A Relationship of Inestimable Value

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By Lark P. Palma, PhD, head of school

Lark Palma, head of schoolFrom the Spring 2009 Caller

This edition of the Caller is dedicated to teaching and learning. Our mission and our values all emanate from the relationship between students and teachers. Here we celebrate and uphold that unique relationship.

A beloved retired teacher once said to me that it’s all about the students and their teacher—and whether that occurs on a log bench or a classroom isn’t important. It’s the daily back-and-forth, the challenges, the victories, and the trust that matter.

Now, of course we know that buildings, technology, and equipment can enrich and enhance the school experience. But they are all there to serve the learning process.

We have all been concerned lately with our shared economic problems. Here at Catlin Gabel we are also facing those realities, and we do so with the unwavering intention of keeping the essential elements of our school lively and vibrant. If you would like to read more about our approach to these economic realities, please take a look at the letters I have sent to the community, available on the school website (www.catlin.edu) under “Head of School.”

There’s a great scene in the David Lean film Dr. Zhivago in which Yuri and his half-brother Yevgrav talk about how the purpose of the revolution is to cure society’s inequities. The revolution has to be a deep operation, Yuri says, but no matter what, the people must keep living. In planning for the future, we must be vigilant to make sure that teaching and learning are always at the center, and always fully alive, at Catlin Gabel.

By being meticulous in our budget planning, we have made sure to never compromise what happens in the classroom. The board and staff started two years ago considering the importance of accessibility to all the families we want to serve. A major part of our thinking during this economic situation has been keeping the school affordable to families, so this year we increased tuition by the lowest percentage in 10 years. In order to become more accessible we are continuing to reduce expenses, which is particularly challenging in a budget model where revenues don’t change all that much.

I can report to you that we are in good shape financially for the 2009–10 school year and are planning for future years, as we always do, through a five-year financial plan that supports the educational goals of the school. We always keep in mind that donations make possible much of what happens at the school, and we are grateful to generous donors who have supported the school during good times, and during these leaner times.

In making all budget decisions, we ask ourselves: what is essential to teaching and learning?

We decided to continue to improve teacher salaries to meet a benchmark established five years ago: to be within 90 percent of the highest-paying local school districts. This is a strong indicator of how important our teachers are. And to demonstrate our commitment to our curriculum, we have added several school days to our teaching year. When we keep the focus on the students and their relationships with the faculty, what is essential comes into sharper focus.

How have we reduced expenses that we feel are sustainable into the future, not those done just in response to the current situation? Here are some examples, and there are many more.

  • Printing and mailing costs have been cut through increasing reliance on our website as our primary mode of communication.
  • Fundraising and community events costs have been cut by making them simpler and by requesting donated food and venues.
  • Heating, cooling, and waste expenses have been reduced. We have saved over $10,000 so far this year in energy costs alone.
  • We are relying more on in-house expertise instead of vendors and consultants.

Students at Catlin Gabel refer to all of us who teach and work here by our first names, an indication of what makes up relationships here—tremendous mutual respect, coupled with an easy familiarity that reduces the power barriers you find in most schools. At Catlin Gabel teachers and students are equal partners in the act of learning. 

The pages of this issue are filled with personal stories of teachers and students, and their mutual admiration, respect, and faith in each other. Reading the reminiscences of our alumni, I am struck by the lasting impressions and influence teachers have on their students—and vice versa. Many of our teachers stay in frequent communication with our alumni all over the country and the world, some for 20 years or more. They have become friends.

We can’t predict the future, but there’s always a possibility that the economic situation may worsen—and we acknowledge that as we think about our financial planning. Although choices may continue to be hard, our guiding principle will always be to preserve the most important aspect of the school—the relationship between teachers and students.