By Dr. John Stegeman, Head of Upper School
Back in New York, a lush and full Japanese maple tree filled a large corner of our front garden. Japanese maples are ubiquitous in the temperate climate of Western Washington, but in Upstate New York, this tree was special. One spring a late frost came just as the delicate purple leaves began to spread. After the frost, the leaves withered and the tree appeared dead. I was sad to see it go, but decided to leave it for the season as the twisted trunk and branches, with their forlorn but solemn presence, stood like a statue in the garden—a reminder of the thing that once lived there.
The following spring, when the icicles had dripped themselves from the eaves above, and the lilies, crocuses, and daffodils poked through the blanket of snow beneath, the statue began to stir. At first, only a few oddly positioned branches regenerated leaves, but then a few more sprouted a patchy, partial kind of cover. Toward the end of the second season, I convinced my wife (our family’s only real gardener) to let me have a go at it with the loppers. I must confess that as an amateur working on an ugly tree, my pruning was somewhat capricious and not very scientific. I took out some fully-leafed branches to rebuild proportion, and left other empty ones because I liked their shape.
Not all the remaining branches survived, but after a couple more seasons the tree had bounced back. This near-death experience revealed more of the tree’s twisty trunk and rugged architecture: its core and essence, one might say. It was the same tree…only different…and better.
AS EFFECTIVE AS THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM AND DIGITAL COMMUNICATION TOOLS PROVED TO BE, THOSE MEDIUMS SHAPED THE DISCOURSE THEY CARRIED. THROUGHOUT THE PANDEMIC, MUCH OF OUR CONVERSATION CENTERED AROUND COMMUNITY AND TOGETHERNESS.
COVID-19 was not a frost, and Eastside Prep is not a tree, but the transition to EPSRemote and other pandemic effects did freeze some of our functions. The renewal now underway in 2021 includes a process not unlike the pruning, shaping, and rejuvenation of that maple. What will this reveal about our essence and character as a school, about our values, and about the programmatic evolution that flows from those traits? Undoubtedly, a full picture will not come into view for many years. But already we can see shapes emerging.
Eastside Prep’s transition to EPSRemote and the evolution of instructional practices that teachers employed there have shown that critical thinking transcends the medium used to express and generate ideas. Much has already been written about how Microsoft Teams enabled us to conduct synchronous online classes that kept teachers teaching and students learning amid the abrupt challenges posed by the quarantine. The lesson here is not in the abundant examples of students thinking critically about race and social justice, about technology and innovation, about student well-being, about science/mathematics/history/literature/the arts, not even about how we could and should do school better or differently. The school’s trunk is formed of critical thought, and it is stout and strong.
As effective as the virtual classroom and digital communication tools proved to be, those mediums shaped the discourse they carried. Throughout the pandemic, much of our conversation centered around community and togetherness. Teachers expressed concern about their connections to students and about students’ connections to one another. Parents expressed (and understood) concerns about student and teacher well-being. And students? The overwhelming majority of student initiatives during the quarantine related to coming together, even if only for a moment as a classmate drove through the Sport Court to pick up a Halloween goody bag. Students used their critical-thinking skills to find ways to identify and strengthen the ties that bind them to the school and to one another in community. This experience taught us, or rather crystallized, something we already knew. The strength of any school is found in the people, and the strength of the people depends on the relationships that tie them together.
COLLABORATION, CONNECTION, AND COMMUNITY
“Togetherness: a state of being close to another person or people.” While operating remotely, we used technological tools to maintain interactivity and remain as close to one another as we could. While those tools served their function, they were substitutes. The “separateness” inherent to quarantine taught us that substantive and meaningful togetherness requires people sharing time and place. Collaboration is possible in the virtual classroom, but it is not the same. One can connect with a teacher or classmate on Teams, but the connection is shallower, less meaningful, less true. A community is made stronger by the experiences its members share, and sharing in person is more complete.
These insights helped us realize how highly personal and personalized we are as a school. In order to rededicate ourselves to those qualities, we had to operate in person. Hybrid classes, with some students or teachers in the room and others beaming in remotely, only enabled people to share part of their experience. The range and scope of learning activities that can effectively include participants in multiple locations is much smaller than what is possible even if all participants are remote. While we have not given up on the idea that remote school is an effective tool that we may need to utilize when necessary—should widespread illness return, in the event of a prolonged weather event, etc.—the future of EPS is in person, on campus, together, sharing time, space, and experience.
LEADERSHIP AND INNOVATION
Leadership and innovation are essential aspects of EPS, and so they are encoded in our mission statement as distinct points. A full exploration of each would require much more time and space than this essay affords. I include them here together not for what they mean as stand-alone concepts, but for what the pandemic taught (or again, reminded) us about how EPS leads and innovates.
Eastside Prep leads with compassion. Understanding what others are thinking and how they are feeling requires asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and responding as much as possible. Leading in a crisis often requires timely decisions and swift action. Those two needs are competing goods that hold one another in tension. We committed ourselves to gathering as much feedback as possible throughout the pandemic, but there were also times when survey fatigue set in, when conversation had to cease and action was necessary, and we were not able to address every disparate need within the community. But leadership by listening remains a core tenet of EPS, and our empathy and compassion were strengthened by this experience and continue to guide each of us in our roles as leaders and followers within the community.
COVID-19 prompted an unprecedented amount of innovation at the school. Like the limbs of a tree recovering from a hard frost, new initiatives spread out to capitalize on new opportunities. But not all of the things that are possible in the post-COVID-19 world are good ideas, and not all of them are right for a school like EPS. The reflective process of renewal, like the decisions that go into selectively pruning a tree, involve a critical examination of new possibilities. As we continue this process into 2022 and beyond, we will not only be asking ourselves, “What can we do?” but also “What should we do?”