Salad Days

Stu Spivack via Creative Commons

As I sat down at the middle school lunch table last week, one of the boys plopped down next to me with this huge, absolutely wonderful looking salad — spinach, tomatoes, corn, sunflower seeds, all topped with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. He had a huge smile on his face.

Wow, I thought, things have come a long way since I was a kid!

He then slid the salad over to Daniel, the friend sitting next to him. Daniel pulled a face and held his nose as he took a big bite. As he shuddered, I asked his friend what was up.

“He lost a bet.”

Ahh. Some things about middle school haven’t changed after all.

Thoughts about growth
Thinking about these boys got me to remembering my own kids’ relationship with food, and in particular the growth spurts that my son went through during various stages of his life. You probably know those times, when the kid just eats everything. Everything. For weeks at a time, all you see is him stuffing food into his face, and you are left wondering what is going on, knowing that he is not exercising enough to burn all those calories. You start wondering what kind of parent would possibly condone this gluttony. Through the guilt, you begin to calculate the cost of his new wardrobe.

Then, BOOM! One day he wakes up a good three inches taller.

And just as quickly as it started, the appetite returns to some semblance of normal. For an adolescent boy, at least.

Once you see this happen a few times, it makes sense. You don’t know exactly when these growth spurts are going to happen, but you can spot the warning signs and breath a bit easier about the food bill.

One size fits all

Even when we understand that the physical growth of our kids can’t be put on a calendar, somehow, we still find ourselves fixed to the calendar for measuring their intellectual growth. Schools are obsessed with calendars and time. We measure it by lessons, units, semesters, and years. We test obsessively, with the underlying assumption that everybody should be at the same place at the same time in their learning. If you are not, you are labeled as behind. If you are a teacher in this type of system and your kids don’t learn at the expected rate, you are labeled as underperforming.

A business analogy

This past week, I ran across an interesting blurb in the Harvard Business Review called “The Case for Focusing on Growth, Not Profitability.” The pressure public companies feel to meet earnings targets can be enormous, so much so that most of us know that we can game the system to buy something at just the right time when sales staff will be eager to hit these arbitrary deadlines. This may or may not be good for the long-term health of the company, but the quarterly earnings season waits for nobody. Such systems can lead to some really bad decision making. Take the ongoing scandal at Wells Fargo, in which sales staff created 3.5 million fraudulent accounts for real customers in order to meet aggressive sales goals. Teachers and administrators in Atlanta fell pray to the same pressures when they altered student answers on high-stakes test scores in 2015.

The HBR authors made the case that focusing on growth over profit will actually create an increase in intrinsic equity, but that this change in focus will require a shift in mentality to achieve.

Tom Page via Creative Commons

No individual is average

Our obsession with measuring our kids against others literally starts when they are born. Mine was nine pounds. How big was yours? (It is noted that on the birth-weight scale, father’s comparisons and mother’s comparisons will likely take the conversations in very different directions.)

I’m a huge data fan, as anybody who has attended my State of the School presentations can attest. However, when it comes to applying data to individuals, I take heed of the words of Todd Rose, who wrote the wonderful book The End of Average. His thesis is that nobody is average, and our obsession with measuring individuals against an average is folly.

A shift in mentality

Thankfully, many schools are catching on. Curriculums are getting more flexible. Teachers are being given more discretion to adjust to meet the needs of individual students. At Cary Academy, our last strategic plan saw us make a subtle but important change to our definition of excellence — which is one of the four pillars in our mission to be a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration and excellence.

Cary Academy recognizes excellence as meaningful growth resulting from dedicated pursuit of individual and shared goals.

There will always be times in which we must compare ourselves against standards, but it is nice to see that we also recognize that growth is a life-long journey.

I am certain that one day Daniel will happily reach for that salad without grimacing.