The Culture of Performance… Applied

The Culture of Performance… Applied

by Director of College Advising Melanie Reed

I had heard it all before.

Like any current or recovering college admission counselor, director, or dean, I had encountered thousands of high schools in my career. On my admission travels visiting schools around the country, I appreciated hearing individual school philosophy articulated. From “college-prep,” to “experiential,” to “faith-based,” and more, high schools either knew their missions or they didn’t; students demonstrated those missions or they didn’t; and college advisors interpreted those missions to college admission folk like me, or they didn’t.

I had been keen on Seattle Academy my entire career. My predecessor in College Advising had invited me to a couple of guest speaking opportunities when I served as Director of Freshman Admission at the University of Puget Sound. I was struck then—as now—with the electricity of the school. There was something different about Seattle Academy, something that leapt at me (perhaps even fittingly grand jetéd at me) and at other college representatives, upon visiting.

I’ve been in the shoes of the college admission representatives who visit Seattle Academy. I experienced firsthand that triple threat of energy, color, and curiosity that welcomes visitors to the school. It’s attention-grabbing. When next, as a college admission representative, you hear firsthand about the school’s Culture of Performance, you realize there’s something very deliberate about what might be simply “that kid in a banana costume” (someone I did meet in my first days of Seattle Academy employment) at another school less intentional in its approach.

My research on, sense of “fit” with, and transition to, Seattle Academy was similar to that which prospective families undergo. Seeking, as many college admission professionals do, a switch to “the other side of the desk,” I knew I could only make the professional transition to an independent school I already liked and respected. It’s an occupational hazard in college admission: If you’re lucky, you already know too much about high schools (and the notion of “fit”) to work anywhere you don’t appreciate and don’t “match.”
And so, like any prospective or new student, I experienced the Culture of Performance from a critical distance and then from a participant’s point of view. From the beginning, I loved the originality and practicality of a school philosophy that asked students to take action at moments of vulnerability. I appreciated the breadth of the Culture of Performance’s application: its visibility on the stage, in the classroom, on the playing field, and in the community. I understood its function in the firm handshakes of even the most seemingly unlikely students, the expectation that every student rotate through visual and performing arts classes, and the sense of risk present in expected “Curtain Call” performances each trimester.

As I started articulating the Culture of Performance for the nearly one hundred and fifty college reps who visit Seattle Academy each year, I stressed the independence that is somewhat natural to students who choose an urban high school in a vibrant neighborhood, but also the independence that develops in those students when they are equally “on” in their interactions with local businesspeople or community-based organizations. I explained the expectation that students perform everywhere—from the classroom to the film lab—and the kind of résumé material that generated. I still see and celebrate all of the above, everyday, and the three of us who work in College Advising draw on experience in college admission as we help students translate those experiences to colleges in terms that college admission professionals understand.

Then it hit me. The Culture of Performance is the ideal foundation for students’ college admission processes, but for reasons different than expected. True, Seattle Academy students do lots of “stuff,” much of which contributes to their college essays and activity lists. True, Seattle Academy students interview well and shake hands assuredly with college representatives. True, Seattle Academy students build the rich college preparatory foundation that colleges desire. All of the above arms them with tools for a college admission process seemingly more complicated and mysterious than in days of yore. The Culture of Performance, however, takes the essentials of a rigorous, demanding college prep program, and puts booster rockets behind them. Because it helps shepherd emergent adults through moments of vulnerability, the Culture of Performance trains students to deal with risky, potentially high-stakes situations. It builds a sort of individual “muscle memory” that (in part) yields college investigation that is successful, healthy, empathetic, and developmentally appropriate.

It’s no surprise that teenagers – even dazzlingly smart and talented ones – are not ready for everything they encounter. Some of that is developmental, which we’ll get to in a second, and some of that stems from societal, cultural, and familial efforts to prevent them from feeling hurt, pain, or fear. Lori Gottlieb explores the above in her July/August 2011 Atlantic article, How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the Obsession with Our Kids’ Happiness May Be Dooming them to Unhappy Adulthoods: A Therapist and Mother Reports. Gottlieb quotes Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who outlines a childhood scenario not unlike losing one’s balance in a Seattle Academy “Curtain Call” pirouette:

“Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock,” Bohn says. “Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But,” Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with a S.O.S. if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it.”

There is much about the development of the teenage brain that echoes that trip over a playground rock (or hitting your head repeatedly with one, parents might add). In basic terms, adolescents transition from self-focus, to external-focus, and finally to a balance of self- and external-focus characterized by both a genuine sense of self, and an ability to consider the perspectives and needs of others. No matter how intelligent and “college prepared,” however, this final stage of what researchers Robert Kegan and Marcia Baxter Magolda call “self authorship” may not occur until one’s thirties, well after most candidates have applied to, chosen, and attended colleges.

As you may have gathered from the above (or from your own experience), teenagers and college applications are on different schedules. Young people’s developing brains are at least temporarily at odds with the self-awareness, critical thinking, and long-range planning that seems so obvious and necessary to adults observing the college admission process. University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ college counselor Patty Kovacs writes in her article “Effects of the College Admission Process on Adolescent Development” for the Winter 2008 Journal of College Admission, “Adolescents are moving from dependence to independence, from childhood into adulthood, from parent-protected to self-regulated—and the college process intervenes, often for up to a year and a half, in the midst of an unfinished journey.” Well before a person can comprehend himself (not to mention translate that self colorfully to a seemingly mysterious admission committee), Seattle Academy’s Culture of Performance provides the scaffolding for the project.

Even in a college process as hyper-organized, informed, and structured as Seattle Academy’s, students will hit that playground rock in one form or another, if only because the transition to college can expose the vulnerabilities of already vulnerable adolescents.  And yet, if you’ve already presented in front of your teachers, explained something to a small group of classmates, tried out for a new sport, or survived a hike you previously thought impossible, the newness and occasional disorientation of what is essentially your first “professional” experience, the college-seeking process, is yet another step on the trail.

Students who live the Culture of Performance know how to right themselves when that metaphoric (or real) pirouette goes sideways. Alina Tugend writes in her May 2011 Education Week article “Why Wrong Is Not Always Bad,” “What we often lose in this conversation [about how schools can improve] is something else—the need to teach kids how to fail… What I’m talking about is how so many of our children are taught, covertly or overtly, that mistakes are something to avoid at all costs, that there is only one right answer and if you don’t know it, well, you’re a failure.” Tugend’s article goes on to argue that “what we’re creating… are kids who are afraid to take risks, to be creative, to be wrong. When we tell kids that learning is all about the results, we teach them that mistakes are something to be feared and avoided. We stifle their interest in experimenting because experimenting means you’re going to screw up and blunder and fail. And that’s too big a risk.” Or, as Tina Fey puts it in her recent book, Bossypants, “[Kids need to be] a little afraid of what will happen if they lose the top of their Grizzly Adams thermos.” In the Culture of Performance, students not only gain experience and self-confidence, but they can make the downright weirdness of applying to college as familiar to them as a missed note on the stage or a missed play on the soccer pitch.

The Culture of Performance is presenting research in front of one’s biology class, or accessing real emotion on stage, or asking an adult for help… and it is more.  It is shaking off defeat, it is celebrating graciously, it is serving as a good “audience member” for your classmates’ successes and challenges, and it is communicating the truest, most vibrant self available at a particular developmental moment. In other words: “That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it.”

The Culture of Performance is why I was able, as College Advisor, to assure an advisee that her first (and only) A- wouldn’t sink her college hopes (far from it). It’s why a former athletic star could explain in her college essay how much it hurt when an injury dramatically changed her plans. It’s why 100% of Seattle Academy students who apply to college gain admission, and why their trust in the advice of College Advising yields renewable scholarship offers (this year upwards of $6 million in merit aid offers alone) when needed. It’s why seniors can stand up in front of audiences and present on how the Culture of Performance helped them solve problems in their senior internships.

The Culture of Performance doesn’t automatically gain students “college success.” The process still requires structure, work, trust, and generosity of spirit. It requires teachers unified in commitment to the mission, yet highly individualized in how they model it for, and execute it with, students. Still, student-by-student, Seattle Academy’s Culture of Performance tends to yield outcomes that are not only strong relative to the candidate, but appropriate for each candidate’s next steps. Perhaps more significantly, especially in the current “Race to Nowhere” college-seeking climate, the Culture of Performance challenges, supports, and inspires students who are both intact emotionally and rightfully proud of themselves when the process concludes.  I know my colleagues and I are proud of them, and I’m proud to represent a place with a sound, innovative philosophy that helps make that happen.

This article was originally published in the 2011-2012 issue of Best of SAAS, Seattle Academy’s annual magazine.