Another admission year is over, our school will have next year a wonderful group of new students not unlike similar independent schools across the country. It’s time to sit back and reflect.
Every child continues to be, happily, a teenager though I am sensing more pressure from their parents than in previous years.
As David Eklund, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, once wrote, “Children have a right to a playful childhood.” but in their need to assure some undefined end to education for their child, we still have parents over-programming their children. And that concerns me.
It concerns me that we continue to get questions from parents in our interviews that really don’t get to the heart of our school.
Instead, what I continue to get are questions about what I call “stuff”, i.e. “How many/what percent get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford….or just name the celebrity college.” “What are your average test scores?” “What is your ranking among other boarding schools?” (Sorry, there is no such thing but saying that is a losing cause.). “How many AP’s do you have?” “Can my child accelerate in mathematics?” Yet, none of these seem to indicate any real sense of what should be the real purpose of a school. We are not a conglomerate of cookie cutter institutions and we all have our idea of what should constitute a true learning experience. There are different approaches to the classroom and what should be a holistic educational experience. That means some teenagers find just the right fit for a particular school and some do not. Drilling it all down to statistics, then, simply does not get to the heart of a school resulting in, perhaps, poor decisions on the part of the parent…or student.
So here are the 8 questions I really do wish parents would ask me as we walk the campus, questions, frankly, I never hear:
1. Will my child be known?
Every child, particularly teenagers, simply wants to know that they have an identity - that their talents are recognized and that the adults on campus work hard to get to know the person inside. I believe that when children know they are valued for who they are, they will always do great things and the right things.
2. Will the school embrace the curious?
So many classrooms are about insisting students learn the way they are taught as opposed to teaching the way students learn. Curiosity needs to be encouraged and expected. Right answers are only those found through discovery.
3. Will my child be encouraged to dream?
At what other time in their lives do children have the opportunity to just dream about what could be? How does a school encourage dreaming? Perhaps, as George Carlin once said, “It’s o.k. for our children to engage every day in two hours of pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted day-dreaming!” Sadly, we have them so busy, they do not learn the joy of dreaming about what could be.
4. Will thinking out loud be expected?
I believe the classrooms where the best learning exists are those where one finds controlled chaos - students working together; coached not lectured to; ideas being challenged when they aren’t supported by information. Ah, now that’s the classroom where learning becomes special…and so few schools can pull this off. Hmm.
5. Are right and wrong defined?
It’s not about a set of rules outside of one, “Behave”. There is a right and there is a wrong and intuitively students know exactly where the boundaries are unless the school is fuzzy about them. Schools that know who they are and know their mission know how to define boundaries and they don’t mix messages in the face of parental opposition when their child crosses those boundaries.
6. Are teachers coaches or simply givers of information?
Dr. Theodore Sizer , the late visionary educator, suggested that teachers become coaches rather than simply distributors of education. Helping students reach conclusions through Socratic dialogue and deep research requires a new breed of teachers where the answer only comes through hard work on the part of both.
7. Will mastery of subjects be expected?
Another aphorism of Dr. Sizer’s takes a different approach to what should constitute true mastery of a subject. Too often grades are given simply to those who do the most prodigious amount of work, the most “extra-credit”; the most assertive student; the most attentive student. But how does a school demand true mastery and what does that mean? Shouldn’t the grade reflect complete understanding demonstrated in a variety of ways outside fill in the bubble tests?
8. Are teachers allowed to be teachers and parents allowed to be parents?
Independent schools have enrollment contracts for specific reasons. They outline the agreement to which the school promises to deliver exactly what it presents itself as during the admission/recruitment process and by enrolling in the school, parents agree that they understand this. There are certain promises every school makes but few can guarantee entrance into Yale, for example. The rules don’t change for the school or the parent once the school year opens. Teachers must have the confidence they can teach without undue pressure to guarantee A’s. Parents have a responsibility to provide the support and encouragement for their child and find the appropriate level of engagement with their school.
There are, perhaps, a few more I would add to this list but engaging parents in these types of questions, frankly, energizes me as an educator which we admission directors are first and foremost. If I could not answer these questions, I would have to think about my ability to represent the school. And if I did spend more time with parents on these types of questions, I would learn more about their aspirations for their child and could help them make an informed decision about attending our school.
About Leo Marshall: Leo Marshall serves as the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at The Webb Schools in Claremont, CA- a coed, boarding school offering grades 9-12.