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Walking the Line Between Stability and Change

"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."  Albert Einstein  

This column is about stability and change, necessary opposites that interact to complete the whole. To create some context, last fall Westminster hosted a visit from our accrediting organization, Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS).  The ISAS Visiting Committee was on campus for three days, and its task was, at it stated in its final report, “to assess the quality of the mission, vision, goals, and program of Westminster.” We had worked hard to prepare for the visit, and though nerve-wracking and time-consuming, we enjoyed the committee members and appreciated how seriously they took their work.  We were re-accredited for another ten years which is important, but what really matters are the insights and suggestions the Visiting Committee gave us.

The report opened with these words, “Westminster School is a wonderful school with a commitment to promoting hard work and creativity among its students, its teachers, and its community.” The committee then offered a series of commendations that praised our school’s mission and leadership.  It celebrated our teachers for their commitment to their students and our students for their very strong bond with their teachers. It complimented the passion and pride of our community and the financial stewardship of our board of trustees. And it marveled over our campus.

All of that is important…and true…but my favorite commendation was reserved for Westminster’s kids.

“The children of Westminster love their school; they feel that they belong to it, and that it belongs to them. They are confident to speak their minds….  Exuding kindness, generosity, and respect, the students of Westminster are warm, welcoming, outgoing, and happy; they are wholesome…. Truly, Westminster’s students are the finest ambassadors a school could hope to have.”

In addition to these commendations, the committee also provided us with recommendations. Recommendations are committee insights and suggestions for change and improvement that the school is required to respond to in writing. The committee gently prefaced its recommendations by noting, “Westminster represents an institution steeped in gratifying and affirming tradition. At the same time, there are many opportunities for the school to build upon that tradition in exciting and compelling ways.”

The committee’s most interesting and significant recommendation was its first and it focused on stability and change. “Westminster enjoys an enviable stability and has captured a unique position in the local educational market. As an institution, the school exudes a level of confidence about its core values and the way in which they drive instructional programs.

At this moment in its history, Westminster is uniquely positioned as an institution to take some risks, embark on new initiatives, and move in bold directions. We were surprised to discover that, despite the school's encouragement of students to take risks and embrace failure, the institution seems reluctant to exhibit this same quality. The visiting team strongly encourages Westminster to be a pioneer for the local, regional, and national independent school community.” 

Many of the committee’s other recommendations, not surprisingly, echoed ideas from our 2013 strategic plan including, for example, statements about fine arts, technology, and language. We have been working on these for three years, and there will be some exciting changes when school opens next month. There was, however, one other important recommendation that has also been a theme of our strategic planning reports for several years—succession planning. A dozen years ago, the question took the form of what do we do if Bob gets hit by a bus? Now it’s much more in the form of what do we do when Bob retires? It’s not a conversation I particularly like, but it is one that responsible organizations like Westminster must have.

The board’s Executive Committee discussed succession planning throughout the last year, and it focused on the leadership qualities desired and the selection process to be used for choosing our next head of school. In terms of the desired leadership qualities, four stood out. The first was vision. The leader has to understand not just the school’s mission, but its culture as well. By living the vision, mission, and culture of the school, the leader inspires hope and commitment.

No leader can ever tell the school’s story or relate its core values too often. It’s a narrative that needs to be repeated, nurtured and protected, and it’s the head’s job to do just that.

But first, of course, the head must understand it. A second quality was integrity. Leaders have to demonstrate honesty and transparency to gain trust because trust is the foundation for their own success as well as the institution’s. Along with integrity was stability. Stability focuses primarily on commitment and security and works in tandem with integrity. Leaders act with integrity to increase trust; they provide stability to reduce fear. The final leadership quality was humility. It is a quality that is often misunderstood. Humility includes selflessness, compassion, and empathy. Humble leaders understand one basic fact. It’s not about them. The Executive Committee considered all of these leadership qualities in its discussions about our next head of school and then turned to the selection process. 

The committee began by asking what process we had used in choosing our prior heads of school.  Westminster is rather unique in the longevity of its heads. On average a current ISAS head has served at his or her school for 6.5 years. We have had two heads in 54 years…and counting. So the question shifted from how have our heads been selected to why have they been so stable. It became a history question which took us back to our first head of school, Charlotte Gibbens. 

Charlotte was born and raised in Buffalo. She graduated from Buffalo Seminary, an all girls’ prep school, and then Wellesley, an all women’s college. She married her Yale sweetheart and moved to Oklahoma City. They had two daughters. Charlotte was not only a loving mom but a thinking one, and the more she watched her girls in their Montessori school and thought about what they were learning, the more convinced she was that Maria Montessori had the best ideas for teaching young children. She went back to earn her Montessori certificate, but as Charlotte began thinking about working in a Montessori school, there was one thing she just didn’t get. She had what seemed to be a radical idea at the time, that little children should actually enjoy school. Years later, she described it this way, “I believed that exuberance in play could be channeled into exuberance in learning…” and she was right. School should be fun.

Coincidentally, C.B. and Jo Carol Cameron were also becoming enamored with Maria Montessori’s educational methods, and helped incorporate Westminster School in August 1963. It started as a school with ten children and a budget of $4,990.  Within a year, Charlotte was appointed its first head of school. Like Charlotte, these school founders also had a radical idea. They insisted that Westminster be a school that was open to all children in our community…all races, all sexes, all religions, all abilities. I’ve written before about the irony of Westminster’s founding as an integrated school in a segregated city during the same week that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.  I’m proud of our School’s beginning.  We were on the right side of history, but I doubt that anyone in 1963 could have imagined what Westminster School would become. I know that without Charlotte’s leadership, it would never have become the school that it is today. 

As I’ve looked back at some of Charlotte’s interviews and writings in our archives and thought about some of her favorite sayings, I’ve been reminded of how prescient she was. We talk a lot today about the value of a growth mindset, of taking chances and not worrying about mistakes. This idea of an institutional growth mindset was the essence of the Visiting Committee’s first recommendation encouraging us to take risks and become a pioneer for independent school education. But Charlotte had always had a growth mindset, and she showed it when she reminisced about the early days of Westminster School. “We really did some things that probably we wouldn’t have done if we had been too interested in the economic future. We thought, ‘We’re going to do our wildest ideas and if they fly, they fly, and if they don’t, it was a good experience.’” Her ideas took off, and so too did Westminster School.

One of the things Charlotte used to say to me was, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” What I understood her to mean by this was that every child is important and brings something special to the school. I remember her telling the children, “Look around at all the beautiful things in nature—everything is varied—the shells on the beach, the wildflowers along the road, the snowflakes in winter. So why on earth should any one of you worry about being different? The real challenge is to get in touch with yourself, to realize your own special talents, and to find a decent path that will be good for others and make you happy.” Celebrating diversity and helping others were central to Charlotte’s Westminster. Inclusion and kindness remain a vital part of Westminster today.

To promote inclusion, Charlotte insisted that financial aid be available to any child who needed it, regardless of age, and implemented a first-come, first-served open admission process. We still follow both policies. She also set up a policy of not publicly recognizing the size of donations or naming buildings after big givers. Though we’ve always appreciated the generosity of our supporters, we still adhere to that policy and don’t name buildings or publish gift categories. Most people, whether they agree with it or not, simply understand that it’s the Westminster Way and appreciate that the school acts on its beliefs.

Charlotte wrote, “We reveal ourselves to others and to ourselves by caring about something, or someone, by working, by weathering hard times graciously, by playing, by creating, by believing.” She was a wise and caring person who was adored by all and engendered trust not only from the children whom she dearly loved, but from her faculty and staff as well. As she reminisced about her leadership style, she said, “I felt that I was the servant of the teachers; I got them what they needed and then let them go.” Charlotte trusted her teachers and they loved and trusted her. A fourth grade teacher said one day of Charlotte, “I don’t know what this woman does, but she makes me want to work like a dog.” That only happens when people are both inspired and secure, and Charlotte created a school where people—students, faculty, parents—all felt included and safe.

As faithful as Charlotte was to the vision, integrity, and stability of the institution, it was that fourth quality of leadership that really set her apart. Charlotte was the embodiment of humility. She spoke about her career at her retirement celebration, “This has been a lovely year for me, and yet I have a certain feeling of guilt in receiving thanks for something that could never have been accomplished without the work, creativity, and love of so many others, particularly the teachers who were here in the beginning and who set the tone for the school. Deserving gratitude and faith as well are those here now who have given twenty years and more of energetic, enthusiastic teaching, the newer faculty members who bring new life and skills to our program, and all the good support persons.”

I first met this remarkable woman in 1977. I was teaching in Norman but had grown up in Oklahoma City and attended Westminster Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, I knew little about the school.  Friends suggested I talk with Charlotte about my desire to create a different kind of middle school. I met with Charlotte. She was gracious and positive as always, but I’m also sure she checked me out afterwards. I guess she felt my middle school dream might work because she took a chance on me, created a job she didn’t need, invited me to teach fifth and sixth grade social studies, and encouraged me to plan a middle school. That was 39 years ago. There was certainly no guarantee that a new middle school would work, but we managed to open with 54 sixth and seventh graders in an abandoned Mormon church at 44th and Lee in August 1978.  Two months later, Ruth Ann Waldo Regens was born.

Ruth Ann has always had an independent streak which I’ve admired, and I paid tribute to it when she was a student by nicknaming her Ann Ruth. She was a terrific student who excelled at Westminster, graduating in 1993, the same year Charlotte retired after 29 years as head of school. Ruth Ann then went on to excel at McGuinness and Duke and joined Teach For America. After teaching fifth grade in Los Angeles, she became a TFA program director and earned her M.Ed. at Pepperdine. Over Christmas in 2005 I met Ruth Ann for coffee, and we talked about education and Westminster. I knew right then that she was the future of Westminster School.

Ruth Ann returned to teach fifth grade math in 2006 and served first as our director of studies and then co-director of our lower division. Leading by example and excellence, she revitalized the lower school faculty, strengthened its curriculum, and managed to complete another master’s degree in independent school leadership at Columbia’s Teachers College.  In 2014 she became our assistant head of school and an eighth grade English teacher.

Ruth Ann, like Charlotte, possesses the four qualities of leadership. She understands the Westminster Way and wants to protect and nurture it during the pioneering days ahead. She was born a Westminster kid with a mother who has spent her career as a teacher/administrator at our school. Ruth Ann was a Westminster student for eleven years and is now starting her eleventh year as a teaching administrator; she gets Westminster. She is also a woman of integrity and stability. She works hard, leads by example, is well liked by kids, and is trusted by colleagues and parents alike. As a mother whose son starts 3-day next month, she gets Charlotte’s vision about education and joy. Finally, Ruth Ann is a humble leader. She always has time for anyone who needs her, selflessly deflects credit to others, and most importantly understands that it’s not about her. Ruth Ann gets that school matters; she understands that it’s always about the kids. 

So why am I writing about last year’s ISAS Visiting Committee, Albert Einstein, Charlotte Gibbens and Ruth Ann Regens? Because the Executive Committee completed its year-long study of succession planning in May.  After interviewing Ruth Ann, it concluded that the best possible future head of Westminster School was already here. The Committee voted unanimously to ask the full board at its June meeting to approve Ruth Ann Regens as our next head of school upon my retirement, and the board agreed. I’m delighted.

Though I’m in no hurry to leave, it’s a lot easier to contemplate retirement knowing that Ruth Ann is ready and willing to take over. Like Charlotte before me, Ruth Ann will be a phenomenal head of school. 

This was an unusual process but fully in keeping with the Westminster Way. The board knew what it wanted in a future head of school, understood how Charlotte and I had been chosen, appreciated our decades of service, and wanted the inevitable transition to our next head to be secure and seamless for parents, teachers, and students. It will be because schools like Westminster—well grounded in their values, clear about their vision—are bigger than any person. 

As I said at the beginning, this column is about stability and change. I’ve always been amused that some people think that change is merely another option. It isn’t.

Like Einstein said, you lose your balance if the bike doesn’t move. To remain stable, there has to be movement…there has to be progress…there has to be change.  It’s not only inevitable; it’s desirable.

Charlotte Gibbens laid the foundation of Westminster with her vision, integrity, stability, and humility. Ruth Ann Regens will use those same traits to lead our school into an even better tomorrow.