Throughout this year, you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our April news comes from Jackie Westerfield, head of Grandview Preparatory School and past SAIS board chair, in Boca Raton, FL. 

As an educational leader, are you living your dream or are you tired of the same old story? 

It turns out that how we cast ourselves in the story of our own life can be critical to the quality of our experience. The past several years have brought a variety of challenges to schools and families, with research abundantly clear that personal and societal wellness is under siege.   

The collective impact of political polarization, the pandemic, excessive screen time, the achievement culture, and an unpredictable future with the potential of AI and AGI, have all converged to control the narrative of our time. As school leaders, we aspire to make our schools a better place so that, in turn, the world will be a better place. This aspiration seems daunting when the issues identified appear too large for any one person or team to tackle.  

Mental health support systems, mindfulness initiatives, physical fitness programs, community outreach, and many other health-related resources are now integrated into public and private schools across the globe. Boards and leaders have allocated human and economic resources to these solutions, but it is difficult to know exactly what will move the needle with the current mental health landscape. Educators are doing what they can to respond, but true solutions do not exist in isolation.  

Only time will tell what the net effect of added health programs will be, but as an individual practice, we can move our own needles toward a healthier culture. Framing our unique and personal part of this larger story will go a long way toward shaping a brighter future.  

A Classic: The Way We Were

As children, my generation was told a tale of optimism. We were a product of an era marked by a moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, civil rights progress, and the invention of the personal computer. We believed anything was possible and there seemed to be social proof that humanity was moving in the right direction. Yet, today, the prevailing script tells our children that the world is not their oyster.   

Prior generations were only exposed to societal hardship on a limited and edited basis, either on the evening news or in the daily newspaper. Cut to the modern era, where most of our stories paint a vastly contrasting picture. Since our human brains are wired to identify danger, the fact that we are bombarded with it at every turn makes it hard to flip the script. But flip the script we must. 

Framing the Shot: Realistic Optimism as a Strategy

Distinguishable from toxic positivity, realistic optimism is a mindset, a way of approaching positive and negative events. The approach involves visualizing a positive outcome, doing the work, and expecting positive results, despite challenges. Realistic optimism recognizes both the good and the bad, but it is the framing that makes all the difference. 

As humans, we view the world simultaneously as the photographer, the camera, and the lens. The lens reflects our ability to see, the camera reflects our ability to capture what we see, and the photographer within makes meaning from what we capture. While aspects of this capacity are objective, much of what we see, remember, and project into the future is our own creation based on research around predictive processing.  

Neuroscience regarding creating our reality has caught up with what artists who capture the human story have long known. Author, Harper Lee, famously observed that “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” Since we now understand that optimism is a learned skill, finding beauty in a dark situation requires training both the eye and the mind. Reframing to a more optimistic lens requires three key elements:

  1. Cinematography: Golden hour filters, zooming in, reducing static, and framing the shot, require a higher level of awareness. Find the rose among the thorns because what we focus on expands. 
  1. Editing: Realistic optimism edits past, present, and future events in our story. Failures require appropriate accountability but avoid making the failure personal. We suffer more when we blame ourselves (I am not smart enough) rather than circumstances (I didn’t prepare enough). Leaving the ego on the cutting room floor produces a much better story.  
  1. Casting: Finding the right people with the right energy elevates the experience. Mission-aligned collaboration and teaming make it more likely all will achieve the happily ever after. 

Practicing realistic optimism as a daily, minute-by-minute strategy will eventually move the wellness needle in our communities. For those with microphones and platforms, we all can do our part to frame this next chapter in a way that is more likely to help our children believe in themselves and their future.  

Heroic Road to Bliss: Seizing the Day

Beyond our biology and our equipment, we are the writers, producers, and directors of our own lives. In a school setting, educators have the gift of producing opportunities for young people to cast themselves in a variety of roles, embracing the now while working toward their future. Every student’s path may be different, but all have similar elements.  

Joseph Campbell, known for his work related to the human story, shares a powerful guide to achieving personal bliss. As a likely ‘realistic optimist’, he asks us to tap into what makes each of us unique, knowing that the journey will have its share of villains, mentors, trials, and tribulations. 

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”             

Joseph Campbell

The wellness road ahead will take shape according to our individual and collective design. If we are tired of the same old story, we can flip the script, change the lighting, and focus on what matters. As authors of this story, I trust us to make it a good one. 

Jacqueline R. Westerfield
Head of School
Grandview Preparatory School
Boca Raton, FL