The Upper School Dean of Students on how he learned to "Embrace the Imperfect"

To redesign a remote learning schedule, teachers and administrators lean into experimentation and reflection—just as they ask their students to do

By John Harnetiaux, Upper School Dean of Students

A powerful reflective moment emerged as faculty and staff gathered remotely in August to prepare for the start of the school year. At the conclusion of our all-employee meeting, Assistant Head of School Barbara Ostos asked us to “embrace the imperfect.” The suggestion was meant to acknowledge the stark reality of beginning the school year during a pandemic, and the uncertainty that it would entail. And it inspired me to ask myself: what does “embrace the imperfect” actually look like at Catlin Gabel, a school known for its high standards and expectations? What specific actions could I take to give body to this phrase? And, most importantly, what might be gained for our students in adopting this approach throughout the school year?

Stepping into my new role as Upper School Dean of Students this fall, I have leaned on our school’s commitment to becoming an educational laboratory in my attempts to embrace the imperfect. I have been reminded that many of the same learning competencies we promote for our students—inquiry, ideation, exploration, and reflection—are as important for me to practice as a leader and an active follower during challenging times as they are for students as they build their academic and social-emotional skills.

Students wrestle with complex texts; test their ideas by conducting experiments and drawing conclusions; collaborate with others on group presentations; present their ideas, and back them up with evidence. As teachers and administrators, we often find ourselves on parallel processes, especially when it comes to reflecting on the impact of our choices in order to apply what we learned to the next set of complex decisions.

In that spirit, the Upper School began to critically assess our remote learning schedule in late October. We were hearing from students, families, and teachers that the many hours of Zoom, pervasive social isolation, and lack of time to devote to wellness were beginning to exact tolls on some community members. After an extensive process of collecting feedback from our community, and from peer schools locally and nationally, we began to play with some prototypes of what a new schedule could look like. We established design criteria and attempted to reconcile many points of contradictory feedback, recognizing that some students were thriving, others struggling, and many fell somewhere in between.

We landed on a schedule design that allocated Wednesdays as “community days” with no classes, and with opportunities for student enrichment. The number of teachers’ office hours throughout the week was increased, and class time lengthened. Unsurprisingly, not all community members welcomed these changes; we knew there was never going to be a perfect solution. But we did as we encourage our students to do—we gathered input, made decisions, and moved forward with a reflective curiosity.

Our students are in a constant state of experimentation in both their academic and social lives. We encourage them to not hold too tightly onto any one phase lest they suffocate the creativity and innovation available to them at any given moment. We must do the same now as adults, viewing such moments as “a” decision, not “the” decision. We must continue to gather feedback, collaborate to assess the impacts, and marshal what we learn into future experiences and quagmires. This is the heart of our educational laboratory.

I am inspired to remember that the same strategies I promote to my students help me as well—to not only embody humanity, but to navigate the ambiguity and volatility of our world’s current moment. In doing so, I have found what it means to me to embrace the imperfect.