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The Gordon School

Leadership talks

Noni Thomas López
Head of School 
four years at Gordon

Gabe Burnstein
Middle School Director 
eleven years at Gordon

Maryanne Pieri
Early Childhood and Lower School Director 
twenty-seven years at Gordon

Noni Thomas López, Gabe Burnstein, and Maryanne Pieri recently sat down to talk about leadership: how it is cultivated at Gordon, and its connection to generosity and a sense of social responsibility. These are excerpts from their conversation.

On Gordon students’ journey to become leaders
 

When I think of leadership, I think of Kindergarten’s Share the Warmth project. The students make popcorn to share with the school, and invite donations. With any quarters they receive, they purchase warm clothing to share with others.

These are students who are beginning to see a bigger world beyond their own, to realize that their actions can make a difference. They discover what it’s like to be an active leader in their own community and beyond.

In a very hands-on way, they see how their school days are about being courageous learners and compassionate leaders.

 

I think about Lower School town halls that the fourth graders lead and the ways in which students are both sharing their learning and creating expectations around citizenship in schools.

They’re deciding how they are going to be together in a space, but also what they are going to share with one another. They are given the ability to shape that.

Throughout Middle School we’re talking about leading by example but also by actively helping others.

Before fifth grade athletes put on a Gordon jersey we talk to them about the fact that younger students are watching them. It’s an act of leadership: you are representing your school, in Gordon’s halls but also beyond the school walls.

In the theater program, leadership culminates on the eighth grade art council. Those students have leading roles in the play, the most lines, and the big songs, but they are also the ones behind the scenes creating open mic nights so that other students can shine.

So you go from learning how to be in the spotlight to learning to help others become leaders.
 

On the “aha” moments after students graduate

The one that I hear often is about alumni in their high school classrooms, when they realize that their ability to think about and talk about difficult issues is different from the rest of their classmates. And that people around them seem to be surprised and impressed by their ability to do that.

They see how important it is to speak and work and collaborate across our differences, but they also see that it’s not a common ability. And they have the skills to do it.

They can speak up about difficult issues in a classroom, but also in their new community. When our graduates go to high school I hear all the time about them advocating to change their schools, to create groups that don’t exist, or change policies that aren’t equitable.

Gordon graduates will say, “We see a need. And we want to create something and do something to make this place better.” Our students have the courage to speak up if something doesn’t seem fair, and the other part that goes with that is compassion—our graduates are advocating to improve things that aren’t just about their own needs. They recognize the needs of others.

I think about how second graders acknowledge a broad range of differences through the Gordon Multicultural Picture Book Award process.

During this lesson, students are asked, “What makes a good multicultural picture book?” They’ll create a rubric: a good book shows others’ perspectives, it questions injustices, it represents a variety of different people and ways of being in the world.

Once the students learn to recognize these things, they can seek them out elsewhere in their lives too.

On the advantages of a nursery to eighth grade school

We’re able to give middle schoolers the gift of confidence and the ability to see the leadership and power they have in the present moment, not just in who they are going to be.

Working in schools that go from Kindergarten to twelfth grade, you see students being asked to wait until high school, or maybe even college, to find out who they are, to understand what their passions are, or to take a powerful leadership position in their school.

To give the gift of that confidence and belief to our early adolescents, at a time when they may be on very shaky ground for many different reasons, is so valuable.

If middle schoolers are around high schoolers all day, they will take their cues from the older students. At age twelve, they’re doing a bad imitation of a seventeen-year-old. At Gordon, we have removed that temptation. They are going to play all the way until age fourteen.

You only get childhood once and when it’s gone, it’s gone. We want it to last as long as it can.

The other piece is the opportunity to send our eighth graders to exactly the right high school. Our students go into the high school decision process with a beautiful combination of confidence and humility. They’re thinking about “What do I want out of my next school? What do I value? What do I care about? What do I need?” Their voice is centered. Families have the advantage of picking a high school based on who their child is and what they need at age fourteen, not based on who they were at age three or five.

I think the nursery to eighth grade structure is why we see so much of a difference in our students when they go to their next chapter.

They’ve been given something rare: a school community that authentically sees who they are in that moment, and who they can be.

Their full potential is in our sights, and we’re able to reflect that back to them.

On cultivating a culture of generosity

The people in our community understand why we have this shared mission. It’s not just so Gordon can exist or grow our campus, it’s to really shift how the world works.

How do we move from a transactional culture—a what’s in it for me culture—to ask what I can do for others, how can I contribute? What is the community we create here and how can we recreate that outside of these walls?

And I think that that’s at the heart of generosity at Gordon: I have something I want to share, and I have the openness and the generosity of heart to learn from others.
 

Generosity is at the center of what we do.

Members of our community, both the children and the adults, are learning about the power of giving their knowledge, their resources, their time to others. That happens very early on, in the nurturing care that three- and four-year-olds receive, and also in the attention we
can give families during that challenging time when their child is first venturing out into the wider world.

There is an understanding that we have an opportunity to support one another, and that supporting one another will make us all stronger.

Generosity at Gordon comes out of having empathy as a value that’s central to the mission.

At the assembly, one of the most coveted roles is not getting the award, but giving it.
Students stand up and give speeches about their teammates. That’s an act of generosity.

They’re not writing those speeches for a grade that is going on a report card. They write those speeches about their teammates, and they want to get up and deliver them because they want to be generous and they want to acknowledge the contribution of their friends. That’s beautiful.

Extending the conversation about generosity

The conversation above was originally mailed out as part of the annual Gordon Fund drive.

Give to the Gordon Fund online today at www.gordonschool.org/give