Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tale of Two Students

       Lately two former students from long ago--the late 1980s, early 1990s--keep popping into my mind. I know exactly why. I'm trying to fit them into the points made in my last post: "The Real Secret to Independent School Success." My doing so initially was prompted by seeing one Tweet several times about the other, although they went to different schools and likely never have met. And that's because of the role each has come to play in current events.
       I need to give you some background about each. For various reasons, I don't want to use their real names. I'll call them J and R.

  • J grew up poor in a very small town in the Deep South. I don't know all the circumstances, but a generous benefactor arranged for him to attend the fairly traditional school where I worked. There he excelled as both a student and community member, eventually becoming a Presidential Scholar.
  • R grew up well-off in a major city in the Southwest. I taught him when he attended a diverse, progressive middle school, and then he went to another top school. 
  • J attended a prestigious university, the first person in his family to attend college.
  • R also attended prestigious universities, nearly completing a doctorate.
  • J is an award-winning journalist who now runs the journalism department at a major university in the Northeast.
  • R didn't follow any particular career path I know of.
  • J explores and comments on how various key topics are being portrayed in the media, often from a liberal perspective. 
  • R has been in the media a great deal lately. He is a founder and a leader of the alt-right movement.
     Since I saw one of J's Tweets and then messaged him about my having taught R, a question has gnawed at me off and on: How did this happen? If you go strictly by expectations based on cultural stereotypes, if anyone was going to become a face of neo-Nazism, it would have been J. Not that I would have ever even thought of the idea. But I never would have predicted it for R, either. I recall a gangly, goofy, friendly kid.
     Even though I lost all contact with R after sixth grade, imagine what it feels like to see one of your former students having become this way. It knocks you off balance, makes you wonder. What happened?  What could have led to different outcomes? If you believe in the power of meaningful independent school education to help people create better selves and lives...well, then, I guess not always.
     I'm not saying that R's education/schools failed him. Yet something and/or someone did. I don't believe anyone is born inherently evil or even hateful. Plus, while it's not exactly guilt, passionate educators are plagued--sometimes irrationally--by memories of the ones we fear we didn't serve well. One or two of them can eclipse the success stories, particularly at times such as that our nation is enduring right now.
     Therein lies the beauty in this weird juxtaposition that is the plot of this tale of two students. For all the angst the story of R might inject into our pedagogical veins, there the story of J, one of hope and promise fulfilled. I'm sure he would tell you an educational opportunity took his life down a wonderful path early circumstances would not have predicted. J likely would have found a way, but the right school truly mattered. There's the moral, the inspiration, the mission, for a new school year.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Real Secret to Independent School Success

       On August 1, 2017, Education Week posted an article by Dr. Stephanie Hull titled "Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them." A former head of an independent school, Dr. Hull highlights six key practices that are fairly common in that world (actually a subset of private school in general). We could debate their effectiveness. As with most things, that depends on implementation and the people involved. I also suspect that private schools could learn quite a bit from public schools. Or, more specifically, I suspect all educators could learn something from quality educators no matter the sector in which they work. Yet I'm digressing a bit, and my point is not to pick a fight with Dr. Hull, as she presents strong suggestions.
       I must wonder, though, whether public schools really can steal them given the politicking and bureaucracy--often being mandated by government officials with no real background in education--that rules that system. Furthermore, the emphasis on standardization and objective testing puts forth the wrong goals. Plus the issue is more than certain policies and programs.
       The real secret to great independent schools' success is not really a secret. It's right there in the name: our independence. That status allows us to focus on our missions. On the ideals of education and what it can accomplish.
       An exceptional independent school helps each student steadily become a grander version of his or her unique, best possible self.
       Ultimately, meaningful education cannot not determined by data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, it’s about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter. Connections in a caring community. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. Discovery of one’s talents and growing to fulfill them. Development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
       Each independent school should exercise its freedom to create a unique culture with such an ethos. The richness of the atmosphere prompts people to explore and to plumb the depths of themselves. Diverse experiences and perspectives provoke the deep reflection integral to true learning. Meanwhile, the teachers truly care if they have succeeded, but often do not know for sure. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. Ideally, that person is contributing positively to the world.
       The opportunities and hard work—the rewards and the joys—lie in fostering such an environment. It includes dynamic tensions that challenge our values. For example, how does one balance individuality and community? Do we encourage specialization or generalism? How can teachers cover material yet prod students into thinking as deeply as possible? In a society that stresses quick tangible success, how do we foster perseverance and intrinsic rewards? Schools should struggle continually with such questions, which should drive more immediate decisions such as schedule, policy, and program.
       Similarly, several years ago I participated in an exercise called The Picture of the Graduate. Since then I have led many others through it. Small groups brainstorm the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes they wish to see in their graduates, eventually paring the list to the three most desired items. No one picks any particular area of knowledge. Instead, every group—school leaders, teachers, students, parents—selects certain attitudes and skills as the most desirable qualities. Synthesized, they reflect the traits of life-long learners; of good citizens; and of well-rounded, balanced individuals.
       Ultimately, education should be about how we live together—about reaffirming a social compact in which we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities. When Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an individual right in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim entailing a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.  It’s like the paradoxical benefit of being on a successful team.  As an individual adjusts to the group, the result can be a stronger sense of self
       The best independent schools thus are places where great lives begin. It should be true for all schools.