Contemplations from Kim: Purposeful Work

By Kim Wargo, Head of School

There is no doubt that I have never had such a deep connection to the PURPOSE of a school – and to my personal purpose as an educator – as I have found at Lab.

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Lab is the third school that I have had the privilege of serving as Head. Each of them called to me as a candidate because I connected personally and professionally with the mission of the School. At each, I found much to love. I worked with inspiring students, talented teachers, and supportive parents. However, there is no doubt that I have never had such a deep connection to the PURPOSE of a school – and to my personal purpose as an educator – as I have found at Lab.

As I thought about writing to our community right before our much-anticipated and deeply deserved Winter Break, I found myself asking WHY. Why do I feel more purposeful about my work at Lab than at any other place I’ve been?

Here are just a few reasons why.

Lab encourages students to embrace challenges. I was a theater kid in high school. I went to one of those big, public high schools like the one in High School Musical, where you were either a theater kid, or a jock, or a brainiac – but you could really just be one of those things. And In my high school theater experience, we stuck to stories that anyone could tell.

That is not the way we do things at Lab.

Our recent stellar production of The Laramie Project showcased the talents of more than 30 students, many of whom are also athletes or who are better known for their participation in other parts of school life. This show required our Upper School students to tackle challenging, emotional material through individual vignettes and monologues. In this show, the actors can’t rely on the usual “cues” that come from playing a scene together. Each scene is individually demanding. While there is a narrative arc that builds, the story itself depends on each player’s ability to carry their individual part. Through their unapologetic telling of the story of the aftermath of an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming, our students produced a profound theatrical experience for the audience and for themselves. They unequivocally stated that “Hate is not a Lab value.” Our students embraced the challenge of sharing this important story, and they nailed it.

Lab meets students where they are so that they can reach beyond what they believe is possible. The past two weeks have been filled with middle school performing arts showcases and concerts. Honestly, there is nothing in the world like middle schoolers on stage. In each performance there were students who arrived on our campuses on their first day brimming with theatrical and musical gifts; there were students who were venturing onto that stage these past two weeks for the very first time; and there were students who have recently discovered that they have a passion for performing. In each performance, I found myself tearing up as I witnessed our students experience the confidence and joy that comes from creating something that is shared with an audience. I found myself wishing every person in our community could have been in those performances to witness the power of what our teachers do – and that is helping students achieve big things that they may not have previously imagined themselves capable of doing.

And in doing all of this, Lab doesn’t expect perfection, and in fact, teaches students to welcome mistakes. In many schools where I have worked, the culture of perfectionism has been almost debilitating for student learning. There is nothing that shuts down an opportunity to grow more quickly than the fear of making a mistake. I believe that the moment of “I don’t know” is the only true opportunity to learn. For students, this can be an “I don’t know” in math, in reading or writing, or in a social interaction with peers. The high stakes environment that permeates many schools makes the moment of “I don’t know” something to be avoided, rather than welcomed.

Lab turns this environment on its head. All of our students have experienced some form of struggle in school before coming to Lab. As young people with learning differences, they have run into the moment of “I don’t know” more times than they may care to count. On a daily basis, our skillful team help them put down the psychological baggage that accompanies the mountain of “I don’t knows.” Our teachers and clinicians demonstrate patience, dedication, and an unwillingness to allow any student to remain “stuck.” Indeed, they persist in helping students make the leap to seeing the moment of “I don’t know” as a natural part of life, as a necessary part of the process of learning, rather than something to be feared. This shift in mindset doesn’t change the fact that learning is hard – and that learning differently can feel even harder. However, it ensures that students feel empowered by learning and more willing to tackle their challenges.

Why do I feel more purposeful about my work at Lab than any other place I’ve been?

Because Lab speaks to everything I believe about teaching and learning. The skills and mindsets that are a part of the daily life of our School ensure that Lab is a place where students thrive, rather than survive. The skills and mindsets that are a part of the daily life of our School are the ones that any person needs to live a fulfilled and meaningful life.

I am grateful to be a part of this inspiring place where our purpose is so clear and so important.

I wish each of you a joyful and restful break, and a purpose-filled new year.