Engaging the Whole Person

"Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. … A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul." 

So observed New York Times columnist David Brooks, reminiscing about a summer camp he attended as a boy.  I would argue, both collectively and individually, independent schools are the very definition of “thick” organizations.

Independent schools are genuine pillars of their communities, many for more than a century and some (like my own) for more than two.  The origins of traditions, — our school customs, homecoming rituals, beloved annual events — are often lost in the haze, impossible to trace after so many years gone by.  Our buildings are named for individuals rather than corporations, emphasizing our heritage.  In myriad ways around our campuses, we commemorate the inspiration and dedication of historical leaders, our past trustees, heads, and educators.  Alumni, especially those for whom the independent school experience proved transformational, love to return to campus, and many show their gratitude through loyal support of capital campaigns and annual funds.

The substance that characterizes our schools  — strong focused programs, talented faculty, personalized attention, character cultivation, service learning, and cherished traditions — is essential but can feel difficult to sustain.  So many changes accumulating over time have a distracting effect, maybe even draining our ability to safeguard the core identity of our schools. 

Technology comes first to mind.   Connectivity offers our students exciting new ways to gather information and interact with the world, but schools have had to absorb the new expense of being (and staying) technologically current in the face of near-constant innovation. Despite the unquestionable academic advantages, concerns accrue over how to assure that students still develop the soft skills needed to engage personally and appropriately with others, to advocate effectively for themselves, even to handle conflict, in face-to-face situations.  

The overall financial environment claims much of our attention.  In many of our schools, our tuition and fees have necessarily increased at a higher rate than is ideal.  At the same time, many local public schools have improved radically, especially in competitive markets.   Turning to the international market has become a “go to” strategy, creating a trend of enrollment dependence that can be worrisome for school leaders as world events unfold. 

We’ve seen a need for more purposeful marketing.  In the past, maintaining a positive public identity has been relatively easy, with simple newspaper stories that highlight student activities like an Earth Day beach cleanup or Children’s Winter Carnival, plus the annual profile of the valedictorian and top graduates.  The last two decades have seen the creation of school websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, as well as videos, pamphlets and flyers to promote specific high interest offerings within the total program.

These business aspects complicate our ability to protect the “thickness” of our schools.  Nevertheless, there is an organizational attribute that no degree of challenge —technological, financial, or commercial — can erase.  Brooks notes that thick organizations “take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings. … People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.”  As different as all of our schools are, I am confident those words describe us all. 

Browse independent school mission statements and you’ll find words like character, community, balance, engagement, integrity, spirit, and compassion.  Our collective heritage simply expects a “thicker” concept of education.  We seek to prepare good people, humane and positive and productive individuals, persons of acute judgment and active imagination.  We are committed to going beyond strong academic achievement, foster more than college readiness.  Our common core of identity includes all of Brooks’ “thickness” attributes — collective rituals, origin stories, shared tasks, historic heroes, idiosyncratic local culture, selflessness.  The future of these “thick” organizations, and thus their important contributions to humanity, is in our hands.

About The Author

Rene Menard

A 1988 graduate of Thornton Academy, Mr. Menard received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Southern Maine. He later earned a master’s degree in Teaching and Learning, as well as a Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Leadership. Mr. Menard began his career in education at Fryeburg Academy where he worked as a history teacher, coach, and dorm parent. He joined Thornton Academy’s faculty in 1995, teaching history and political science. Before becoming associate headmaster in 2007 and Headmaster in 2012, Mr. Menard also served as a coach, club advisor and class dean. Mr. Menard serves on the Executive Committee of the Maine Association of Independent Schools and on the board of the Independent School Association of Northern New England.  He and his wife, Lisa, have two children, Ava '21 and Daniel '24.