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Dr. Grauer's Column - Captains of Our Souls

Captains of Our Souls

A few years back one Grauer School graduate finished college and became a kayak guide in Hawaii. When he came to visit me, he was concerned if it was “enough.” As if to get permission from me, he justified, “Stuart, I never imagined I could be so happy!” 

Of course, I loved it and could not have been more proud of him. He went on to get his captain’s license, and today he captains ships all over the Hawaiian Islands and beyond—happier and freer than ever. 

Dr. Grauer teaching 7th grade students how to raise the flag for their daily morning Flag Duty - August 26, 2021

Often our highest callings are simply a matter of giving ourselves permission to pursue inner inclinations that may not look like traditional success. Indeed, I suspect all the highest callings are that way. How can we nurture real “callings” in a world seemingly obsessed with straight and narrow pathways through high school, college, and job?

It takes a lot of courage to follow those callings against the grain. Our faculty believes that encouraging and accommodating such callings is one of the highest purposes for school. 

What motivates our students at Grauer? Will they develop the courage of their convictions? Famously, at many “top” high schools, a fundamental motivation for students is to achieve high ranks and scores, to compete for grades, despite decades of research showing the troubles with this. “Pressure to excel” is not a “core value,” such as Grauer defines it, nor is it considered to be an authentic or particularly healthy purpose. 

In fact, pressure to excel ranks as high as poverty, trauma, and discrimination as a negative stressor among teens today. [1]

The Grauer School was formed as an antidote to this epidemic and the full catastrophe it spawns. We have developed a robust evaluation program so we can learn what motivates our kids. Our goal is that student work somehow comes from the heart, from creative instincts, and from a growing sense that each student is developing what the world somehow calls them to be developing—like my former student, now a proud ship captain, did. You might say that “callings” are our essential work.

Happy Grauer High School students on the first day of school - August 24, 2021

Of course, we cannot express confidence and success in our work unless we verify that we are really achieving it. We have always evaluated student achievement of our core values, but those measures are all school wide and we always wanted “norms”—larger measures of our success. Hence, we spent years seeking measures of the highest reliability, validity and worth.  A few years ago, we located the “Panorama Survey”, which is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Panorama Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Survey is a set of scales, or groups of questions, that measure perceptions of teaching and learning. That might sound easy to do, but that is only the start: the real crux of it is that it enables us to compare our work at The Grauer School to other schools nationwide. 

This has been a journey. Today, Panorama serves over 5 million students in 7,000 schools in 40 states nationwide—and Grauer has been along for the whole ride. These schools, like Grauer, have relied on Panorama’s surveys and analytics [2] as central tools for understanding student needs and progress across climate and culture, family engagement, and social-emotional learning.

So, what have we found? What did Panorama show us?

We always suspected that there was something special going on at Grauer. We could feel it. But could we put our finger on it? Get ready to have your mind opened wider about the purposes and impacts of great education, because here is the actual data on what we intuitively knew all along:

Grauer consistently scores in the 99th percentile among and high school students across widely diverse geographical areas all across the nation: 99th percentile means this: Grauer scores as high as you can possibly score in the work we set out to do—the work we promise to deliver. 

Of the 5 million students surveyed at 7000 schools, Grauer kids are at the top.  

This is an astonishing finding, and it does not come from any pressure to succeed or to achieve any rank, though we get the pressures some families and students feel to those ends. Truly, those pressures are the enemy of our work.

Here is a fascinating observation:  Our last Panorama testing was held mid-pandemic, and the data held solid. In my opinion, and that of many others, we probably needed high student engagement and a strong social-emotional program mid-pandemic more than any time in the history of our school. Mid-pandemic, the pressure and stress on students and teachers was off the charts and that’s where Grauer proved our mettle and spirit. 

Grauer Middle School students competing in a Homeroom Competition to keep a balloon afloat - August 27, 2021

Let’s break it down. The surveys measure students’ thoughts and feelings about teaching and learning. In 2021, Grauer students responded to questions in these specific areas:

  • Vitality of the social and learning climate
  • Physical and psychological safety at school
  • Strength of the connection between teachers and students in and out of the classroom
  • Rigor of teacher expectations around effort, understanding, persistence and performance in class
  • Sense of belonging and being valued as a member of the school community
  • Degree to which the school experience is engaging, informative, important, relevant and useful

And what did we find? Compared to the nationwide sample of high school students, Grauer students’ responses were in the 99th percentile in all of these areas.

School climate and culture have a constant impact on students' academic success and development of all manner of competencies, not just social and emotional. A high trust, low threat environment turns out to be the key to motivation and high performance. This statement was a part of our first school brochure 30 years ago, and now we have hard data to back it up. 

Motivation, engagement, and social and emotional skills are not extra-curricular—they are critical to sensitive, relevant scholarship. Naturally, they are critical to career and life success. According to the Grauer philosophy, there is not much worse for a student than scholarship done for the purpose of proving superiority over other students. Of course, achieving a philosophy is never easy and there are many obstacles along the way.

Often our highest callings are simply a matter of giving ourselves permission to pursue inner inclinations that may not look like traditional success. Indeed, I suspect all the highest callings are that way.

One obstacle to a more intrinsically motivated approach to school is that it can take enormous courage from parents. Parents understandably tend to love the easy benchmarks like GPA, and it can require enormous patience for parents to trust the emerging talent and purpose of their teen—it’s not always evident or measurable! We feel this, too, and are here to encourage parents. Our refrain for parents:  Patience and encouragement!

Similarly, there is a countermovement of those who say, essentially, “Shut up and do the work—don’t give me that touchy feely stuff.”  They will tell you, “Life is filled with adversity and we need to power through.” This illustrates what I call “the arrogance school of thought.” 

Here is the Grauer response to arrogance: “Yes, we must prepare for adversity, and thousands of years of warriorship tell us how to do that: through balance in thought and action, a clear mind, non-aggression, and probably a bit of a knowing smile.”

Grauer Middle School students in Physical Education class with teachers Trevor Olson and Paulina Davis-Fisher - August 27, 2021

At Grauer, we want our scholars to be distinguishing themselves by pursuing inner passions and callings. The great geniuses of the past have called this “self-actualization.”

Self-actualized students:

  1. are more joyful participants in service and sharing,
  2. are more liable to speculate about spiritual and life purpose questions, no matter what class they are in, 
  3. are more amazed as they study,
  4. feel they are transforming as individuals,
  5. have access to what we call compassion—which also means access to tragedy and joy of other people and species, to transcending ego, to heartbreak and empathy, and just maybe
  6. are more likely to say, “I never thought I could be so happy!” 


They are the courageous ones, the captains of their own souls, in search of that big “why”.

[1] Academic Stress and Mental Health Report, Challenge Success

[2] Panorama Survey Resources

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Dr. Grauer teaching 7th grade students how to raise the flag for their daily morning Flag Duty - August 26, 2021

Happy Grauer students on the first day of school - August 24, 2021

Grauer Middle School students competing in a Homeroom Competition to keep a balloon afloat - August 27, 2021

Grauer Middle School students in Physical Education class with teachers Trevor Olson and Paulina Davis-Fisher - August 27, 2021

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