A Blogazine, based out of Park Slope, Brooklyn, that features fun and interesting articles. Topics include: parenting, society, real estate, career, style, spirituality and more. Written contributions are always welcome!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Behind the Desk: Launa Schweizer on Connection & Community

Launa Schweizer

Jen Lee

I jumped at the opportunity to ask Launa Schweizer about her roots, her mommy wisdom and what it's like to be Head of School for Poly Prep's lower school division. Read on to see what Launa has to say about the lessons our kids learn when we're not trying to teach them, what she wishes she had known as a new mom, and more.

When you think about where you grew up and how you were raised, what's the greatest gift from that time of your life that you carry with you today?

I grew up in a tiny town upstate where everyone knew everyone else. My grandmothers were schoolteachers, my dad and his family had a small business in a nearby town, and my grandfather built most of the houses on the street my mom and her family grew up on. My family was constantly volunteering at our church and in community organizations, and my parents helped out with all kinds of stuff I did as a kid. Mom and Dad were incredibly supportive of my sister and me, helping us to do all everything we wanted to do, from teaching us to do things on our farm to encouraging me to live in Europe for a summer to being sure that we both got a great education.

But they also instilled in both of us this huge sense of responsibility: for ourselves and for our communities. It was never enough to do something for one's own gain alone. While my parents certainly celebrated our individual accomplishments, there was an underlying and almost taken-for-granted focus on our connection to others and our link to the community. My parents gave me all kinds of gifts -- an exceptional education and an unshakeable sense of being loved were perhaps the most crucial. But the gift that they probably didn't even know they were providing was that sense of responsibility and connectedness to other people.

As Head of School, your role must encompass a lot of authority. Does the authority piece come naturally for you, or did you have to transition into it?

I taught high school students all through college, then taught high school and undergraduates for thirteen years before becoming an administrator. When our school's headmaster asked me to take on this position at our lower school, I thought it would be similar to teaching.

However, I quickly came to see that leading a school is a very different task. For one thing, a school administrator simply can not make everyone happy at the same time -- it is the nature of a community and an institution that the needs and wants of individuals will conflict. Honoring every individual while maintaining the mission of the school is a nearly impossible task, and I needed to learn how to handle that balance.

Also, schools just simply cannot be perfect, and part of authority is having to lead from strongly held values in the face of all that messy, real-life imperfection. As hard as we try, as great as our students, teachers and parents are, all schools are human institutions, and will be flawed. Keeping student learning and solid principles of child development as my central focus, I can make good decisions for the school and its students. Deciding on the side of student learning and healthy development is always the right thing to do. When I am confident that we have done the right thing, it is easier to accept the criticism that comes along with my role. So yes, I had to learn a ton in order to be an effective leader while remaining true to the values I know are most important.

I know you spend so much time in the neighborhood that your husband jokes that you don't live in NYC, you live in Park Slope. How has Park Slope left its mark on you?

I am way more at home here than I have ever been anywhere since leaving the house in which I grew up. I treat the blocks between Flatbush and 15th street, 4th ave and PPW like a small town, and I love my three-block commute to work. I never leave the house without seeing someone I know: some of the amazingly cool people from my block, my closest friend from elementary school, my friends from college, someone I sing or play music with, or people know from over 10 years at Poly Prep Country Day School -- former students, their parents, or current parents. I think people move here because the place itself is undeniably beautiful. But it's the web of people that makes it home.

When I was growing up, nearly everyone I knew went to the same school. But here we are blessed in that our community is made up of lots of micro-communities that overlap with one another. For people with kids, those revolve around our schools and their inherent Brooklyn diversity. Poly is an undeniably great school for me and for my family. I also have hip mama friends with 3rd graders at 321, The Children's School, PS 29, and St. Ann's, and trusted colleagues from many of the Brooklyn preschools. All of those communities are warm, nurturing places for kids and their families. Living in the Slope, you see so many people living their own versions of a full and beautiful life.

What do you hope your daughters learn from you?

I hope that I am teaching them compassion, responsibility, curiosity, and persistence.

However, their dad and I recognize that kids mostly learn what you do when you're not trying to teach them -- that whole line about life being what happens when you are busy making other plans. They learn ton of lessons I never intended -- for example, that you should always sing harmony to Beatles songs on the radio; that it's OK not to be all that skilled with home repairs; that caring too much about how one looks or what other people think is silly; that we think it's a big drag to clean up the kitchen after every meal, that our jobs (too) often come first.

What do you know (or believe) now that you wish you had known when you were a new mom?

When I was a new mom, I took myself too seriously and believed in the nurture side of the nature-nurture equation way more than I do now. Now that I have two incredibly different kids who are growing up in the same house, with the same parents, who were taught by most of the same teachers, I realize that my kids just are who they are. My girls were just born with their overwhelmingly strong, unique personalities. Therefore, most of the conscious decisions I agonized over as a new mom (No formula until 6 months! Take the kids to the Brooklyn Museum every week! Play Mozart in the house!) ended up not being nearly as important as the daily stuff they learned from us that we taught without knowing we were teaching it. If I had known that, being a new mom would have been a lot less about ideas about how one "should" raise kids, and much more about our just learning who we all are.

Also, even though I was a teacher, I didn't truly understand child development. Before parents go reading all the trendy new parenting books and blogs, we should all read and re-read the classics of child development by Ames et al: Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, etc. By reading what is typical for kids of a particular age, we can escape a lot of completely unnecessary worry and anxiety, and be much more helpful and steady to our kids. So much of what we get unreasonably anxious about as parents is just a completely natural part of growing up. Some of the stuff that looks painful for our kids is just as normal as losing a tooth so that another one can grow in its place. When parents don't understand the pace and nature of normal child development, we can micromanage and worry far too much over our kids.

Parental over-involvement, over-talking, overindulging, and even overwhelming parental anxiety all comes from a basically good place: we want to know and love our kids. The challenge of parenting is that we don't see great examples everywhere. It takes a village, but this particular village is too often segregated by age -- the new moms hang out together, when they should be tuned into all the wise old grandmothers who know that its just as healthy to let a baby cry it out as it is to let them sleep in your bed. New parents desperately need the perspective that can only come from having raised lots of kids. The preschool teachers of this community -- for me the ones I know so well at my own school -- become our version of those wise ones.

The paradox of contemporary parenting is that sometimes in our desire to protect our kids from every harm or enrich our kids' lives, we are preventing them from learning to deal with struggle and adversity -- and therefore taking away any opportunities for them to learn the most crucial of life's lessons. Kids have to learn to be persistent and resilient -- and that can only come through having to struggle. This is something I have learned in my job that I wish more parents understood.

I also wish I knew then that the only thing any of us need to be as parents is "good enough." Bad parents can really mess kids up, but nearly everyone I meet in my life is some version of a good enough parent, who is trying their best.

What question do you never want to stop asking?

"How do we know what is true?" That question has animated my whole intellectual life since I was young. It has allowed me to question my own most deeply held ideas, and helped me to continue to grow.

Launa Schweizer has spent the last four years as head of Poly Prep's lower school division, located at the corner of 1st street and Prospect Park West. Poly's lower school enrolls 230 students, ages 3 through Grade 4; Grades 5-12 are at the middle and upper schools located in Dyker Heights. Before becoming head of the lower school, Launa taught high school and college English and writing, and pursued graduate studies in American Culture. Launa lives just down the street from the school in Park Slope with her husband Bill, her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, and her lab mutt, Samson. She enjoys singing, doing yoga, and spending time with her family and friends.

Jen Lee is a Park Slope mother and writer, and a regular contributor for Hip Slope Mama. For more of Jen Lee: Writer, Mother, Newbie Yorker, visit jenlee.net