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Kindling a Fire: The Kids Have Changed My Mind

Kindling a Fire: The Kids Have Changed My Mind

Kids are underrated. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.

No, I don’t mean that if you ask them, they will brashly tout their own abilities. I mean that if you spend time really talking with kids you will find that their insights and contributions are oftentimes underrated by adults.

I have been guilty of that misjudgment myself. During the first few months as head of school I was caught off-guard by some of my interactions with Country Day students. After nearly every conversation I would shake my head in disbelief at their intelligence, humor, passion, and precocious wisdom. So I committed to prioritizing more of these interactions.

Often the best moments are when I enthusiastically join in the daily life of the school. Sitting in a middle school science class or playing with the second-graders at recess can be the best windows into our students’ experiences and perspectives. Sometimes it is better to plan a bit more structure, like hosting a tailgate to hang out with upper schoolers before the fall play or buying Raisin’ Cane’s for students on our way to a state soccer game (yes, fried chicken remains the coin of the realm for teenagers).

But my favorite student interactions are when I put them on the spot to think with intentionality. Every month I set up a table next to the dining terrace and write a provocative argument on an easel – for example, “school should be year-round” or “our dress code should return to full uniforms.” I then invite students to change my mind.

They never disappoint.

With no hesitation about directly addressing the head of school, students in all three divisions march up to me and make their voices heard with poise and passion. But like many people, they are more prepared to state what they personally believe than they are to do the hard work of changing minds.

So, in these “change my mind” sessions, I insist that students offer more than cursory statements of belief or shallow advertisements of identity. The purpose of these exercises is to practice the art of persuasion, and therefore I demand that they actually seek to change my mind. This requires considering their audience, seeking to understand my views, and pursuing common ground.

These exercises are a good way to draw on my legal experience while giving our students an excellent opportunity to practice public speaking. Perhaps more importantly, they’re a lot of fun for the students and for me. Ultimately, they allow me to lean into the precocious wisdom that so impressed me when I began as head of school.

A veteran educator told me last year that one of the gifts of working in schools is the sense of optimism and renewal that comes from engaging with children. And it’s true. But that gift is not exclusively reserved for educators. I encourage everyone to get out there and engage with kids. Ask them thoughtful questions. Bring a student to your workplace for an internship or experiential project. Coach a team. Speak to a class about your area of expertise. Or maybe stop by one Thursday at lunch and see if our kids can change your mind, too.

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the February 2023 edition of the publication.