We are not perfect
I was privileged to serve as Vice Chair for a Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS) Accreditation Team this week for an independent school in Richmond, VA. VAIS member schools are accredited on 10 year cycles, with an interim visit in year 5. Gesher recently received re-accreditation through our own 10-year site visit back in October of this year, and the preparation for these visits is extensive and lengthy, typically requiring 18 months of planning and processing, uploading documents, creating task forces, surveying stakeholders, etc. When you use the process well, it is a uniquely comprehensive opportunity for a school to self-reflect, and then to get expert feedback from more objective peers and colleagues at other schools.
I’ve been through this process in two other states as well, from the school end, but this was my first opportunity to serve on an accrediting committee, and I found the experience fascinating and invigorating. Imagine spending 72 hours in an institution meeting with stakeholders, conducting interviews, observing classes, reading hundreds of pages of documentation, all of this effort dedicated to understanding areas of excellence and challenge in order to help the school celebrate strengths and create plans to improve. It is like taking a crash course in the culture and business practices of another country.
One major lesson I would like to bring back from this experience has to do with my own challenges with perfectionism. I have a high standard of behavior and work product for myself; based on the therapy I’ve done it probably stems from childhood efforts to get praise or attention from my parents – many of us have some version or another of this experience in our lives. In measured doses, a preference for right actions and high quality work can be great. If we take such tendencies too far, they can become damaging. This applies to school settings as well. The VAIS standards for accreditation (there are 11 of them, and you can learn about here) represent an ideal state – the perfect school as described by modern educational experts. They certainly don’t reflect reality in any single institution, because every school is on a perpetual journey of growth and improvement.
When Gesher was going through the accreditation process, it became my job (often) to remind our professionals that the goal wasn’t to present a school that perfectly meets or exceeds all eleven standards, because that would require either impossible effort or lying. We are not perfect. The goal was to authentically communicate who we are, to provide evidence that supports that story, and to acknowledge openly the areas in which we know we would like to grow. My experience as a member of an accreditation team confirmed that outlook – the team is not there to catch the school in any areas in which they are failing in order to deny them accreditation. The team is there to help hold up a mirror for the entire community to truly reflect on themselves in order to grow.
I speak often about the mission of our school as educating children in order to prepare them for meaningful lives. For me, a big part of the definition of “meaningful,” includes awareness of the fact that we are imperfect beings, even while we are also created B’Tzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image). Living meaningfully includes finding opportunities through reflection and relationships to look at those mirrors at least once in a while (or perhaps regularly) and make decisions about how to grow. That’s hard work, but if we can help children learn to do it while they are young, then we are setting them up for healthy lives. They need to understand that we love each other not in spite of our imperfections, but in ways that accept one another as whole people, warts and all.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to open yourself up to your loved ones, and ask some questions about how they think you could grow.