A very moving example of spontaneous community support for someone taking a risk occurred at our recent Faculty Talent Show. A teacher walked onstage with her saxophone, and began to play a tune she hadn’t practiced in quite a while. Although she was rusty, she was modeling precisely the sort of risk-taking we want our students to emulate.
The first few notes were shaky, and the squeaks and honks echoed across a very quiet theater. But then something amazing happened. The tune was the well known Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “My Favorite Things,” and someone in the audience started humming along with the saxophone. Someone else joined in and then more. Within a few bars, the hums broke into lyrics, and joined with the saxophone to create an uplifting and enthusiastic chorus that was clearly boosting the teacher’s confidence. By the end of the song most of the audience was singing along.
This kind of spontaneous, unexpected gesture in support of a community member who was taking a public risk is the hallmark of a healthy school. The feeling of being a part of it was incomparable.
There are at least a dozen reasons why I’m no Abe Lincoln. I do feel one similarity to Abe from time to time, though; one particular way in which I’m as fortunate as he was in decision-making quality. The last time I felt this similarity was over the weekend as I sat in meetings with the Board of Trustees. It all came down to how to foster and manage disagreement. Lincoln’s cabinet was famous for its fractiousness; a feature of Lincoln’s own design. He wanted a group that injected a range of perspectives to their deliberations.* Although I can take no credit for our Board’s composition, those who can have designed a group that is highly proficient at productive disagreement.
As we sat grappling with a particularly knotty question, with ramifications that will affect a generation of Darrow’s future students and faculty, I realized that the way in which we worked through our disagreements was going to lead to the best outcome possible for the School. So, what were the particulars that made the process work? First, the atmosphere was one in which people felt safe contributing their thoughts. Second, no one took themselves too seriously, and certainly didn’t take disagreement as a personal matter. Third, people self-monitored interruptions well and invited others into the conversation. Finally, everyone present understood who they were deciding for: our School’s future students, faculty, and administration.
After an hour of hammering, the question on the table remained undecided, but the process for achieving a final decision was well laid out. I was proud to have had a front row seat. Lincoln would have smiled, too, if he could have been a fly on the wall.
* Kearns Goodwin, Doris, A Team of Rivals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.