Ted Talks: School as a Jazz Band

Ted Graf, Head of School


"Jazz players look for and notice instability, disorder, novelty, emergence, and self-organization for their innovative potential rather than as something to be avoided, eliminated, or controlled. Indeed, jazz bands are very much human systems living at the edge of chaos. To understand their social complexity requires cultivating an aesthetic that values surrender and wonderment over certainty, appreciation over problem solving, listening and attunement over individual isolation."

--Frank J. Barrett, Yes to the Mess

As some of you know, my life outside of school is infused with music -- cello, drums, guitar, an occasional banjo, voice, electric bass, and my own erratic attempts at learning the clarinet. Our home life often echoes with prog rock, chamber music, classical, new wave, yacht rock, and, with deep gratitude to Mike Stavitz and Marshall Escamilla, jazz is played in our kitchen. A lot.

Since my college years, I have been fascinated by jazz and jazz musicians -- their sounds, their stories, its history, their mythology. I am proud to say that I heard Miles Davis perform on the Boston Common, Count Basie in Burlington, VT; Pat Metheny in Chicago; Wynton Marsalis in a tiny backroom in Columbia, SC, and Archie Shepp in Paris. I'm a lucky guy.

Part of my fascination with jazz has focused on improvisation because I have come to believe it is rooted in great teaching too. Whether it's in a classroom, on a field trip, out in the backcountry, on a stage, on a playing field, the most effective teachers/guides/coaches improvise. They make observations; they make adjustments; they look for what might be emerging in a class discussion or what may be surfacing in the habits of a student tackling a new Montessori work for the first time.

This past summer I took my curiosity a little further and read a book about jazz and organizations called, Yes to the Mess. In it, the author, Frank Barrett (a skilled jazz pianist in his own right) describes the organization (or chaos and order) of jazz bands and applies it to institutions and businesses. I chose the book because, since joining Headwaters, I have been struck by our institutional attributes that are not common across all schools. Like some jazz musicians I admire, we're scrappy, inventive, and resilient; we solve problems on the fly; we are often willing to let others solo.

More and more, students, teachers, and parents are drawn to how we approach school. We're dispersed and decentralized literally and figuratively--our campuses don't have a central gathering point and have multiple buildings (14 to be exact, some built in 1900 and some in 2015) with multiple entry and exit points. While we have a leadership structure that looks similar to many schools, it is decentralized, and decisions about program and the needs of the students are shared between Guide and Campus Head.

In short, we're not "top down" and we're not a big box. In a way, we're a kind of an extended experiment, and as Barrett might say, we're more like a jazz band in that we're a "chaordic system," a blend of chaos and order. I'm sure there may be days when you or my colleagues wish for less chaos and more order, but, of course, life with curious children sometimes leads you in directions none of us ever imagined.

What else makes us US? Feel free to email me with your ideas and observations

Springs Campus

18 months to Pre-K
6305 Manchaca Rd.
Austin, TX 78745
Phone: 512-443-8843

Creek Campus

Elementary School
9607 Brodie Ln.
Austin, TX 78748
Phone: 512-804-2708
Fax: 512-628-4810

River Campus

Middle & High School
807 Rio Grande St.
Austin, TX 78701
Phone: 512-480-8142
Fax: 512-480-0278