Will was a gangly eighth grader, a little awkward but totally sincere. The two of us connected in that way that makes admissions work meaningful. He’d hang around after open houses to tell me about his part in the school play. He kept me updated on the minutiae of his life, which I appreciated because he was so earnest about it. The first call I got after decisions went out, and I mean literally the instant they went out, was from him.
Fast forward to winter break. Will’s family bought presents for everyone at the school. Not just his teachers, but all the teachers. The front desk crew. The lunch staff. He didn’t play a sport, but our athletic director got a bottle of wine. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was waiting with bated breath for something awesome. And what did I get? Well... nothing.
I tell that story often and not because I’m bitter but because I hear similar stories from so many admissions folks. When you do this work, the day a family starts at your school is the day you go from their best friend to some vaguely familiar face. That reality makes me a little sad but there’s also no other way for things to work. Will didn’t come to my school to hang out with me, he came for the teachers and coaches and all the kids. That’s who he needs to connect with. That’s where his focus should be.
For me, my focus is on the future. As admissions directors, we’re forever thinking about next year. We’re the only people who spend most of our time talking to kids that don’t even go to our schools. As I enter another year of doing this work, I’m starting to wonder if that’s right. If maybe my focus should be as much on the internal as it is on the external. I’m wondering what my place is in conversations that don’t have anything to do with enrollment.
Often admissions directors are seen as salespeople. Like we’re out here hawking used cars out of a roadside lot. Except we’re not. We’re educators, same as everyone else at a school. When we talk to families, we don’t send them off with a list of features – come to this school and you get Bluetooth and six months of satellite radio. We provide narratives. We tell stories. We talk about values, mission, and identity. We do our best to explain a community whose job is to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. And thinking about what we pass to our children and how we do it is the most deeply personal thinking someone can do.
No matter your background, you can’t do this job without being an educator. It simply doesn’t work. I don’t know if that’s really understood. An example – it feels like every year and at every school I’ve been in, there comes a time when someone from the math department complains about the lack of foundational skills in the new class. Maybe we’ve all had that experience – the experience of sitting there while a department chair complains at you because this year’s fresh people can’t seem to do anything right.
What if I pushed back? What if I wondered, aloud, if maybe it’s the instruction that’s the problem. If everyone is below the standard, then isn’t the standard what’s wrong? If we’ve been teaching math the same way for the last 40 years while the entire world has changed (and, yes, we’ve nipped at the edges of instruction, but not a lot has changed fundamentally), isn’t that the issue? Instead of complaining about what the kids seem to be missing, shouldn’t we be wondering what we’re missing?
Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford, recently proposed a new framework for math instruction in California. The goal was to have students engage in a curriculum whose end result didn’t have to be calculus. She wanted to make math applicable. So instead of learning how to divide polynomials, students would engage with data science (the kind of work that is undeniably more critical in today’s world than most of calculus).
Predictably, her plan was met with a lot of misplaced hysteria, mostly about the fear of injecting “wokeness” into math. “Even parents who hated math in school will argue to keep it the same for their kids,” she told the Times (Fortin). Though it sounds like the state of California will shoot down this new math framework, independent schools are not tied to what a state deems an appropriate curriculum. It would seem that the purpose of independent schools is either to impart privilege from one generation to the next OR to be incubators of educational thought. To wonder about school. What stops us from re-examining the way we teach math? Or any subject?
For me, that’s what I believe in. Change is my cause. I will always advocate for meaningful change in curriculum, in assessment, in pedagogy. And if I can effectively advocate for the kind of change I think is important, doesn’t that make me better at my job? Can’t I tell a better story about a school if I make myself a part of the conversation? Then I’m not telling a story about a place, I’m telling a story about me.
Your cause may be different, but we should all have one. Or more than one. And when our schools listen to things we have to say, it shouldn’t be limited to market trends and outreach and the things that visiting families might want to see on tours. It should include our authentic selves and encompass the things we believe. The most important thing parents want from admissions folks is sincere passion for our schools. That passion can’t exist if we live on the
outside looking in.
It’s easy to set the admissions department aside. To task us with doing a job and then celebrate us when the numbers come in. But as educators, we have to be more than that. We ought to push, to promote ideas, to talk about strategic priorities and values and identity. Our job is to build a community and that comes to more than just filling it with bodies.
No matter your background, you can’t do this job without being an educator, it simply doesn’t work.
We’re the only people who spend most of our time talking to kids that don’t even go to our schools.
Work Cited:Fortin, Jacey. “California tries to close the gap in math, but sets off a backlash.”https://www.nytimes.com, 2021, November 4,https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/04/us/california-math-curriculum-guidelines.html/ Accessed 10 April 2022.
Director of Enrollment Management