the tide of learning and understanding rises, all boats rise.

Our older students know that the best way to gain a fuller understanding of a concept is to teach it to a friend. Increasing feelings of belonging, social connection, and a team spirit is what blossoms so beautifully by the senior year. The notorious cut-throat atmosphere of law schools or even under graduate pre-professional programs are brought up short with the power of collaboration.

In our jobs and careers, we seldom work in silos. If you are part of a team of people who bring different opinions and skills to the table, the end product is always superior.  Furthermore, modern day evaluations assess the ability of the employee to work on a team and communicate effectively with colleagues.

Mr. Grant writes that he “spent a decade studying the careers of ‘takers,’ who aim to come out ahead, and ‘givers,’ who enjoy helping others.” While short term results put the takers in first place, “as the months turn into years, the givers consistently achieved better results.” Everyone wants to be on a team or work on a group project with a giver.  “Takers believe in a zero-sum world, and they end up creating one where bosses, colleagues and clients don’t trust them. Givers build deeper and broader relationships – people are rooting for them instead of gunning for them.”

By the time a girl makes her way through the upper school, I hope she will learn to ask a teacher or a friend for help whenever she needs it. I hope she will learn to work effectively on a team with both strong and quieter personalities and see the value that each brings to the process. And finally, by all means, I hope she will seek help with directions to her destination.





Seeing and Hearing

The school year is still fresh and new, and yet I marvel at how quickly we fall right back into familiar grooves and rhythms. Let’s go swiftly back one more time to that aura and excitement of convocation morning. Student leaders, administrators, and teachers imparted many words of wisdom on that first day of school, and one message seemed particularly timely and important. We urged our students and teachers to take the time to really see and hear each other every day and in every interaction. We need to learn to hear different points of view and to practice respectful discourse when we disagree. In fact, we want everyone to feel safe enough to strongly disagree with each other and still remain in community with one another. All voices and opinions should be heard with none silenced, furthering a deep and meaningful connection among our students. We are asking the members of our school community to be counter cultural in this school year.

Making this plea is the easy part, but executing an action plan takes more effort. The first step may be removing the ear plugs from our ears while sitting in the lobby and putting away our cell phones from 8:00 until 3:10 every day. Yes, that means that parents may not have easy and direct access to their daughters throughout the day. The up side is that our students will be able to live and breathe in the moment. They can resist the 9th social media check of the morning, a download on Netflix, or a viral YouTube video, and can talk to a classmate about how hard the chemistry lab is. They can learn about another culture and its music and art in Spanish class instead of isolating and listening to only what they prefer throughout the day. Finally, they can find their own voices and make mistakes within the privacy of a small class and the protection of bonds formed after seeing and hearing each other. There are no strangers in this scenario

A Washington Post article, called “13, Right Now,” by Jessica Contrara, tells us why it is important to swim against the social media tide to gain human connection whenever we can. The author describes the life of a typical 13 year-old, named Katherine. After sliding into the seat of the car and being asked how her day was at school, Katherine doesn’t respond. The following is a list of what ensues.


“…her thumb is on Instagram. A Barbara Walters meme is on the screen. She scrolls, and another meme appears. Then another meme, and she closes the app. She opens BuzzFeed. There’s a story about Florida Gov. Rick Scott, which she scrolls past to get to a story about Janet Jackson, then “28 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Both British and American.” She closes it. She opens Instagram. She opens the NBA app. She shuts the screen off. She turns it back on. She opens Spotify. Opens Fitbit. She has 7,427 steps. Opens Instagram again. Opens Snapchat. She watches a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth. She watches a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. She watches a tutorial on nail art. She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up. They’re home. Twelve minutes have passed.

Ms. Contrara reminds us that “Somewhere, maybe at this very moment, neurologists are trying to figure out what all this screen time is doing to the still-forming brains of people Katherine’s age…—everyone wants to know what happens when the generation born glued to screens has to look up and interact with the world.”hands on smartphone and laptop close up

We know what happens when our students look up and interact with the world.  The world is a better place.  Our students put their minds to solving real world problems, perhaps reducing the carbon footprint of our school and our homes or maybe our country. They learn to be leaders by listening to and working with their classmates and friends with different points of view and different priorities. They may take a little longer to implement a plan, and they may need to form a new plan after listening and hearing a unique point of view. They are leaders who will learn to work with personalities at many different places on the political spectrum, and they will be stronger and more confident because of it.

Ten years ago, Harpeth Hall’s “no cell phone rule” was to keep our students focused on their classes and school work. We wanted to make sure they did not have yet another distraction during the school day. All of that is still important and necessary, but not enough of a reason. The urgency in reaffirming this policy in 2016, in the midst of other schools moving in a different direction, is due to a clarion call for our students to “look up and interact with the world.” Learning to lead ourselves and others requires that each of us sees and hears each other every day.

If you need to text your daughter during the school day, think again. It may not be worth interrupting a great mind at work. She has problems to solve, opinions to support, and a world to make better, and we are all counting on that happening sooner rather than later.


Telling Stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, speaks eloquently in a TED Talk about the dangers of the “single story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By single story, she means reducing a person or a group of people to a one dimensional description or assumption, which we in turn carry with us for years. We cling to these insufficient bios of each other for many reasons – often it goes back to our own experiences and stories. The danger of the single story is that it produces an incomplete picture of those around us.

During the course of a school year, many of us find ourselves carrying a single story about someone. Our students may have a single story about a few of their teachers. We may hear them say, “This teacher is fun and approachable.” “That teacher is hard and does not seem to care about my success.” “She is old.” Adults can carry single stories with them too. “She is so smart, she can do anything.” “She is always late to everything.” “That student is never engaged in my class.”

When reducing others to a single story, we miss all of the rich details and experiences that comprise a person’s full character. The narratives of our lives are more complex than a sentence or two based on someone else’s assumptions about us. Let’s admit, however, that it is human nature to infer, assume, and condense a person’s story into something pocket-sized. We need these stories to be flat, small and portable because we need to make room in our minds for everything else.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes Peter Senge’s theory of a “ladder of inference”.  “The first five rungs of the ladder are: 1) observing a person’s behavior; 2) selecting data from what we observe;  3) interpreting that data through the lens of previous experience;  4) making assumptions; and 5) drawing conclusions about that person.” Our problem when operating within the context of our busy lives is that we climb that ladder far too quickly. We draw conclusions based on insufficient data. Taking the necessary time to talk to each other is the magic that builds our narrative and gives us the scaffolding to understand the complexities of each other’s worlds. Listening to each other’s fuller stories is probably the most important way we spend time in our community.

Every adult on our campus knows that our students need to be heard and understood. We also know that students “do not care what we know until they know that we care.” We have to build authentic relationships with our students before they want to learn about chemistry or British lit. Out of these relationships, a simple label given to another person is now a paragraph of description. From a single story grows a data center of connections and inferences.

Thankfully we are part of a small school and small community, which allows us to form meaningful narratives about each other. Most of our students and teachers have been together for years now and have had time to form intricate and complex stories of each other. We carry volumes of stories about the members of our community and are always called to create more stories in each class in each new school year.

Zooming Out


When my husband and I were expecting our first child, he used to joke with friends by saying that we wanted to have grandchildren, but we soon realized we couldn’t do that without having children first. The line always got a laugh or two, but there is something about that idea that still strikes me. If we could have younger children now, we would have such a great perspective on what is important and what doesn’t matter at all. We would not worry as much about the bedtime or the pacifier, but might linger a little longer with the stories and the first words. Grandparents always seem to have the ability to sit back and focus on the important things, while parents are still worrying about daily schedules and play dates and shoe sizes or any other quantifiable measure of comparison.

gravitational-waves-simulation It is easier to bring the larger truths of parenting into focus now that those early years are in the distance. What will we say in ten more years about parenting our children through the teenage years? Will we wish we had talked to our daughter more about her tests, grades, and GPA, or more about her thoughts and feelings? Will we wish we had kept up more with how other parents were parenting or will we wish we had the courage to do it the way we thought best? Will we still think about a college acceptance, deferral, or denial, or will we think of the way our daughter now approaches the inevitable highs and lows of adult life?

Almost two weeks ago, physicists detected the ripples of gravitational waves across the universe. It was a huge discovery in the field of physics, as it was seen as confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity made 100 years prior. Turns out Einstein was on to something with his work proposing the “warping” of space and time. Scientists detected these waves after the collision of two black holes an estimated 1.3 billion light years from earth.

This scientific discovery of gravitational waves is so large and at the same time so far away, that it is difficult for us to comprehend what it means for our individual world, our zip code, or our small life. It is at once, hugely momentous in the world of science and seemingly insignificant to our particular day to day existence. But as we are brushing it off and moving on, should we worry that we are moving back too swiftly to the mundane? Are we zooming in too closely? Even focusing on the wrong thing altogether? No one can argue that the average person cannot fathom the significance of something that occurred over a billion light years away. Perhaps the only meaningful residue in our lives is that it should serve as a great reminder of the need for a “zoom out” feature. We have zoomed in so closely to the minutia of our lives and the lives of our children and students that it is sometimes hard to consider the other side of town, much less the other end of the universe.

I would love to have that wonderful zoom in and zoom out capability. With it, we could see the significance or insignificance of the objects of our attention. Our girls and young women need us to be the ones with the perspective and the long view. In many cases, they have zoomed in too much on themselves, which creates an inflated view of the consequences of each mistake made. We are called to see the bigger picture and bring it into focus for them. It is impossible for us to have the perspective of a grandparent when we are doing this parenting thing for the first time, but it is not impossible to zoom out at least a little bit. Remember to ask yourself if you are focusing on the right thing. Ten or twenty years from now, what will we wish we had tended to instead of these things that consume our thoughts today?


Miss Popularity


One of the many things I cherish about being an adult is the realization that the adjective “popular” is rarely used in social settings anymore. I still remember, however, the first time I heard my 4th grade daughter use the word. I was astounded that she already measured other girls and boys by the social currency of popularity. How was it that she already knew that word as a 9-year old? I suddenly wanted to unload all of my experience with the popular set on her. Tempted to rise up and pontificate, I wanted to tell her to stay true to herself and not to do things in order to be popular or worse, to be considered acceptable by the popular group. I wanted to protect her from thinking that was the ultimate goal in life. In that instant though, even I could see that saying anything about those popular girls or boys would be equivalent to telling a young child the truth about Santa.

5th grade

Unfortunately, there are some things that our daughters have to learn for themselves. It is learned through simple social maturity in most cases, but sometimes it is learned the hard way through emotional hurt that helps guide us to our true friends. Being a popular person is not in and of itself a bad thing. Popularity can be used for good or not so good, and it is interesting to take a look at how psychologists have studied the concept among adolescents.

In one of the chapters of Dr. Lisa Damour’s new book, Untangled, she takes the mystique out of a teen’s journey through, around, and finally on the other side of popularity. She begins to dissect the concept by pointing out that psychologists have divided peer popularity into two categories, “socio-metric popularity” and “perceived popularity.” Socio-metric describes “well-liked teens with reputations for being kind and fun.” Perceived popularity “describes teens who hold a lot of social power but are disliked by many classmates.” Think back to your middle and high school years—you know the ones to whom we are referring.

When girls (or boys) are asked to name the popular girls or boys in their class, we discover that being popular does not always imply being well-liked. In fact, many times they are referring to “perceived popularity,” which implies being powerful and domineering. Girls or boys who are friends with these classmates want to remain on their good sides and in some cases are fearful of social repercussions, if they fall from grace. This phenomenon seems to appear in full force around the seventhgrade, give or take a year. As parents, it is difficult to refrain from pointing out this behavior and micromanaging middle school friend groups, but we can begin to ask a few well-directed and well-timed questions. When you hear your daughter say that a girl is popular, Dr. Damour suggests that you should “deconstruct the term” by asking a question such as, “Is she popular or just powerful?” “Do girls like her or are they scared of her?”

The good news is that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the “popular” label, when you are securing it by acts of social aggression or domination. Thankfully, sometime around the 10th grade, most girls feel more comfortable with their true friends and begin to isolate the “mean girls.” Of course the other bit of good news is that the domineering or “perceived popular” girls grow up too. They realize it is best to be respected and not feared. At this point, the term “popular” may be applied to the girls in the class who are kind and at the same time are able to stand up to someone who DSC_0116is being unkind to them or to a classmate.

Personalities and social groups can be hard to navigate as adults, much less as a middle or upper school girl in the halls and lunchrooms of school. Dr. Damour points out that girls sometimes perceive the world as having either “Cinderellas,” who are the “doormats,” yet always kind, or the “step-sisters,” who are always cruel. We need to help our daughters know that “good girls” can also be assertive and stand up for what they know is right. Remaining respectful to others, while standing up to unkind behavior, is the social bullseye for our girls. We can all rest assured that one day, being popular will not have the cachet for our daughters that it once did. Having a few friends or even one quality friend who is supportive and loyal is what we all want in the long run.




Practice makes Progress, not Perfect

A few days ago, one of our teachers told me she was afraid we had an epidemic being spread throughout one of her classes. It was a different sort of epidemic – it was an epidemic of perfectionism. In an all-girls school, we are fortunate to have engaged and conscientious students. Not only do they care about their work, they care about how well it is done. Simply studying or doing one’s homework is not always enough. Our students want to do well, and we would not want it any other way, right?

As adults, we can spot a perfectionist in our midst pretty quickly. Perhaps we are one ourselves, or we live with one or work with one. That guy who is critical of everyone and everything around him because they did not meet his expectations, or the woman who is not very happy because she struggles to find the right career, or the colleague obsessing over a tiny detail — all of these examples could be closet perfectionists.  They are striving for the unattainable. Perfectionists cannot help but become frustrated as they grow older, especially if they have been crawling toward perfection since they were young.

In a teenage girl, perfectionism can still appear hopeful. These girls and young women have youth and energy, and let’s don’t forget they have internalized the constant background noise that hums, “you can be anything you want to be.” In the younger set, it is difficult to distinguish ambition and hard work from the unhealthy extension of high achievement, which would be perfectionism.

Perfectionism is not relegated to the halls and classrooms of Harpeth Hall. Furthermore, it is not just an independent school issue. After all, in the late 18th century Voltaire wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We have known for centuries that extremes are not in our best interest, and yet we sometimes have a hard time putting aside a paper or project when we just need a few more hours to perfect it, hours that might be better spent sleeping.  The artist who needs a little more time to perfect the painting is not to be admonished, but when that painting is past due and other work is piling up, a student needs to see that her painting is “good enough.”

Certainly, mediocrity is not what we are about at Harpeth Hall. We want movement and growth and yes, hard work and focus. We want students who strive for excellence and envision a time when they can master a difficult concept that is beyond them in the present. We want our girls to aspire to great things. All of these things I have listed are about a girl’s progress. We do not want them to fixate on some final outcome or goal of perfection.

When students refuse to accept anything short of perfection, they can become stagnant.  We want our students to keep the ball rolling and not give into the gravitational pull of what is perceived to be perfect. More often than not, that gravitational pull, for our students, begins with a need to be accepted and to earn approval even with their flaws and imperfections. The best way for our girls to begin to feel acceptable is for them to be less critical of themselves. They can be imperfect, and at the same time, worthy.



My sister-in-law has an incredible green thumb. If she has a flowering plant given to her in April, it is twice as large in September. Her summer impatiens and geraniums are spilling out of their pots beyond Labor Day, and her bountiful houseplants are beautiful with soft leaves in all shades of green. I have one ivy plant in my kitchen that is hanging on for dear life.

A few nights ago, she told me her secret. “Just add 20-20-20 or 10-10-10,” she said. I thought I had been given the Holy Grail of horticulture. “Say that again,” I stammered. She explained that if you add a fertilizer that has the same three numbers, plants will do what they are meant to do. If they are supposed to have luscious blossoms, they will produce lovely flowers. If they are meant to have nice foliage, they will produce ample green leaves with plenty of new growth.

If only it were that easy with our children. What if we could just add three identical numbers of fertilizer and they would grow into the beautiful, curious, and wonderful young women and adults they are meant to be. As educators, that concoction would come in handy as we are discerning when to push them and when we should ease up a bit. Has a student’s schedule stretched her enough? Is it too much? Are we supporting her enough while letting go at the same time?

The beginning of the new school year, gives us a reset button. What was too much last year, may be just right this year. At our Grade Level Parent Meetings during the opening of school, we discuss trying to find that sweet spot for a particular grade in the upper school. In the 9th grade year we talk about backing off a little as parents. Let her try something new and falter or fail. We have to remind ourselves that if we smooth the road for our children, we are actually crippling them in the long run and not helping them. We are signaling that we don’t truly believe in them or their abilities. With the parents of 10th grade students, we talk about making sure we don’t make excuses for our children. By sophomore year, they are in the middle of the teen years, and are going to push against expectations and rules. In turn, we want them to take responsibility for their actions. The list continues for each year and each meeting as we try to anticipate the sharp turns in the road ahead.

Earlier today, I was watching a documentary about some progressive teaching methods at a school in California, and one of the educators said that as teachers, and I would add parents, we should be more like gardeners. He said we should concentrate on providing the right environment for our students – making sure they are able to thrive and learn and grow in that environment. Our students need to be able to advocate for themselves, work collaboratively, and communicate clearly all the while. All students do that best when we are not over protecting or spoon feeding them. I have killed many a plant by over watering. We also need to make sure we are not producing delicate hothouse flowers, but rather strong and hardy plants. Here’s to a year with a nice 20-20-20 balance.