Dr. Leonard Kupersmith, Headmaster, welcomed new and returning faculty to campus on Monday, August 19 with the following remarks. (Text is excerpted from Dr. Kupersmith’s original comments.)
His observations center on the faculty- and staff-wide reading of Paul Tough’s “Why Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity, and the Power of Character.”
CCES is honored to be in great demand. Our student body has grown by 16% in the last three years, from 991 in 2010 to 1155 this year. The Board and senior administration will determine this year whether we grow beyond 1200 students. With room for no more than 15 more students in grades 4-12, we clearly need resolve the matter before the end of this calendar year.
The great value of this conversation is that it will remind us of the non-negotiables, of the institutional character traits without which we would no longer be what we value. That discussion about the essential character of the school and its preservation irrespective of the size of the community frames the focus for institutional improvement in the years ahead.
I want to comment about the most promising move we are making: deliberate and obsessive focus on character, not as a curriculum but as an outcome of the experience for CCES students. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough brings research to support a message that attentive and dedicated teachers at all levels know from experience. It’s not intellect that defines quality in people: it’s character.
We can all come up with different lists of admirable character traits: mine might include work ethic, grit, and conscientiousness; yours self-control and self-discipline, yours optimism and gratitude, mine courtesy and humility. The point is that character matters most. We know that teaching changes lives for the better. We also know that no quadratic equation, no recitation of the causes of the tumult in Europe in 1848, no deep set analysis of Prufrock, or elegant explanation of mutations makes the difference. These academic lessons may reflect what does matter: the passion to want to know and want to know more, to question implications, and seek reasons, to discover a universe and contemplate mysteries. The subject matter is relevant only to the extent that it ignites an incandescent light in minds and promotes character transformations.
Staying the Course
I have often told students that one of the most valuable lessons that they learn in school is the ability to cope with boredom. Life is not perpetually entertaining. Doing productive and valuable things and sustaining important relationships requires us to suck it up, hunker down, and stay the course. I hope we are shaping people with those traits. They are in short supply.
In his GED study Heckman found three key character traits that high-school graduates had that GED holders did not: the ability to persist at an unrewarding and boring task (conscientiousness); the ability to defer gratification (self-control); and the ability to follow through on a plan (grit). These qualities produce success and happiness. Most important these qualities sustain relationships that promote success and happiness. These qualities and other character attributes are not culture or era specific. They are bred early in our lifetimes.
We are in the character building business. No institution has a wider net or more lasting influence than a school. As a religious school and one that treasures service, CCES is better positioned than most to nurture the best character traits. Talent gets our attention to be sure. But talent without character will wither; it will never come to full flower.
Phil Jackson recently discussed the principles (his koan) that have guided his eminent coaching career. One particular standard that he gave Tom Waits credit for rang true to me: “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” This principle really captures a truth. It is a statement about character shaping behavior. Wonderfully timed, Father Richard’s gospel reading from Matthew 25:40 in this morning’s opening chapel service conveys the same message: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
These luminous statements refer to habits. Do we do things with humility and modesty? Do we do things with attention to detail? Do we do things with honesty and integrity? Do we do things with exacting standards? It’s all in the how: the how defines the difference in quality.
How do we learn how to do things? By the models we have. Our virtues are shaped by people we try to emulate. There is no substitute for the mentor.
You have the power and position to shape the character of the students who come under your direction. This role is sacred. Character development is all about the personal transaction. No online experience can replace touch. No true influence is transitory. That’s why you have such an opportunity: you have a year or more and years beyond that to build a relationship.
We are really fortunate to come under the influence of superb examples. I suspect that each one of us has been improved by someone with traits we come to admire and want to acquire. I had such a galaxy of teachers whose character captivated me. Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt at the end of As Good as It Gets: You make me a better man. So many people have made me a better person.
A few weeks ago Colonel Bud Day died. He was 88. He was among America’s most decorated servicemen having received 70 medals and awards, more than 50 for combat exploits, including the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross. John McCain eulogized him as “my friend, my leader, my inspiration.”
Colonel Day was captured twice by North Vietnamese forces, the second time he joined Senator McCain in captivity. Senator McCain wrote that Colonel Day had an “indomitable will to survive with his reputation intact, and he strengthened my will to live.” In February 1971 he joined Admiral James Stockdale, then a commander and the ranking American in the prison camp and other prisoners in singing the Star Spangled Banner while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners’ forbidden religious service.
Clearly Colonel Day was an extraordinary person. His influence was profound just like yours. He set an example, he set a standard, he inspired others to rise to that standard. Each of you has that same precious opportunity to enrich lives by your example. God bless you all in this upcoming year.