November 30, 2016

Dear Flint Hill School Families,

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I know that for many people, Thanksgiving is one of their favorite holidays. It is not only the combination of the “traditional” food and the proverbial start of the holiday season, but it is a time when so many of us get together with family and friends. Whether we host the event or travel long distances to be with others, the experience of Thanksgiving takes precedence over everything else we have been doing.

This is also a time when many of us sit around the dinner table, after the meal is completed, to reflect on the year; catch up with friends and family; share our thoughts, hopes, and dreams; and ultimately, learn more about each other. Things we hear may be surprising and others may just be the retelling of family stories or memories that always seem to bubble up at this time of the year, making us smile or laugh.

Before the break, our faculty and staff participated in a full-day workshop on diversity and inclusion last Monday. Led by Dr. Gene Batiste, the main focus of that workshop was empathy. As part of the program, faculty and staff were broken into discussion groups in which they had the opportunity to speculate about the challenges and opportunities that come with the roles of their colleagues. Administrators, teaching and support staff alike had a chance to try to walk in the shoes of the co-workers they pass in the halls and sit alongside in the faculty lounge every day. Let me tell you, this activity might have been an interesting exercise to do around the Thanksgiving table with our own families! After robust group discussions, we all came back to our responsibility to live our four core values and to make certain that we really get to know and appreciate each other, our students, and our families. It reminded me a bit of the safety talk they give us whenever we fly, “Put the oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else.” Increased awareness makes us better equipped to help others in all of the efforts here at school.

On a related note, I was also concerned about the energy level that I saw throughout the school as Thanksgiving Break approached. I talked to students and faculty about how everyone seemed worn out and emotionally drained. From the fast pace of the school year so far and national and world events to the recent election, there were reasons for the fatigue we were all feeling. However, I feel strongly that if we, as a nation and as a school, focus our attention more on empathy, we would be far more prepared for life and the ongoing stressors we all experience. How should we go about it? How are we going about it here at school? Please know it is a priority of ours to teach, model and support “empathy.” We have our four core values of honesty, respect, responsibility and compassion, but empathy is the area where all of those truly come together.

American Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of the Hierarchy of Needs that all of us experience. In diagrams, it is shaped like a pyramid. It starts with a solid base of your basic physiological needs, followed by the need for safety, the need for love/belongingness, the need for esteem, and concluding with the pyramid at the top of his hierarchy with the concept of self-actualization. This is the ability to listen to other people and not judge. To recognize that while other people may have a distinctly different view on different things isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just different. We learn by listening to different perspectives. The fact that people can develop different perspectives from a shared set of facts is complex, but these differences of opinion and ideology allow for the fertile ground of thought, reasoning and reflection to take place. Self-actualization is a goal for all of us, but it is often difficult to achieve.

So how can we go about making empathy an area of focus in life? As Dr. Batiste noted, empathy allows us to “see their world, appreciate them as people, understand their feelings, and finally communicate our understanding.” Here are several things to keep in mind:

  1. Engage. What is it like to be on the other side of the fence politically from where we are? What is it like to come from another state or country? What is someone else’s life like and how has that informed his or her experiences? We need to understand other people and our differences, and it is important to make this engagement with respect. We need to ask questions and need to be willing to communicate openly and honestly. In our community, this type of engagement is another opportunity for our four core values to come into play in a calm, deliberate, and intentional way.
  2. Listen. We need to listen to our children, to each other, and to people in general. True listening is hard. Sometimes you may catch yourself thinking about what you want to add to a conversation as someone else is telling a story. Instead of really listening, you are simply waiting for the opportunity to offer your perspective. Years ago, I was given a poem about listening. In fact, my wife Emily used to have it on our refrigerator door, because she said I listen to everybody else far better than I did to the people I loved in my own house. We need to listen so we can really hear what others have to say.
  3. Build Trust. Building trust is not an easy task. Real trust comes with time and openness. It comes from being assured that it’s safe to talk and to share your true self. Trust is earned. It is the outcome of positive actions, far more than words. In fact, building trust is an ongoing challenge for us as parents, as a school and as a nation.

We need to understand and value one another’s experiences if we are going to truly value the differences that we all bring into each interaction. Let’s commit to working together as a school family to build that sense of empathy and to help teach it to our children. Just as our vision says, we need to take that meaningful risk to demonstrate empathy. Let’s “be ourselves” by valuing what our feelings and beliefs reveal to us and others. And let’s continue to move forward together to make a difference in the lives of our students and for the betterment of our community. Collectively, we will have the greatest impact.

Best wishes to you as we approach this very exciting holiday season!

Sincerely,

John M. Thomas
Headmaster