Crew, Not Passengers

by Richard Stopol, President & CEO

When our students are asked to name the defining feature of our schools, the word they most often invoke is “family.” They talk about receiving extensive support from peers and adults. They refer to a strong sense of community that begins when they first enter the school and continues through to graduation. And in describing their schools, they often use the phrase “We are crew, not passengers,” which originated with Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn, and which has become the unofficial motto of many of our schools.

This “crew, not passengers” ethos manifests itself in a number of ways. It has a literal application since students in our schools are organized into “Crews.” A Crew is a group of 12–15 students supported by a teacher, who serves as the students’ advisor, mentor and advocate. Crews meet 3–5 times each week and typically stay together through graduation. Crew serves a number of vital functions. Through it, students receive academic advisement as well as college selection and application assistance. It is the portal through which our schools conduct much of their parent/family outreach, as Crew Advisors keep parents abreast of their child’s progress and serve as the family’s central point of contact. Most critically, Crew operates as a kind of family group, providing students with adult and peer-to-peer support. It provides a safe, nurturing space where students can drop their guard and feel free to be themselves.

Crew is a big reason why students in our schools feel so well-known and cared for by adults. Crew Advisors are responsible for deeply knowing their own Crews, for championing them, and for navigating them through issues they encounter. The result is an intimacy between adults and students that is rarely found in schools. I came across a study several years ago which showed that on average, American high schools students have a conversation with an adult just once every 48 hours. My own high school experience reflected this: there was no adult in my large public high school who knew me other than in the most surface of ways and whom I felt comfortable approaching with a personal issue.

It is no accident that at our schools’ graduations, Crew Advisors are the ones who present students with their diplomas. Because they have been with the students in their Crews for multiple years, they have firsthand knowledge of their Crew 10 members’ every triumph and travail — and they have become deeply invested in their success. I am repeatedly struck by this personal connection when I hear the words offered by advisors to their students when they come onstage to receive their diplomas. In many cases, “love” would not be too strong a word to describe the feeling between them.

The “crew, not passengers” ethos reflects many of our deeply held beliefs about teaching and learning. We believe learning is enhanced when done in the context of a community of learners, and we endeavor to construct learning experiences for our students in which they are engaged together in the pursuit of knowledge and the development of skills. We believe we learn more with others, who can challenge our assumptions and perspectives, confirm ideas and conclusions, and support us in trying new approaches. And we believe a core responsibility of educators is to create and sustain the conditions that allow for these kinds of communities of learners to form and thrive.

In our schools, the “crew, not passengers” ethos is hardly confined to Crew. It is deeply embedded into their cultures and shapes all student-to-student and adult-to-student interactions. It is grounded in the premise that all members of the school community are in a relationship of interdependence, in which there is both a need and value in finding common cause with one other. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the essence of this interdependency in this excerpt from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”

King recognized, as we do in Outward Bound, that our lives and our actions are all bound up in one another’s, and that as a result we all have an obligation to take care of and look after one another.

Dr. King’s words are particularly resonant for those of us who have ever been on an Outward Bound mountaineering course, where we are constantly reminded that success is defined in terms of getting everyone to the top of the mountain, not just ourselves. So too in our schools, where there is a shared commitment to getting to the top of the academic mountaintop and a fierce determination to truly leave no child behind.