August 15, 2017(Presentation to Faculty and Staff at All School Meeting)
I’m delighted to have the honor of addressing you at the opening of Teachers’ Week. It’s exciting for me to see you here, about to begin the adventure of a new school year. It will be an adventure: every school year is. There will be some moments of joy and exaltation, many hours of hard work, lonely times alone with your particular tasks, and possibly some times of despair, even tragedy. It will be an adventure.
I was impressed and a little intimidated when I saw your picture on the cover of the summertime Knights’ Notes. I could see energy, competence, and happiness in the photo. I counted how many faces appeared, and it was well over the number of students we had in the Upper School in my years from 1978 to 1992. The Upper School never exceeded ninety-five students in those years, and we kept saying “Next year one hundred; next year in Jerusalem!”
And now the Upper School has over three hundred students, and the Academy as a whole is flirting with one thousand. Coming back here now reminds me of the lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding.” I know about the lines only because Stephen Covey quoted them near the opening of his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. T.S. Eliot’s poem says,
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
G.K. Chesterton expressed the same idea when he wrote, in The Everlasting Man: “There are two ways to reach home. The first is to stay there. The second is to travel all around the world until you come back home.”
I guess I have come back home, having traveled around the world. I delight in what I see here today, and in what I anticipate for you in the coming school year.
It was 40 years ago, at about this time in the summer of 1977, that I first heard of Brookfield Academy. Bill Law, the Board President, called and asked if I had ever thought of running a private school. At the time, I was an assistant professor of economics at Marquette University and I was on the brink of filing the final draft of my dissertation about gasoline price wars. I told Bill, “No, Bill, I have never thought of running a school.” But one thing led to another, and coming here was one of the most climactic decisions of my life. It was the right thing for me, and I would like to think I was the right person for the school when I became Head of School in 1978. I had found my calling entirely unexpectedly at the age of thirty-eight.
As I have looked at the photo of all of you who were in the school last spring, I have realized that this moment catches each of you at different points in your careers. Some of you have been here nearly as long as I have known of Brookfield Academy. Sharon Koenings came to the school in 1978, the same year I became Head of School. Some of you were here when I left in 1992. Bob Solsrud came in 1970 and retired in 2015 after holding many teaching, coaching, and administrative roles. He was head of school for 23 years, longer than anyone else in the school’s history. He was here at Brookfield Academy for 45 years, longer than Moses led the Children of Israel through the wilderness.
Longevity has characterized the school in its founding Board and its faculty. Few of you are likely to be here forty-five years or even thirty years, but I hope some of you will have long careers here. For some, this will be a short excursion that will affect your future years in teaching or in other careers that may arise from this one.
I hope your experiences here lead you to find your calling. A calling is different from a job or a career. You have some control over the jobs you seek and the career you design for yourself, but your calling is determined somewhere outside yourself or somewhere beyond your control. For those with religious commitments, a calling often is seen as determined by God, a pattern that God put in place for your fullest service to him and for your own fullest well-being. From a secular viewpoint, a calling might be called serendipity, a happiest concurrence of events that puts you on the right path in life. Some might see it as a long-lasting coincidence. Personally, my opportunity at Brookfield Academy seemed like the purpose for of all the things I had done previously. After I made the decision to come here, I realized that all the major episodes in life had been pointing here, not to an economics career at Marquette University. I hadn’t seen those things leading me here, but I took this as God’s direction for my life.
When I began to think of speaking here to kick off the new school year, I thought of Alexis de Tocqueville’s discovery of institutions like this when he visited the young United States in the 1830s. Tocqueville marveled at the variety of civic and educational institutions that were cropping up everywhere in what was still a mostly primitive country. In a tone of amazement, he said, “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.” [I wish he hadn’t ended that sentence by linking schools with prisons.]
Had Tocqueville been able to visit BA periodically since 1962, I think we would have nodded affirmatively at what he saw: a distinctive private school, erupting from the primordial soup of society, the brainchild of a determined group of civic leaders who wanted to create a place where schooling was done right, even if for only a handful of children and young adults. No monarchical authority commanded the school into existence – it sprang up by mutual agreement among a group of private individuals. To some degree, they staked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on the upstart little school they had created. They even committed their own children to the cause, paying good money for the privilege.
Tocqueville would have marveled at the social philosophy behind a school that, though not a religious institution, clearly embraces the spiritual heritage that inspired American political institutions. Tocqueville would have appreciated the principled devotion to learning that inspired the school’s founders and its faculty ever since.
Now Brookfield Academy has grown far beyond its pioneer beginnings. No longer do Board members sweep out the halls during the opening day assemblies. No longer do parents swoop in to paint classrooms, trim hedges, and throw out trash. There is polish and sophistication here that wasn’t envisioned back in the earliest years. Many early teachers and parents didn’t even want this kind of professionalism, but here it is, and I’m thankful and impressed. Your campus is beautiful and enrollment is strong. You are well-trained and experienced. Even the larger Milwaukee community recognizes the Academy as an asset and a point of pride.
I think a sense of ownership is at least partly responsible for the pervasive creativity that Tocqueville saw in America. Ownership implies responsibility. It implies purpose and the opportunity to create. The same desire for responsibility and creativity that brought the school into existence is still present among you. You are re-creating and perfecting your portions of the school, but you are starting at a higher, more professional level than the school had in 1962 or 1992, or even a year ago in 2016.
Jim Fay, a consultant we hired at Wichita Collegiate School told a little story that says a lot about ownership inside a school. A second-grade kid came to Jim Fay when he was a Head of School somewhere. The kid said, “Mr. Fay, Mrs. Johnson in second grade won’t let us kids use pens in our exercise books. She makes us use pencils. You run the school. Please make Mrs. Johnson let us use pens in class.”
Jim Fay replied, “You’re right, Tommy. I do run the school. But Mrs. Johnson runs second grade. I can’t tell her whether to let her class use pens instead of pencils.” Jim Fay meant that Mrs. Johnson “owned” second grade in a very special way.
In about 1995, a young student at Sycamore School in Indianapolis, perceiving my exalted role as Head of School, once asked me, “Dr. K, do you own the school?” I denied owning the school, but the student’s question made me think, and it led me to write an essay with that title: “Who Owns the School?” The gist of the essay was that no one owns the school in the usual sense of ownership. No one can pocket the money if the school turns a profit, and no one can abscond with the cash if the school closes and is sold.
No individual could sell the school as you might sell your car or your house, and no one has a personal right to alter it according to their own desires. Major changes in the physical plant are proposed by members of the staff or by Board committees, and these are approved or denied by the Board as a whole, acting as the "owner" of the school. Changes in curriculum or operating policies are made only after thorough discussion within the faculty and administration, giving careful attention to the school’s mission, existing school practices, and the rightful expectations of everyone who will be affected by the change. No one may simply change the curriculum or the operating policies of the school the way one of us might change our plans for the afternoon or alter our children’s dinner menu.
But surely a major institution like Brookfield Academy somehow has an owner. Who owns the school? The best answer, I think, is that the school is "owned" by its mission. The mission is a concept or a set of traditions, rendered into a few words that we call the Mission Statement. The mission is not a sentient being, so it cannot think and speak for itself, yet it is the mission that provides coherence for the school and the means for evaluating actions proposed on its behalf. Since the mission can’t speak and choose for itself, others act on its behalf.
Those acting on behalf of the school are exerting a kind of "ownership", and this is why they often seem to own the school in some measure. But the ownership they are exerting is not really their own. If they are acting properly, all those people are acting on behalf of the school’s real owner, its mission.
People who pour time, money, and ingenuity into the school can feel a special joy in "owning," to some degree, a great institution. They know they can’t physically take back out of the school what they have contributed, but they know that they have invested their time and treasure in something very worthwhile. They know that some of their aims in life are better served through this school and its mission than through any other means. These "owners" will have their reward, their "return on investment," as long as the mission is safeguarded, judiciously extended, and implemented wisely on behalf of the young people it was designed to serve.
And here you are: you do “own” your part of the school, just like Mrs. Johnson in Jim Fay’s school. You own your part of the school within the constitutional boundaries laid down by laws of Wisconsin, the Academy’s curriculum, and the Mission. You are investing your life in the lives of young people. Sooner than you think, some of them will come back and let you know the difference you have made in their lives. That will be the true return on your investment in them.
But even before that eventual harvest of satisfaction, I believe you can have an exciting, gratifying, and joyful year that will have its own immediate rewards. I wish you a year in which you create anew your portion of the school. I wish you a year where you sense that something or someone greater than yourself is calling you forward and magnifying your best efforts. Call this “something” serendipity; call it inspiration; or call it the Hand of God. I hope that you each will sense this year that you are fulfilling your calling and being fulfilled through it. God bless you, everyone.
PDF of Speech.