By Headmaster Lee Burns '87
Locked in a vault in Atlanta is the secret formula for Coca-Cola. Kentucky Fried Chicken likewise has its secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices to give their chicken its distinct flavor. From Apple’s code for its operating system to Google’s search algorithm, successful companies have carefully-guarded, proprietary information, processes and products that account for much of their success. In short, they each have a secret formula or recipe.
What’s McCallie’s secret recipe?
At McCallie, relationships are foundational. Everything else follows and is built upon that simple yet powerful principle. Our faculty, first and foremost, are teachers of boys, and secondarily of subjects and skills. The curriculum exists to teach the boy; it is a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Teachers are expected to be mentors before they are math teachers, advisors before they are art teachers, life coaches before they are athletic coaches.
McCallie teachers know, nurture and love their boys. They see their roles as a calling, as a noble and vital opportunity to inspire boys on their journey to manhood. They enjoy and appreciate pre-teen and teenage boys and are eager to walk alongside them, laughing and crying with them.
We are fortunate to receive a multitude of resumes from individuals who want to teach here. Many have very impressive credentials. What we are most interested in, though, is this: do they understand and connect well with boys, will they inspire boys, does working with boys bring them great joy and fulfillment?
In my 24 years of serving in a variety of roles in three independent schools, I’ve been fortunate to see, visit and hear about numerous other schools all over the country and even around the world. Many of them have a faculty and staff with a strong academic pedigree. Often, their curricular offerings are similar to ours. Their resources may match or exceed ours. Yet McCallie is distinct, I believe, because we begin with the relationships, because the relationships drive and guide everything else that follows. That order matters. It matters a lot.
I’ve come to believe that there is an inverse correlation between rules and relationships. The more rules a school has, or a particular teacher has, the weaker it is with relationships, and vice-versa. At McCallie, we are long on relationships and short on rules. We have some rules, of course, but they don’t define and shape the culture. Ours is a culture of love rather than legalism. We are not bureaucratic and rigid. We are not corporate. We are community. We are family.
Because of the primacy of our relationships, we can be a transformational school rather than a transactional one. Most schools are transactional: study this subject with this effort and you will get this grade or develop this skill. If this, then that. Make a purchase, get your product. There are a lot of straight-forward, linear, predictable outcomes in transactional schools, similar to basic business transactions.
McCallie, on the other hand, is a transformational school. We want to bend the arc of a boy’s life -- to give him a new and noble vision for who he is and who he can be as a man.
We want to shape his character, to help him internalize ideals of honor, truth and duty. We want to foster a love of learning and an intellectual curiosity. We want to challenge him to grow spiritually and develop an impulse to love and serve.
Those are not simple transactions. They are not things a curriculum produces, nor are they fostered by rules and rigor. Rather, they are transformations forged over time through close and inspiring relationships with trusted and beloved mentors.
A few days ago, about 300 McCallie middle school boys lined up to hug their retiring middle school head, Mr. Lynn Goss, and to give him notes of appreciation and love. Why do adolescent boys hug and write notes? Because they know, very clearly, this man loves them very well.
Teachers must earn the right to have close relationships with their students. They earn it by being in the moment with their students, by doing life with them. They earn it by knowing them outside the classroom, by taking an active interest in their social, emotional and spiritual well-being. They earn it by being authentic and even vulnerable with their students. They earn it by not taking themselves too seriously. They earn it by giving their students a shoulder upon which to lean, laugh or cry. Students know when a teacher really cares about them as a person versus just caring about their subject or academic performance. Simply teaching subjects and skills is not enough.
Schools relying primarily on rules, rigor and their reputations rather than relationships will almost certainly leave their students flat, tired and uninspired. They can unintentionally crush a child’s spirit and joy.
On the other hand, earlier this year, a McCallie boy, going through a tough time in his life, shared that, in a single day, six faculty and staff reached out to him to see how he was doing and to encourage him.
Because of the primacy of relationships at McCallie, our students will lean into difficult tasks. They will work and study hard because men and women they admire are asking them to do so. They will take take chances and be willing to fail because they know their teachers will support and love them no matter the outcome. They will receive critical feedback and correction because they know their teachers have their best interest at heart. They will open their hearts and minds to new possibilities and passions with an adventuresome, optimistic spirit. They will push through the parts of school that may be boring and necessarily (or even unnecessarily) rigorous. It’s amazing what a student, when well known and well loved, will do.
For over 110 years at McCallie, the relationships of boys with their teachers have transformed their lives. Those relationships have created a culture that shapes the experience of every boy here. We care for each other. We love and serve each other. We laugh a lot. We are both serious and silly, sarcastic and spontaneous. We feel free to be ourselves while respecting others and our school values. We can therefore push and challenge each other, but we do so with support and encouragement. We strive for excellence -- and achieve excellence -- yet seek to stay humble as we maintain perspective and balance. We can be changed and transformed.
Relationships, first and foremost, is a simple recipe, really, but it continues to satisfy, 110 years later.