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EXPLO Elevate Articles + Newsletters

Our team authors and curates articles to empower schools and their communities to thrive now and in the future. At EXPLO Elevate, we are dedicated to seeking out the good ideas, practices, and wisdom from around the globe. Join us as we delve into groundbreaking perspectives, share transformative experiences, and cultivate a community committed to the ongoing advancement of educational excellence.

By Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Managing Partner

Our patience is out, our ample indignation, at one time held like a good card hand to our chests, is now face up on the table. We have become our own heat waves of impatience, frustration, and all too often, hyper-certainty (with a healthy dose of righteousness). The glue that can hold communities and organizations together had dried and corroded in the relentless heat of cultural turmoil.

Every day, we witness the cost of these human heat waves. I have been seeking the right terminology for this observation, and so far I have only come up with this thought – we are seeing a broad-based breakdown in empathy, more specifically, what I am calling vertical empathy. Vertical empathy brings together three levels of empathy – emotional, cognitive, and compassionate – in the context of the workplace where there are hierarchical structures and power differentials. Without real vertical empathy, leaders cease to empathize with those that report to them and, just as importantly, the reverse – those that are reporting to someone else cease to empathize with the person or group to whom they report or with leadership in general. We can’t help create a generation of healthy adults if we are unable to model healthy human relationships and functional, productive dialogue. As adults, we must grow up. 

Definitely not a scientific term, vertical empathy is my only way to capture a concept that is vital for our schools. A requisite school culture ingredient, vertical empathy is becoming scarcer in schools. With vertical empathy, the stage is set for schools and the students within them to flourish. Without it, relationships between different, yet all vital, groups within the school will drift apart or even worse, consciously separate. Learning suffers, and students pay the price. (Several years ago in INC Magazine in an article by Paul L. Gunn, Jr., I read about three key areas of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate. Take a look, it is short and clarifying even though his topic is not at all directed at schools specifically (it is on businesses and customers). 

It is not that we can’t empathize, we just don’t, and to be frank, there are a number of points of view coursing through our national character with which we should not, as human beings and citizens, empathize. As a result, communication is corroding in many schools. Empathy 

is a requisite factor in all successful communication. The pandemic has, and our political and politicized divides have, too often subtracted vertical empathy at the very moments when it is most necessary. 

There are no easy solutions here; however, we must address this particular challenge in order to place our schools in a position to determine the best ways forward. Kids deserve healthy adults in their lives – ones who can both empathize with others and hear thoughtful dissenting voices. Until a school’s adult community is able to do this, we will pervert the most important work we do – create deep, engaging learning experiences for students so

that they might grow into the adults the world needs. A great education in the end is always within the gravitational pull of HOPE. Only healthy adults and adult relationships can create a school focused on helping our students with the muscles to bring hope to life in the world in which they will serve, lead, and love. 

So we need to build empathy and notably vertical empathy in order to serve our students to the best of our ability. 

By Moira Kelly, EXPLO President

It can begin innocently enough.  

You see a colleague who looks a bit off and ask how they are doing.  Or someone drops by your office or classroom.  They are in a foul mood because of another colleague or supervisor. They confide their troubles. You’re empathetic. You let them know you see them. You see their anger, their sadness, their frustration.  You let them know that what they experienced must have been difficult. They unburden themselves and twenty minutes later they leave in a much brighter mood.  You have changed their day for the better. They are so grateful for your support.

You also feel better. You have helped another.  

This colleague – who continues to have work challenges with another – drops by again, and you have essentially the same conversation.  And this cycle continues with each visit ending with you being told how helpful you’ve been. 

Your visitor finds your conversations so comforting, she suggests to another colleague that they chat with you – someone else who is having a problem with a supervisor or colleague.  Before you know it, you have a small group of people – now friends – who confide in you about others at work.  You look forward to their visits. Your conversations provide your visitors with a temporary reprieve from their challenging workplace relationships.  You feel as though you are doing good and useful work.  

But when you step back just a bit, a different dynamic emerges.

You are now part of a workplace drama triangle.  

Your visitors are victims.  

You are a hero.

Others in the school are villains.  

Because you provide temporary respite for your victims, you do not empower them; but then, that’s not what this dynamic is about.  Heroes need villains.  Victims need villains.  

And the strange thing is, it all began innocently enough.  

There is a now a cancer in your school that masquerades as helping. It’s a cancer that metastasizes with each and every one of your “good work” conversations.

(Looking back at my writing during the pandemic.) By Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Managing Partner

In the first piece, I wrote about how to be a knowledgeable citizen during a pandemic.  In focusing on controlling what I can control, I created a list of knowledgeable citizenship compass points I tried to follow during that moment of extraordinary transformation:

  • When people tell me not to trust my eyes, ears, or reason, I will look, listen, and study more carefully, and
  • When people tell me not to trust my eyes, ears, or reason, I will not trust those particular people again.
  • I will believe in and support excellent journalism as it is vital to our republic and to our thoughtful citizenship. (Note: the word “excellent” is vital here. Carefully-researched by journalists who are more drawn to produce a clear and complete telling of a story than they are writing or performing for click-bait.)
  • I will find knowledge-based resources of information and analysis. I will also keep in mind that just because someone, or some entity, is a good resource in one arena does not equate to that person or entity being credible in all areas.
  • I will maintain connection to those with whom I may disagree. Civility and kindness do not imply agreement, however.
  • I will not accept shoddy rationale or fail to call it out when I believe my voice can be valuable.
  • I will not engage in talk that pretends to be conversation where members of rival groups talk past each other. This has no useful end, and it is a dangerous cultural addiction (though it is a large factor in the financial model of Facebook and Twitter).
  • I will use my voice to emphasize the existential value of scholarship, inquiry, science, knowledge, the arts, and the humanities.
  • I will vote, and I will encourage you to vote.
  • I will seek beauty and write about it, take photographs of it, and share it.

The second piece, “Calling Out and Calling on Myself in the Face of Coronavirus,” feels a bit like an artifact from an archeological dig even though it captures something only four years old. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that it captures such a precise moment in history. 

Schools, school leaders, faculty and staff emphasize topics related to character education because they know strength of character is of vital importance and that it is too often in short supply. I really hope all that talk has worked. It really needs to have worked. Now more than ever, we need the adults that great teachers dreamed their students would become. After years in the classroom, I am confident they are out there. In education, we should always have in mind who our students should become. That vision of who students should become as family members, citizens, colleagues, should drive education far more than test scores and college lists. A moment of crisis, like the one we now face, should solidify this understanding for us.

Recently, I have been thinking about: who are we going to be at the end of this? Knowing that in only a few days the world has changed so dramatically as a result of Covid-19 and that it will change again and again and again in the days, weeks, and months to come, who will we be by the time we get our coronavirus vaccinations? There are myriad signals about the future of the pandemic that taken together create a confusing stew and taken apart either create naive optimism or equally naive cynicism. I have a sinking feeling that if we think that trying to predict the future of the virus and its effects accurately is virtually impossible, understanding what happened when it is over will be no less difficult. If clarity was ever achievable, we may have just seen it pass away with the first fatalities.

So…rather than pull out a crystal ball of specific predictions and hyper-generalize a to-do list for everyone, it makes more sense to me to simply create a list for myself regarding who I want to be during the pandemic. First, some general assumptions:

  • What we have considered inconveniences in the recent past will be dwarfed by current realities.
  • Few, if any of us, will escape finding ourselves close to tragic loss.
  • Our neighbors (think of the world and the people in it) will both inspire us and disappoint us.
  • Misinformation will slow our exit from struggles related to the pandemic.
  • Some things we assumed were stable will not be.

While facing the pandemic, I will strive to:

  • Be a good husband, father, son, and brother.
  • Never let my disappointment in some people and institutions blind me to the inspiration I should find in others.
  • Choose the hard right over the easy wrong.
  • Hold myself accountable when I fall short, while at the same time forgiving myself.
  • Do all I can to make other people safe.
  • Recognize that I am fortunate beyond measure, and I should not complain about being without things others have been without all along.
  • Take a deep breath (or two) before sharing my opinion.
  • Be a discerning consumer of information.
  • Stay busy and prioritize diet and exercise.
  • Seek out the good in both people and in the world around us.
  • Seek reasons to laugh with others.
  • Look forward to better days ahead at least as often as I look back to better days in the past.

While I was writing things down that I thought were specifically applicable to that moment, I was obviously writing something more, and I have referred to these two lists often even as the worst days of the pandemic faded. For me, two things emerge in these pieces. The first is that they are grounded in hope–not wishfulness–but hope. Hope only exists in as much as it is represented by actions we take in the world. Second, to navigate great challenges we must devote ourselves to our most essential aspirations. For productive adults, particularly educators, those aspirations have to do with the impact we might have on the world to come through our students.

By Tung Trinh, Dean of Faculty, The Collegiate School

With the upcoming election quickly approaching later in November, school teams are beginning to scratch their heads to prepare for yet another divisive climate of conversations around topics that are personal and pertinent. 

While there is plenty of focus on the candidates themselves who will be busier talking than listening, engaged citizens have to filter through all of the noise created by an oversaturated media market trying to help sensationalize the agendas for mere entertainment. Sadly, it has shown to effectively work over the past few elections since mainstream media helps to reflect society at large, and vice versa. 

So what is a school to do? 

Create a committee (yes, another one!) to help look at how to juxtapose isolated lessons that can be dropped into history classes that explore the platforms that will be disputed this summer and fall? Run some mock debates as students research topics and ideology as opposed to Wikipedia-ing candidates’ stances? Present a primer on the electoral college to remind folks about why the number 270 matters so much but that the popular vote does not equate to the magic number itself (see what I did there?)? Create norms in certain spaces to remind folks about the importance of how we converse with one another? Schedule drop-ins for students who are really engaged and interested to share a space with others who share the same affinity?

All of these are noble initiatives and help to move the ball down field just enough to get folks into the important headspace that gets them thinking about all of the things that their community might not be ready for or have sufficient practice with. Essentially, all of the ideas above are good ones but they are short-term and responsive to the fact that perhaps the election cycle shines a spotlight on what our school communities have not spent enough time actually doing:

  • Engaging in real-world topics that matter to citizens in this country and around the world;
  • Identifying the skills of civil dialogue that rely on multiple parties engaging in conversations that push their own thinking in order to collectively seek higher understanding;
  • Creating time and space for different perspectives and points of views to enter the conversation that are unattached to individuals and therefore avoiding groupthink and being canceled;
  • Asking questions to learn as opposed to proving one’s own point;
  • Building a community of thinkers who participate in discussions beyond the grade/mark while challenging their own moral compass in an effort to find their own north, which is always a moving target;
  • Helping the school to espouse its own core values to all of its constituents.

Easier said than done; of course. But a worthwhile venture nonetheless.

Maybe schools should consider taking a page out of a politician’s playbook (just this page, please!). It is safe to think that politicians are always thinking about the next election even after they just claimed victory. This means that politicians are always strategizing and thinking about what is next for success. Maybe schools can think similarly about what they have not yet done as a roadmap for the kind of work they want to do for their community, akin to continuous strategic thinking. Instead of using the next election as a to-do list with a timetable, schools can just think about using the 4-year window between elections as a great practice arena for all of the important and necessary conversations to grow their students into more engaged and empathetic citizens. 

Now that is something every school can vote for and feel good about.

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture - February 2024

By Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Managing Partner

When we talk about creating a transformative moment in a school, the goal is to move the curriculum and the culture to a new place. What is misleading about this kind of talk is that it sounds as if the place where the school lands will represent a new stationary normal. But the goal is to transform the school into a Progress Culture, in which normal will include the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world.

If we are to help create a generation that will lead the world ethically, morally, entrepreneurially, and passionately, we must be open to reimagining the means by which we strive to accomplish that goal.

Schools are in many ways repositories for the way we used to do things in the larger culture. For instance, the academic schedules we use are by and large artifacts of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. Place the daily schedule of a student in 1910 against the one most of our sons and daughters navigated last week and you will be startled by the similarity. The goal of the schedule from the early part of the twentieth century was to deliver content. The emphasis was rarely on trying to help students become critical thinkers—the focus was centered obsessively on rote memorization.

What we are trying to accomplish has changed dramatically, yet the schedule has remained, leaving us trying to get to the moon in a Singer Sewing Machine. While the world we live in has long since become post-industrial, we still strive to prepare our kids for it with an industrial model.

Our job in a transformative moment is to become a Progress Culture. I have been using this language recently because I have not found terminology elsewhere that captures what I think should be our top priority.

A Progress Culture will:

  • Be thoughtful in defining what progress is.  In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change in a school. For example, if we are “college-preparatory,” we should not take steps that would diminish our ability to do that well.  In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.

  • Always make what is best for students the alpha and omega of the conversation.

  • Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school.

  • Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the school.

  • Develop a faculty community that will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.

  • Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents.  Part of our goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a Progress Culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.

by Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Managing Partner

We want kids to have the opportunity to live within and contribute to an extraordinary community of learners, artists, musicians, and athletes. In order to have this chance, students need three things from the school: Place, Connection, and Expectation. The success of a school in creating and maintaining a Progress Culture is rooted in these areas as much as it is rooted in the execution of specific innovations in curriculum or program.  The ability of a school to excel in creating place, connection, and expectation for students exists symbiotically with its ability to execute strategic innovation.

  • Place: Students need to feel that the school is theirs, and they should graduate placing a value on stewardship.
  • Connection: Students need connections with peers and with adults that in turn attach them to the school and permit them to see their role in it.
  • Expectation: Often what students need is not what they ask for in the moment. Generally, however, students want to be in a school environment where there are expectations for their character, for their behavior, and for their achievement. When we hold students to high expectations, we demonstrate our faith that they can meet and even exceed them. High expectations then are a way of demonstrating our commitment to them.

As I think about these factors working together to serve students best, I am reminded of the importance of building partnerships with students, faculty, and families, particularly in a moment in history that is hyper-charged with challenges. To create the place, connection, and expectation our kids need, families and school leadership must seek to connect through honest dialogue as well. As a result, school leaders should never shy away from setting up conversations with groups of parents where they engage tough and relevant questions such as:

  • What is easier for kids today than it was for you at the same age?
  • What is harder?
  • What excites you most about the experience your child is having at this moment in their lives?
  • What scares you most as a parent?
  • How should we (faculty, administration, and parents) work together to help kids navigate the difficulty of being in school in this time?
  • What things do we need to prepare your children for that have not been covered in the traditional academic classes?  How should we do it? 

While these questions do not address place, connection, and expectation directly, they do allow us to have a conversation relevant to what students most need from the adults in their lives. Thus, the questions help adults reflect on the world kids are experiencing and then strive to create the conditions that will produce place, connection, and expectation.

By Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Managing Partner


Writing anything as a group is like well-meaning locals trying to give a stranger directions to an obscure address. The kind helpers all speak over each other and the visitor ends up taking a left at the big oak tree rather than a right. Most school mission statements sound similar to confusing directions. The more they say, the less comprehensible they are, and the less they create clarity and impact. 

My Elevate colleagues, Leah Van der Sluis and Natasha Goddard, and I have been thinking a lot about what mission statements can do for a school both externally and internally.  More and more frequently, we’re being tapped to help schools reinvent their statements toward their intention without shrouding them in convoluted sentence structures and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (hint: we like quality verbs). 

When neglected, mission statements become toss-off language, a way to say something that sounds important but means very little to the actuality of the school either on a day-to-day basis or in moments of crisis or opportunity. Board members, school heads, and other school leaders regularly assert that their school is mission-driven, but many of them would not like to be put on the spot to quote it. They might even just start saying the word “excellent” over and over again! 

For many reasons, this is, of course, not nearly good enough. Let’s think about why:

  • Mission Drift: Schools face unprecedented pressures to meet the most immediate and loudly voiced needs. Inevitably, making the most expedient and most often well-meaning decisions in the moment can, over time, lead to losing sight of the mission. Centering directly on the school’s mission, however, and beginning important discussions with the mission as a transcendent refrain creates a context that can prevent mission drift.

  • The Threshold Moment: Post-Covid, post George Floyd, post-January 6, post-invasion of Ukraine, post…post…we are crossing over a painful line or demarcation, but we are frustratingly unsure about where we are arriving. We don’t need new compasses–rather we need to remember we already have one – the school’s mission. It may get lost in the static of squeaky wheels and fast-paced news cycles, but it is there, and we need it the most when it is hardest to center our decision-making in it. A strong mission transcends the moment to remind us of something larger than the moment and larger than any single agenda or challenge.. 

  • The Student Center: Poignant and deepening student wellness needs require new approaches to meet the needs of our students, but strangely, schools, particularly when subjected to significant outside pressures tend to try to serve too many masters at once – parents, individual trustees, teachers, even political headwinds. The right mission statement centers on students and what the school’s job is for the young people it serves and will serve in the future. Sourcing decision-making and strategy-making from the mission creates the correct center of gravity when complexity and immediate pressures push leaders into the temptation to be reactive.

  • The All-things Fallacy: In the desire to make as many people as happy at once as possible, schools have at times tried, and inevitably failed, to be all things at once. School budgets have accreted line after line often because taking on something else is easier than the alternative of making some constituents unhappy. This is not a result of laziness – school folks may have flaws, but slagging off is not usually among them. Busy people like solving problems and moving on. A great mission gives a school permission to make the hard decision over the expedient one that will please the most people. 

  • The Spot on the Horizon Aspiration: Perhaps the strongest reason to revitalize your school’s mission is that done well, a mission statement creates the necessary tension between who we are and who we aspire to be as a school. This tension is a requirement to move a school forward. The beginning of a school’s aspiration is held in an effective mission. Every school I admire has a spot on the horizon it is moving forever toward. With a vital mission shared by committed people, schools can approach exactly the ambitious and bold work that will doubtlessly be required in the years ahead.

Activate the school’s mission at the moments of critical decision-making. It is the first and best tool leaders have in a school. 

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