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Trying to See the Whole Field

by Rob Phillips, Head of School, Joe Puggelli, Head of School (2009-2018).
Originally Published in Best of Best of SAAS Volume 17 Magazine.


Photo of Seattle Academy Boys Soccer Player in Action

"Get your head up! Try to see the whole field"

That phrase has a great chance of being the most frequently shouted phrase by coaches to their players.


Because it’s really hard for a player to see the whole field, especially when they’re near the ball. There is so much going on around them, happening so quickly, so many pressing responsibilities. And NOT seeing the whole field dramatically shrinks the available options.

Not surprisingly, however, yelling at players to “See the whole field!” has limited value.  Good coaching happens BEFORE that moment – coaching that prepares them, teaches them, to see the whole field and to act effectively and decisively at game speed. That is what makes a positive difference.

But just as players can get their heads down on the field and coaches can get caught up yelling during game situations instead of better preparing their players for game speed, schools can get bogged down by what’s happening right in front of them.

Schools can fail to see how the game is changing, how the needs of students are changing, and how the future is looking less and less like the present, and very little like the past.

Schools can easily become myopic: focused on the day-to-day of students and homework and programs and parent meetings and grades and all that comes with being a school, to the exclusion of what’s happening in the community, in the country, and in the world outside of the school’s walls.

At Seattle Academy, we spend a lot of time thinking about and working on how we can help our students develop an ability to “see the whole field” and then to act in ways that will be effective in combining their knowledge and their skills in moments of action.

That’s why we’re constantly considering what kind of curriculum we should have, and what courses should populate that curriculum, and how we can create a schedule that allows students to develop the key skills and content they need in core areas to pursue the talents they were born with, while also offering avenues for them to discover and build on potential talents and interests they might never have dreamed they’d have.

That’s why we hire teachers who are not only accomplished in their academic disciplines, but who also have a breadth and depth of experience in the Real World—not just in academia – because they know what Game Speed looks like in the world that our students will graduate into.

That’s why we ask experts, from educational fields as well as from cutting-edge innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors, to come into our schools, walk the halls, help us interrogate our day-to-day reality, and give us feedback on what we can do better, and what we should be trying to do that we aren’t currently doing.

And our commitment to our students is also why we don’t flinch from addressing tough, complex issues that come up in the lives of our students and in our community.

Seattle Academy literally sits at a major intersection in one of Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhoods, in a diverse and dynamic city. So we are well placed in our mission “to prepare students for college and for life.

Living up to that mission requires us, as an institution, to “see the whole field,” to avoid lapsing into the myopia of daily details and adopting the limiting view of “independent school as walled compound” that is unfortunately a common perception and perhaps reality of many schools.

Living up to our mission also means teaching our students how to think, not what to think. That’s not just a practice that is confined to academic discussions in the classroom setting; it’s a practice that is even more critical (along with having relevant skills) when students are confronted by challenging situations that intersect and even transcend the traditional boundaries of “school.”

In fact, “preparing students for college and life” for us means preparing them to navigate as individuals and to come together as a community when tragedies occur. It means being willing to confront tough issues of racial and socio-economic inequality, to develop a sense of empathy and courage in recognizing and addressing historic and deeply rooted injustices, and to listen to each other openly and earnestly as we engage in discourse and debate over divisive political issues.

Photo of Seattle Academy Varsity Girls Basketball Team Huddle
Photo of Seattle Academy student being directed by Seattle Academy Faculty Member

If you’re reading this magazine, the chances are very high that you’re either a member of our community or a prospective member—student, parent, alumni, faculty, staff—of our community.

So we want to share with you several important letters that were written by members of our community this past year. Those letters are examples of how we respond as a school to tragedy, to tough issues, to historic and deeply rooted injustice, and to potentially divisive political issues. The letters should give you a sense of how our school’s leadership responds in magnified moments and how we work with students as they respond to charged issues. One of the letters is directly from students to the community.

The first letter was a response by the school’s leadership (the Head of School, Associate Head, founding Head of School, and Board Chair) to an anti-Semitic act of graffiti and vandalism that occurred at Temple De Hirsch, in the park right outside of our middle school.

The second letter was written by the Head and Assistant Head of the Upper School, in advance of our major athletic event in the fall, as context for discussions that student athletes were having about how they planned to respond to the National Anthem, in light of other protests that were occurring around the country.

And the third letter was written by the student athletes and members of The Onions, the school vocal group that would be performing the anthem at the game, explaining what actions they would be taking during the anthem, and why, and what their process had been in reaching their decision.

Those were important moments and important communications in the life of our school community. Our hope is that in sharing them here, you will come away with a clearer sense of what it means to us to have our heads up so that we can see the field; what it means to us when we say that we teach students how to think, not what to think; and what we think it means to prepare students for college and for life.

A letter in response to an anti-Semitic act of graffiti and vandalism that occurred at Temple De Hirsch 

March 11, 2017

Dear SAAS Community,

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this past week, our 8th graders participated in the Seattle Challenge Trip. For the 25th straight year, our 8th graders were learning about homelessness, doing service work in soup kitchens and shelters and foodbanks, and making a direct human connection with a real and growing problem in our city and our nation. 

On Friday, those same students came to school prepared to talk about the positive lessons of their Seattle Challenge experience, only to be confronted by graffiti at the Temple that said, “Holocaust is fake history.”

That spray-painted statement – the action, and the ugliness it represents – is antithetical to what we believe in as a community. 

We can’t begin to adequately express how alarming and revolting we find the words spray-painted on the wall outside the Temple, but we can affirm our determination to stand in support of the congregation at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. 

We recognize the hurt and fear those spray-painted words provoke in our own community.

And we want to say that the depth of our rejection of those words is exceeded only by our determination to reject, confront, and combat the malicious ignorance that is both implicit and explicit in the phrase, “Holocaust is fake history.”

At Seattle Academy, we will support students in examining, articulating, and believing in a wide range of intellectual, ideological, and political perspectives. To do otherwise would undercut our commitment as a school to free and open inquiry and dialogue.

That means our students will walk away from Seattle Challenge with a wide range of beliefs and responses to the problem of homelessness – responses and ideas that could be found in the platforms of the Republic, Democratic, Libertarian or Socialist parties.

Our students should be free to reach a wide range of conclusions, and then respectfully articulate a diversity of opinions. That’s the “how to think, not what to think” expression of our mission. 

But we will not be a community that tacitly accepts ignorance, or turns away from the ongoing impacts of historic injustice. 

As Dr. King said in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  

That means that we will, as central to our mission, ask our students to understand the dark history of anti-Semitism, the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans, the damaging legacy of Native American boarding schools, and the realities and ramifications of African American incarceration rates. 

We will ask them to recognize the barriers that hard-working, law-abiding immigrant families – whether they’ve come here from Mexico, Somalia, Ireland or India – have to overcome. And we’ll ask them to consider the challenges that members of LBGTQ community face day in and day out.

And we will do more than just ask our students to understand that the Holocaust was real – we will ask them to understand and recognize that the Holocaust occurred in part because people of conscience stood by silently and let it happen.

We will support the Temple and its congregation; we want them to know that we stand with them in this moment, and we will provide whatever support we can, including increased attention to security in the neighborhood, and cooperation with law enforcement as this act of vandalism is investigated.

And we will continue to ask our students to apply the lessons of Seattle Challenge – that homelessness is real, that it has a complex history, and that it has a human face – to the many other areas where we as a society are struggling to live up to our goals and values. 

We encourage you as a family to continue this conversation at home, in whatever form is consistent with your values and experiences. We’ll be addressing this particular incident with students in the coming weeks. 

Please contact us directly with questions, concerns, and suggestions. We’re also happy to forward on words of support and solidarity to Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

This continues to be a challenging year, for our school and for our nation. But in the midst of all these challenges, there continue to be so many reasons to be grateful for a community that consciously works to strengthen the bonds that bring us together. We’ve been reminded time and again of how important it is to clearly articulate our values, and to take action in support of those values.  And we’ve been reminded that we can never lose sight of the importance of taking care of each other. 


Donna Bellew, Board Chair
Joe Puggelli, Head of School
Rob Phillips, Associate Head of School/ Future Head of School
Jean Orvis, Founding Head of School

Community Letter Trying to See the Whole Field

A letter from the Head and Assistant Head of the Upper School as context for discussions student athletes were having in response to the National Anthem, in light of protests around the country. 

Dear Seattle Academy Community,

In 2008, we brought Tommie Smith to Seattle Academy to talk to our students about his choice in the 1968 Olympics. By raising his fist, Tommie Smith provoked discussions of what he saw as disparities between what the flag stands for and what he saw happening in our country. To him, his act was one of patriotism; to others, the absolute opposite. Smith’s message to our students was clear: Character. Conscience. Action. His message spanned beyond issues of race alone, and instead tapped into the importance of acting on a conscience that is built upon your values and your character.

As many of you may know, there is a growing conversation occurring in the media surrounding how athletes choose to acknowledge the National Anthem. Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions have brought these conversations around race, equity, and inclusion back to the national forefront. Naturally, these topics and conversations have made their way into our classrooms, offices, fields and team meetings.

As we approach Fall Mania, please know that many of our teams and athletes have been thinking deliberately about how they wish to present themselves during the National Anthem. As coaches, mentors, faculty and staff, we have worked to help students navigate these conversations thoughtfully.

We have had the opportunity to engage and listen to students as they grapple with these complex and thought-provoking topics. We have watched them think deeply about themselves, about one another, and about the society we live in. We have watched as some of them have pulled aside our on-campus police officers and worked to gain perspectives far from their own. We have witnessed many reflect, grow, and begin to establish roots in who they are and what they believe. Their thoughtfulness has re-affirmed to us that our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

In Tommie Smith’s recent response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest, he stated:

There are problems in a system that carries the flag and doesn’t address the needs under that flag. America is a great country—you better believe it’s a great country, one of the greatest on the planet—but even the greatest needs to pay attention.

Many of us would agree with Smith’s statement, but may disagree about what “paying attention” looks like. Our job as educators is not to create what “paying attention” is for our students, but to help them create it for themselves. Open inquiry, dialogue, and engagement help shape this community into what it is. It is our job to provide students the space (both physically and emotionally) and the tools to think, trust themselves, take risks, and feel empowered to share their beliefs.

As an administration, we are in full support of our students acting on their conscience -- however that may look. For some, that may be a deliberate act, for others, a lack thereof. We continue to believe in our core values of Responsibility, Trust, Integrity and Respect, and hope that you will join us in supporting and respecting our students.

We look forward to seeing many of you at Fall Mania.

Thank you,

Lauri Conner, Head of Upper School
Makenzie Brandon, Assistant Head of Upper School
Jarad Gifford, Upper School Dean of Students

A letter written by student athletes and members of the onions vocal group about their planned response to the national Anthem, in light of protests around the countryTo the Seattle Academy Community -

The events and discussions taking place in countless cities across America have sparked a conversation within our team and within the Seattle Academy community. Martin Luther King Jr wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We feel that connection now more than ever. There comes a point when injustice can no longer be ignored, and that is what compels us to act tonight.

The discussions we’ve had as a team and with others have strengthened us as we try to understand how we can act in a way that is true to both ourselves and our community. As one police officer we talked to put it, “There aren’t two sides to a story; there are at least twenty.” There’s a side of this story for every person in the bleachers tonight and for every person who has ever had to confront the way race is treated in America. We know that we’ll never be able to understand everyone’s point of view, but the conversations we’ve had have brought us closer.

Every opinion deserves recognition. Knowing that, we stand in solidarity as a team and respect each individual’s choice to kneel or stand as the national anthem is sung. Our decisions do not divide us in two—everyone’s experiences and beliefs are different and by kneeling or standing we remain true to who we need to be.

We want to make clear that our choice to protest is not a symbol of disrespect. We respect teachers, students, parents, and every person who is a part of the SAAS community. We respect police officers, especially those who work in and around Seattle Academy to keep us safe. We respect the sacrifices made by our troops and our veterans and hold them in the highest regard. We also wish to express our gratitude to our fellow SAAS students who will be performing the national anthem and want to emphasize that our actions are in no way intended to distract from their performance.

What we see in the United States is a society where not all lives are valued equally. That is the reason some of us will choose to kneel, and all of us will choose to stay together. Our goal is to be part of the dialogue. This conversation doesn’t end tonight, and our opinions will continue to grow and develop through the discussions taking place.

With the sincerest gratitude, we thank you for being a part of a community where we are encouraged and supported to express our beliefs.

The Seattle Academy Varsity Girls’ Soccer Team, with the support of the Onions Jazz Choir

Photo of Seattle Academy Upper School Girls Varsity Soccer Team Observing National Anthem 2017
Photo of Seattle Academy vocal group performing the National Anthem