Lessons From Geese

UPWARD: OUR HEAD OF SCHOOL'S BLOG
The following are excerpts from remarks offered to our community by Head of School, Mike Imperi, at Back-To-School Night. 

As each goose flying in formation flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird following. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the “lifting power” of the bird immediately in front. When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies at the point position.

The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up-front to keep up their speed. When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow their fellow member down to help provide protection. They stay with this member of the flock until he or she is either able to fly or dies. Then, they launch out on their own, with another formation, or catch up with their own flock. Their strength is multiplied by their numbers.

I discovered this incredible narrative description of geese formations from research gathered by science teacher, Dr. Robert McNeish in the 1970s. While there are myriad organizational lessons to be learned from the geese, I took away three important gems.  

Lesson #1: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust and support of each other.  Not conformity, but collaboration and cooperation—in other words…the power of community. When I think of the qualities that truly separate VMS from other schools, a number of traits come to mind, not the least of which is our extraordinary sense of community...Our cross-age activities, our intentional architecture, our shared dining and common spaces, our Ski Fridays, our class orientation and hut trips, our house, Homebase and Advisory Programs, and our rapport-driven style of instruction and support are just a few examples of our amazing community.

I witnessed a wonderful example of community when I joined this year’s 6th grade in their hike up to Booth Falls. It poured rain all the way up and most of the way down, but the students supported each other, did not complain in the least, and showed the grit and resilience of mountain kids. However, it was when one student slipped and fell that I witnessed the real character of our community. Immediately, the group “flocked” to the aid of their peer, surrounding them as if to keep them safe and offer assistance, if only the encouragement to get back up.

Lesson #2: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership—with people, as with geese, interdependent with one another. As I analyzed the Parent Survey that we conducted last year, what clearly came forth, repeatedly, was the appreciation for our faculty. They are amazing, and we see it too. We recognize that the passions of our teachers are the driving force behind our school—both their passion for teaching and their passion for their subject matter—and our administration is dedicated to creating a sanctuary that supports and empowers them to practice their craft and share these passions.

Our HR Director was asked by a prospective new teacher about our identity as a school. He wanted to know if we are a college prep school, an experiential ed school, a ski school, etc. The answer was, in fact, all of the above and more, but she replied with what I see as a perfect characterization of our community, “We are a passion school. We nurture our faculty and our students’ passions.” Our teachers lead through their passions and it is that energy that inspires direction in our students. There are only two jobs in this school, teaching and supporting our teachers, and this is why.

Lesson #3 the last and my favorite…We all need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging—not something less helpful! In the early 2000s, I was the guest of Tengboche Rinpoche, the Abbot of Tengboche monastery, which sits at the foot of Mt. Everest. On my last night while having dinner with Renpoche, he encouraged me to follow a simple practice that would bring certain peace and centeredness. I shared this a few years ago, but it’s worth repeating. “Before you speak Michael, ask three simple questions…Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” So, when we honk, let’s honk kindly!!

—Mike

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.