It’s time to update our school motto

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Zenobia Pellissier Lloyd

Achieve. The. Honorable.

At PHS you see it on the website, the Instagram page, on Facebook; you hear it in speeches, at assemblies, and at graduation. The school motto is everywhere, but what does it actually mean and what kind of culture does it reflect?

To me, it represents a side of Piedmont’s culture that I am not proud of being a part of. It feels like an order, telling students to strive for an empty goal of bringing honor to Piedmont’s name. Those three words also encapsulate a lot of problems that PHS has, from the intense focus on academic excellence, to the prestigious nature of Piedmont schools, to the lack of awareness of the world outside of the bubble that students have been known to reflect in their actions. Our current motto is a command directed at students to succeed. It does not acknowledge any sort of community that PHS might have, or any value that goes beyond academia.

“Achieve the honorable” also gives off an air of prestige and seems to focus only on academic achievement, and that should not be how PHS represents itself. The motto should not suggest that the purpose of education is simply to get good grades and earn a spot at a top college. Instead the motto’s focus should be on teaching students to care about learning and growing, so they are able to have the tools to change the world.

This is not a critique of teachers, all of whom I have spoken to express a desire for high school to move past standardized tests and obsessive grade grubbing to focus more on learning that is relevant and purposeful. Instead, I am calling on the decision makers to support this change by evolving the motto towards a future we aspire to embody.

After a long summer focused on creating social change and adapting to life in a pandemic, students returned to school as if nothing had changed. I would show up to classes, confused by the fact that the world seemed to be falling apart, and students and teachers were still focused on grades and rubrics and syllabuses. Not only are we still in the midst of a global pandemic, but one of the largest social justice movements in US history is taking place, along with one of the most important elections in modern history around the corner. With the heightened awareness of political topics and social justice, it doesn’t feel right to separate that from our education, especially given that so many other changes have already occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to not only adapt, but grow and expand the way we approach both learning and teaching.

Going to Piedmont schools, there is a clear consensus in the culture that the purpose of education is solely to get into the most prestigious college and get a good job in order to make money and lead a “successful” life. There are unspoken rules about college admission, test scores, and class selection in the PHS community that have formed to counteract the competitive nature embedded in the culture. We can change this culture by changing the focus of education to teach students to be problem solvers, which is what we need in the future, rather than machines striving towards a meaningless goal. I understand academics are important, but the way they are taught does not truly reflect the world outside of high school. PHS now needs to move forward and focus on teaching students skills and values that directly prepare them for life after highschool.

How students spend their time in school will have a huge impact on the people they grow up to be. Not only will the election have a deciding factor in the future that they grow up to live in, but the way that students are taught to react to problems will also have a lasting effect. It is crucial that we adapt to the world we live in and make the changes needed so that students grow up with the understanding that their voices are needed to make progress in this country.

If schools teach students that an acceptable response to injustice and problems is to stay silent and ignore it, the education system is failing us. As an affluent community that is majority white, it is easy to stay silent and safe in the bubble, but what is easy is rarely what is right. PHS needs to recognize the privilege that it still holds from Piedmont’s past, and transform itself to produce changemakers, rather than more people who think it is acceptable to be compliant.

Education should be used as a gateway for change. Right now, PHS has the opportunity to either continue the way things have been, which could be stifling possible change, or teach with a purpose to help students pursue their own goals that lead to action. It is so clear that today there are so many issues and problems that our generation will be forced to face from the climate crisis to systems of oppression that have both been built by the generations before us. PHS also needs to recognize that the best way to motivate students to want to work hard and make a difference is through giving them agency over their own education. The school’s job is to encourage and inspire students to want to learn and grow, rather than forcing them to only care about societal standards that push a harmful definition of success upon students.

The current motto is outdated and fails to represent the school I want PHS to be.

We need to broaden our motto so it represents a new PHS culture that encourages purpose beyond just academic accomplishments. A motto that says success is more than just numbers in a gradebook or numbers on a paycheck, but the impact that a person makes on the world through both their individual kindness and generosity to others, and actions focused on make the world a better place.

Our new motto needs to reflect activism, community, kindness, respect, friendship, creativity, and the progress that PHS needs to have. Our generation needs to create this new motto, and through a democratic election vote on it, so that it can truly represent our hopes for Piedmont and the world in the future. This is only the first step.