Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“We must treat each one of them exactly as we wish for our own loved ones to be treated.”

The other day I wrote about Tolstoy’s dismay at the level of compulsion that he saw in the schools of his day. I think there is too much compulsion in our schools today. I’m not against forcing kids to do some things: if my daughter has a burst appendix, she goes to the hospital, whether she wants to or not. But I am against the use of excessive force, and most of the compulsion I see in schools today seems to be unjustified, if not outright counterproductive. I’m worried that No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on raising test scores, is leading schools to take a top-down, “make ’em learn” approach to education that’s bound to have unhappy consequences on our kids’ attitudes toward school and toward learning. If you force a student to learn algebra at the cost of making her hate math, you’ve won the battle but lost the war.

A school’s first task should be to build on -- or at least not to kill -- the natural sense of enjoyment and fulfillment that all kids get from satisfying their curiosity about the world -- that is, from intellectual activity. A good school should be a place where the kids would choose to go, even if they didn’t have to. It should treat the kids as individuals to be engaged and won over, rather than as subjects to be dictated to.

I suppose there is only so much that individual school principals can do to pursue that philosophy, given how many decisions are imposed on them from above. But I do think there are differences in attitude and approach. That’s one of the reasons I liked what I saw in a recent newsletter from the principal of our local high school, John Bacon:

How can City High truly be The School That Leads? How do we live up to this proud tradition? How do we put meaning behind our motto? There are many ways we must do this, including these:

1. We must lead in delivering engaging instruction. We can hook our students into what we are teaching so that they look forward to coming to class each day. There is an element of performance to great teaching. We have a tremendous faculty and we must keep getting better.

2. We can lead in “customer service”. We must be family friendly, highly positive, with excellent communication. All stakeholders must be treated with respect and dignity each day.

3. Most importantly, we must lead in caring for our students. We must call them by name in a positive way each day. We must listen to them and respect them. We must treat each one of them exactly as we wish for our own loved ones to be treated.
Now, some of that has an over-the-top, motivational-speaker quality to it, and of course it’s easier to state goals than to put them in practice. (My kids aren’t in high school yet, so I can’t speak to the practice.) But as a statement of goals, from a principal working within a system that’s not of his own making, this seems like a good one. I’ve heard only good things about John Bacon, from both students and school staff, and I count this as one of them.


StepfordTO said...

Chris--It sounds pretty good as a statement of goals to me too. I actually think principals wield considerable influence over the tone and the atmosphere of a school. In our schools, principals have a lot of practical power too. For instance, as I've recently learned, they are pretty much responsible for the schedules that schools operate under. Our local high school has "late start" days to better accommodate adolescent biorhythms, and I'm pretty sure it's the principal who makes decisions (perhaps in consultation with the school council) about things like that.

Anyway, given your problems with some of the policies at your kids' elementary school, it's nice to think that you (and your kids) can look forward to things improving as they move through the school system.

Chris said...

I hope so -- though the fact that our junior high was recently described (admiringly!) as being run with an "iron fist" does give me some cause for concern . . .

Josh M said...

The language in #2 troubles me a great deal:

One of the most insidious factors in the destruction of public education is the influence of the business world, which is creeping at best and blatant at worst. Here, Bacon adopts outright the language of the business world: "Customer service" though the children in school and the adults who send them to us are STUDENTS and PARENTS and NOT customers; "stakeholders" as if schools were being traded on the floor of the stock exchange.

This language is exactly the same in my mind as the other education-crushing language of "input" (what the teacher puts in) and "output" (what the student "produces" -- itself language right from an assembly line) that I recently saw in a mandated "professional development" hell-session. "Global competitiveness" in elementary schools, etc. etc.

I hope for the best for your children's sake, but his utterly cliché goals ring hollow and phony to me. We've heard all of that talk in North Carolina for some time now. "Engaging instruction" ALWAYS means "gimmicky busy work."

Chris said...

Josh -- Thanks for commenting! I agree; I don't like those corporate metaphors, either. School should be an extension of the family and the home, not of some kind of market.

But I don't expect miracles at the level of individual school principals. As much as I'm not crazy about the "customer service" and "stakeholder" references, I'd rather have the kids thought of as customers than as employees. At least customers might have their preferences taken into account to some degree.

The real question, as you point out, is whether the rhetoric will have any real meaning in practice, or whether it's just lip service. You're right that it's easy to throw words like "respect" and "dignity" around. Still, I do hear positive things -- even from kids -- about this principal, who is relatively new. I guess I'd rather have the lip service than nothing at all -- at least it gives us a standard that we can hold the school to later on.

FedUpMom said...

Josh, I understand your point that the "customer" model is right out of the business world, and I agree that there is altogether too much business influence on schools today.

But what I've found in practice is that I'd rather be treated as a customer (as I am at my kids' private schools) than as an insubordinate employee (as I was at my kid's public school).

Of course, there could be a better model, where parents were true partners of the school. I've never seen that in practice, though.

FedUpMom said...

Chris -- the junior high run with an "iron fist" is a big red flag to me.

Any possibility of homeschooling?

northTOmom -- I've been surprised at how much difference the principal or headmaster makes.