In Context XII: “(We)stland,” by Melinda Tsapatsaris

When people are not part of the process, people are displaced by the process.
— Activist, Hurricane Maria

I once was in a full-day workshop with Consultant Alison Park several summers ago. She was working with my previous school’s Multicultural Leadership Team and had this moment where she paused, tilted her head, slightly smiled, and—somehow not condescendingly—shared: “Awww. Just so you know… I work with dozens and dozens of schools each year. All of them think they’re extraordinarily special!” I was surprised. It had never occurred to me that other schools thought they were as special as I thought we were special. We ARE particularly special! Everyone else thinks that too? Of course they do! It was a hilarious and troubling piece of humble pie.

I want to share something though. If this were a podcast, I think I’d sort of whisper the next line in a mischievous, but nonetheless, sincere tone: I think Westland is particularly special. Here’s why.

Several weekends ago I spent my time at the California Association of Independent School’s Annual Trustee – School Head Conference. The last session on Saturday was led by author and independent school legend Robert Evans and local head of school and friend Laura Konigsberg. Their workshop was entitled: “Head/Shrink: Mastering the Psychological Challenges of Leadership.” Rob began the talk by sharing an assertion for the 50 or so heads of school in the hotel conference room: “When you speak, you get to say ‘we.’ Only the head gets to speak for place.”

In the margins of my notes I wrote, “Really?!” And then I wrote “Westland,” for the first time noticing that the first two letters of our school name is the word “We.” I thought about raising my hand to disagree, but I had just done that with Robert Evans in the previous session where about 200 heads sat. So instead, I chose one of my favorite pastimes since childhood: holding a heroic and pretend dialogue in my head:

Pretend Melinda: [Standing, speaking with a friendly tone] I just couldn’t disagree more with that last statement, Rob.

Pretend Robert Evans: Melinda. [Robert knows Melinda’s name somehow.] You’re what…in your second year of being a head of school?

Pretend Melinda: [Without initially saying a word, rummages through backpack and pulls out a petition given to her by a Group One student the week before.] Here. [Handing multipage, crumpled petition over.]

Pretend Robert Evans: [Silently reading, then sharing title out loud to the group, confused and skeptically looking up.] A vegan meatball petition?

Pretend Melinda: Yes, Rob: Vegan. Meatballs.

I had heard rumors of a vegan meatball petition circulating the campus, accompanied by a story that an earnest 5-year-old was conscious of fellow Group Oners who were not fully able to enjoy the Greek Meatball Hot Lunch that she so enjoyed. (My mind quickly flashed to the classic line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “You don’t eat meat? We give you lamb.”) I had heard about this child and her “second speeches.” Going from classroom to classroom, if she didn’t get the signatures initially, she’d try one more time. Upon exiting the classroom doorway, she’d turn back, smile, and deliver a second speech, inevitably inspiring more signatures from her older peers. Fearless.

Just a few weeks ago, as I was welcoming prospective students (age 4 and 5) and their parents to my office for an admissions visit day, three Group One students comfortably marched in (We’ll work on knocking come spring) and said, ‘We did it. Here’s our petition.” One of our 4-year-old visitors asked her mom, “What’s a petition?” And another Group Oner took it upon herself to answer: “It’s where we let people know that something could be better.” Did you notice how her definition started? We.

No doubt these Group One students were inspired by the Group Six petition that went around to change an uncool lyric of the Westland Song, the lyric that sort of teased Group Sixers for crying at graduation. Their petition was the topic of our first All School Meeting this past September. The whole student body generated ideas about what new topics could replace that one line, and the students came up with examples of how to represent Westland in the song: chickens, outdoor fields, and their partnerships across groups. (The new lyrics will be revealed in the coming weeks.) Or maybe they heard about a petition that two Group Six students initiated, requesting the school to install a divider between the urinals. (The divider is being shipped now.)

If anyone’s skeptical regarding the rinky-dink scale of these student initiatives, I want to forecast that urinal divider petitions turn into human right petitions, upstander behavior, and a commitment to service. School Song petitions turn into complex forms of problem solving, activism, and change movements. Westland students are empowered and motivated to effect change. Because they start their sentences with “We,” they become empowered to honor the group and serve the common good. This is active citizenry.

This phenomenon translates into students’ learning as well. I was at lunch with an alumni parent the other day and she shared a story of her daughter coming home from her second day of middle school. (A well regarded, non-progressive all-girls school in town.) Her daughter hopped in the minivan and exclaimed, “I don’t get it! We’re being given these things called ‘syllabuses’ that have everything we’re going to learn listed out. How can the teachers know exactly what we’re going to be learning this year!? Don’t the kids have a voice and a say too?” At Westland, students do. Teachers masterfully allow for emergent curriculum to stem from the students’ questions and curiosity.

There are myriad “we” moments at Westland beyond the students too. Take our Tuesday staff meetings as an example, where conversations and discussions about school operations, board committee work, facilities updates, strategic plan initiatives, and parent committee work flourish. I continue to be amazed by how invested in the whole school teachers are—beyond their classrooms, beyond their curriculum, and beyond the children and parents with whom they collaborate.

Parents too. Because of our system of volunteering and the symbolism that every parent is a member of the corporation, we abounds. Beyond the time and treasure that parents give, there is an intellectual and emotional investment too in how Westland can best do Westland. Yes, parents’ main focus is the growth and development of their children, but there remains a steadfast and tireless commitment towards the school. I’m thinking of a parent who is struggling with our decision to have a guard. This parent shared that she’s utilizing one of the multicultural guidelines of “trying on” in the context of this new position. She’s reading articles, she’s checking in with me, she’s deeply listening to multiple perspectives presented, she’s sharing feedback as her thoughts and opinions evolve and develop. She’s totally in it, and she’s totally transparent with me about her thinking and concerns. It’s powerful grappling in action. I believe she’s able to do this because Westland is her school too.

The last time we were accredited, our visiting team of educators invited Westland to reflect upon and better articulate our decision-making processes. When I first came to Westland and read this particular initiative, I initially had a “no problem” response. Now that I more closely understand the complexity of decision making at Westland—complex because it is decidedly democratic and inclusive—I now better understand the weight of the initiative. It now has citizenship as one of our ten strategic plan initiatives and reads: “The Westland faculty, staff, (and, as appropriate, the general community) has a clear understanding of how decisions are made, and the roles and responsibilities related to the decision-making process.”

The importance and complexity of this strategic plan initiative crystalized for me a few weeks ago when I was listening to an NPR story on the rebuilding of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. An activist shared, “When people are not part of the process, people are displaced by the process.” It is through inclusive processes; honoring each other’s voices, suggestions, ideas and experiences; and noticing and inviting people into process that the Westland We occurs. So instead of feeling displaced, we get to claim Westland as our place—one vegan meatball petition at a time.