Mike's Notes: The Art of Listening

Posted by Mike Henriques

06/30/2021

As I pen these last Notes, I think about the art of listening. Stepping away after 16 years of being the Head of School, I am filled with gratitude and a sense of deep appreciation for the many partnerships and relationships forged that helped steward Proctor forward. This community has been a blessing in my life - not always an easy one to be sure - but it has been instructive about much that is meaningful in the education and life journey: decency, caring, grace, resilience. These characteristics I will work to carry forward to build into the next life chapters. This church for decency and kindness has left deep impressions on me as it has so many others.

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In my office sitting on a bookshelf is a Native American talking stick, passed down since the early 1990s. It was a gift to the chair of the board of trustees at that time, John Pendleton. It is beaded, feathered, wrapped with fur. It has a delicate yet powerful heft. It was gifted to be passed down to successive board chairs over the years. Perhaps it was to bring order to board meetings. Perhaps it was just a visual reminder of the need to listen in those meetings. No scrolling through a phone. No typing out a text. No checking social media. Or the news. Or the weather. Or the score. The talking stick is a way to ensure order, a way to ensure focus, a way to build respect for the opinion of the other and work towards clarity and understanding. The one who holds it has the right to speak, others the responsibility to listen. It teases out the wisdom of the crowd, and I believe the listening that it requires builds greater tensile strength into community.

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I recall those first days of my headship in 2005 and a retreat in Vermont hosted by the board co-chairs, Bill and Betsy Peabody. There were powerful messages about taking care of the environment as we spent time clearing out one of those classic “over the precipice roadside dumps.” Refrigerators, freezers, bits of old cars, tires - all got hauled up to a dirt road to be carted away. The message heard? Take care of the land so it can take care of you. At the Pumpkin Hill retreat we shared meal chores - cooking, cleaning, dish washing - and it was clear: Proctor is a community where you pitch in for the greater good of all. And one evening, under the big tent with a fiddler and caller, showed up a raucous square dance. That one was easy: this is a school that knows how to celebrate together. Laugh and dance. 

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From those early days I listened, and even in these last days, I am listening. All of those early characteristics of community have carried forth but there have been new voices, new needs. The talking stick in my office has been a constant reminder: lean in to hear what others are saying. Hear what the needs are. Not every single need within the community will be met, nor necessarily should they be. Schools (and communities) are not places of instant gratification. Tussles are to be expected, even preferred as they remind us that community evolution is not a straight line but a series of jagged bobs up and down that with the right intention and the right caring results in the community becoming a better place. When there is listening, the trend is upwards. 

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No one is a perfect listener. I know I am not. I know that sometimes when pressing ears to the rails of community there can be such a jangle of needs and wants it is difficult to extract the appropriate signal to prioritize. But this school has gotten there in the past, and it will get there in the future. It is helped by a strong mission, a keen sense of identity, strong faculty and staff, and stellar programmatic opportunities for students. When I think about Proctor under its new leadership of Brian Thomas, I am excited  to see how the school will evolve. I am optimistic about the trend. Over the last nine months Brian has been listening hard, piecing together the workings of the school and the possibilities for the future. He is doing the work of listening, practicing the art.

So as I write my last Notes, get ready to turn in my keys after taking a last walk through the campus to visit soul corners, I leave with great assurance that the listening and the lessons of the talking stick continue. 

With gratitude and warmth, 

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Mike Henriques P'11, P'15

Proctor Academy Head of School

Read more of Mike's blog posts here.

    

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