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Resilience and Adaptability: Our Daily Challenge

"Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good."
― Elizabeth Edwards

"Adaptability is the simple secret of survival."
―Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn

I have spent a lot of time this academic year repeating the mantra resilience and adaptability, two characteristics I value highly. Resilience, as commonly defined, is the capacity to keep going in the face of difficulty, and adaptability is the ability to adjust to new circumstances. I am proud of the way everyone in our entire School community―students, faculty, and staff―has displayed resilience and adaptability in the face of a multitude of challenges.

Because I value resilience and adaptability so highly, and because I know that they are applicable to everyone here, in some manner, as we go through our days, I am devoting this Chapel Talk to a more personal reflection, rather than an institutional one. Speaking personally, my resilience and adaptability was sorely tested in 2020 by the pandemic, by loss, and by the imperative of antiracism. The testing has prompted some important and hard learning which I know will continue and will serve me well in all parts of my life moving forward.


For me, resilience was required by the very fact that COVID-19 forced us to close the campus for the spring and much of the summer. We could not be together as an in-person community, and what we do in-person together brings me such joy. I thrive on the chance interactions in the hallways, visiting classes or dropping by a dorm in the evening, engaging in conversations at lunch and dinner, watching music and drama performances, and cheering on our athletic teams. Like you, I needed to adapt to a Zoom way of interacting, for me with advisees, the monitors, larger groups of students, my faculty and staff colleagues, and parents and graduates. We had some excellent moments as a School last spring nonetheless, thanks to the hard work and creative thinking of many which I deeply appreciate. Our 2020 Prize Day week events come particularly to mind.

For me, the challenges of COVID required an adaptation in my way of leading St. Mark's. While I believe now, by the beginning of 2021, I have made that adaptation, I am also aware―as I have learned from unvarnished and necessary feedback―that I did not adjust to the new circumstances as quickly or as effectively as I should have. For too long, I approached the leadership work with the senior administrative team in the same manner as I do in normal times. I also failed to reach out, to really listen, and to communicate sufficiently and effectively to the groups and individuals to whom I have leadership responsibility.

I certainly hope that St. Mark's is never confronted with another pandemic. However, we need to be ready for another severe and long-lasting crisis, recognizing that the form it takes cannot necessarily be predicted. Certainly, I have learned lessons about how the head of school needs to lead during this sort of crisis, as have my colleagues. These lessons will get incorporated into a playbook that already exists to provide guidance for any number of emergencies. I have also learned leadership lessons about communication and listening from this crisis that will make me a better leader in normal times.

My resilience was also tested this spring because of the illness and death of my father-in-law, Dr. Warren's father, at the beginning of May. Ever since 1982, my father-in-law, George Appell, has been a source of encouragement and wise counsel, an important role model, and dear friend. We have spent a lot of time together over almost 40 years. That time includes months-long camping and canoeing trips in the Canadian North before I started doing administrative work. George Appell was also just about the most loving, caring grandfather and great grandfather you could ever hope to find. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in August of 2019, and a silver lining of COVID is that, since the campus was closed this spring, I could be with my father-in-law and Dr. Warren during his last weeks, including being part of his hospice team. I am well aware that I am far from alone in needing to practice resilience because of loss during this time of COVID, and I am well aware that the loss can be separation from family and loved ones as well as death. Like so many others in and beyond this community, personal loss has added for me to the challenge of this time.

The testimonials on the Black@SM Instagram feed, and the reactions to them, also sorely tested my resilience and adaptability. From the time I started as head in 2006, leading our school so that we embrace diversity ever more fully has been a top priority for me, indeed a passion. So, the reports of St. Mark's not being experienced that way during my tenure were devastating, and incredibly important for me to hear. The evidence clearly indicated that I needed to lead differently.

Most important to that different leadership approach are action steps. I am proud that the Pathways Prefects, along with over 400 signers of a petition, have identified three important action steps for 2020-2021 and beyond that we are undertaking. Academic departments are examining and adjusting their curriculum, required annual professional development is in place for faculty and staff, and we have increased our support resources for Black and Brown students. Also, Director of Community and Equity Affairs John Daves is developing, with me and the Trustees and others, a five-year antiracism action plan which will provide further action steps.

Feedback about letters I wrote this spring and summer in response to the Black@SM testimonials taught me that how I write and talk about diversity, equity and inclusion needed to change too. While some feedback was supportive, I received a large number of emails and phone calls that were extremely critical of my messages, and from the exact opposite points of view. Some critics claimed that my words indicated a lack of personal and institutional commitment to any aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion. By contrast, other critics claimed that my words indicated an extreme radical leftist and insensitive point of view, inappropriate for anyone associated with St. Mark's School, especially the head. Reading the negative emails from these diametrically opposite positions, and hearing similar feedback in telephone conversations, often prompted a visceral physical reaction—a burning in my stomach—because they felt unfair, and unfair about one of my most deeply held principles.

Once I got over that emotional reaction, however, this criticism prompted some important learning and growth. Upon reflection, and careful reading and listening, I realized that my initial messages had indeed been insufficiently bold. My language did not convey the depth of my commitment, in part because of a temperamental desire I have carried throughout my life to avoid offending anyone. I came to realize that my messages were going to offend some recipients whatever I said and that my messages needed to become more assertive if I was going to send the necessary leadership signal about the depth of my commitment. So, my messages have become more assertive.

I also came to realize that my messages lacked sufficient explanation about what key words and phrases mean to me and to St. Mark's. Absent that explanation, a reader's mistaken assumptions about what I mean by these words and phrases are entirely understandable. So, I needed to explain better.

Using the phrase Black Lives Matter, for example, signals my commitment to bringing us ever closer to the day when every single member of the St. Mark's community feels fully accepted for all aspects of their identity. My use of that phrase is not intended to associate St. Mark's with a call for abolishing capitalism, as some extreme commentators do when they use that phrase (1). When I use the word antiracism I mean confronting the reality that policies and practices can promote racial inequity and those must be replaced with policies and practices that promote racial equity. When I say antiracism, I am not attacking members of this community.

I am happy to report that evidence that both of these adjustments in how I communicate have had a positive effect. I know, at the same time, that I need to continue to pay close attention to what I say and write because words, as well as actions, matter in leadership.

We all have reflections to offer and stories to tell about the ways we have been tested over the last 10 months. Indeed, I am extremely proud of the many examples of resilience and adaptability I have seen at St. Mark's as we have confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, a virus devastating to our communities, to our countries, and to the entire world. I am proud too of the many examples of resilience and adaptability I have seen at St. Mark's as we have confronted systemic racism. Regrettably, long after a vaccine has mitigated the impact of COVID-19, systemic racism will still exist and will therefore require a firm ongoing antiracism commitment from all of us at St. Mark's. I look forward to continuing the work in both arenas in 2021 together and commit to continuing learning and continuing growth as I employ my best possible resilience and adaptability.
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John Warren '74