Responsible Leadership and Student Voice

Judith Guild, Head of School
The following remarks are from Mrs. Guild's speech at Opening Convocation

Welcome to the 2019-2020 School year. I am delighted to be welcoming back such a wonderful group of students and to have so many new students join our School. Before I start my short talk about this year’s theme, “Responsible Leadership and Student Voice,” I would like you to join me in welcoming our new faculty. Please also join me in thanking our administrators for their outstanding leadership of the School and their hard work in getting our new school ready, to all our teachers for their commitment and dedication to educating you, and to our staff for the support and service to all of us.
In June the administrative team deliberated about our role as educational leaders. Our discussion focused on what is important for you as learners in the year 2019. There were several creative ideas and insights from the faculty, and we had lengthy discussions about what our school community would benefit from as we learn together in this academic year. Our collective wisdom, problem solving, and experience directed us to our theme for the year, “Responsible Leadership and Student Voice.”

This theme pertains to the work of all of us. The School’s mission and guiding principles direct Brimmer’s educators in the task of helping students gain power over their own learning, to develop unique voices, and to participate responsibly in society. You, our students, will develop your voice over time in a carefully designed classroom environment. Teachers will give you choices and opportunities to express yourself so that you can discover what interests you and how you view the world around you. Developing your voice must be paired with understanding the responsibility that comes with it. Our words and actions impact others, and at Brimmer we embrace that fact in the School’s core values. This year our community will be focusing on the Core Value of responsibility; and as students you will be asked to think about the impact you have on others here at school, in our local community, our nation, and the world. Each speaker this morning will illustrate how we will work to achieve this in the year ahead.
As I reflected on the theme of “Responsible Leadership and Student Voice” over the summer, I thought of how these five words work together. First let me unpack the concept of responsible leadership. When thinking of how people become leaders, I was reminded of the time in the mid 1800’s when Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, just on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. This summer the curators of Walden Pond State Park posted chapters of a children’s story that illustrate the life of Henry David Thoreau on the walking path around Walden Pond. At various points around this beautifully clean and clear pond, young people can stop and read the story. In this story, the author highlighted the rights and responsibilities of citizens. As you may know, local town officials imprisoned Mr. Thoreau for not paying his poll tax. He refused to pay the tax because he opposed slavery and believed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico was an unjust, imperialistic war, and the government was using the taxes it collected to wage this war and expand slavery's domain.
Thoreau's essay, Civil Disobedience, illustrates his feelings associated with being a conscientious objector and his commitment to upholding his personal sense of civic responsibility. He took a stand against slavery and what he thought was an unjust government, and this resulted in being arrested and thrown into prison. He decided to model for others how to resist the government in a non-violent way when a person’s moral principles needed defending. If you want to know what happened to him after that, you should go walk around Walden Pond and read the rest of the story! Or read one of his essays or books.
In Thoreau’s time, and maybe even now, it was a commonly held idea that Americans, in general, were fixated on their rights but often neglected their responsibilities. Thoreau’s decision was criticized because he had a national responsibility to pay taxes, but he took a personal stance of moral responsibility when he engaged actively in what he thought was right. Collectively as people we are responsible for our natural, social, and political environment, but we are also responsible to act as individuals.
This is where the last two words of this year’s theme play an important role: student voice. This concept is more than it appears to be at first glance. How do you each develop your voice? How is your voice uniquely your own and not your friends’ voice, parents’ voice, or teachers’ voice? As you saw with Thoreau, his actions impacted others. Before he acted, he had developed his own voice and was willing to take personal responsibility for it. The core value of responsibility underpins the work of using voice when working with others, and the pairing of these ideas helps us to be productive and positive members of society. When we express our ideas, the words we use determine the outcome. As you know, there is a great deal of power in words. Maya Angelou, Nobel Prize winner and author of some of our nation’s greatest work, had a way of talking about how words impact others, and she inspired people to listen. Let’s listen to what she has to say:
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”

As you think about developing your voice this year and making responsible decisions on how to use it, be careful. Taking care with how you use words is a life-long commitment. I myself work hard at this, but still I make mistakes that can have unintended consequences. Try not to hurry or take short cuts with your words. Maya Angelou went on to say more about this when she writes:

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the power of words. But words have the power to bring out the best or the worst in you. To lift you up or tear you down. With your words, you can either empower or disempower, both yourself and those with whom you share your words. And that is why it is so important to pay close attention to the words you use.”
I think Henry David Thoreau knew exactly what was going to happen if he did not pay his taxes. I think he was careful with his words, had developed his voice, and had decided to take responsibility for a nation’s actions by making a very loud statement in a very quiet way. He helped bring attention to the immoral behavior of enslaving others, and he was empowering others to do the same. He was calling out the ignorance of society and asking his fellow citizens to take responsibility for how we act and lead. Maya Angelou knew how powerful our voices can be and urged us to be careful and responsible with this power. As you begin your pursuit of knowledge once again this year, I encourage you to be responsible leaders with voices of meaningful and positive consequence.
As an inclusive private school community, Brimmer welcomes students who will increase the diversity of our school. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender, gender identity and expression, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or any other characteristic protected from discrimination under state or federal law, in the administration of our educational policies, admissions practices, financial aid decisions, and athletic and other school-administered programs.