A school is a workplace whose product is personal experience and growth.
Widget factories make widgets, and insurance companies sell and service policies. While the business wisdom of the moment would focus on the “people” aspect of these enterprises, in point of fact you can hold their products in your hand and see them at work. Schools are different.
To have become a teacher or a coach or any of the people who work in schools and have contact with children as part of their jobs is, at some point, to have been interested in children’s lives and children’s worlds. I will even stipulate for the sake of argument here that school people believe in kids and root for their success, or at least they did at that moment when they decided to stay in the profession.
A school’s product, then, is at its best a wonderful series of “Aha!” moments, smiles, struggles well struggled, changed minds and attitudes, opinions and attitudes confirmed and strengthened by evidence and logic, gradually dawning understandings, new images and ideas created in a score of media, empathy and compassion extended by new points of view, instructive failures and recoveries, moments of chagrin and pride, tragedy and triumph. (That’s a short catalogue, I know.)
In short, adults in schools get to observe, listen, guide, comfort, cajole, instruct, suggest, clarify, correct, confirm, and marvel. We get to watch young people grow into themselves. What a job! What a career! What a life!
I am a firm believer in the idea of the educator as observer, and I do not mean this in a passive sense. The best educators are as attuned to subtleties in student work and student behavior as Sherlock, or better Mycroft, Holmes, and as we advance in our careers we add tools and attitudes and occasionally revelations to the databank on which we draw as we try to figure out the best way to respond to situations that are almost always, in some tiny but crucial way, unlike anything we have encountered before.
All of this, incidentally, places a giant, wonderful burden on schools and their people. We have to supply experiences, challenges, and opportunities that are worthy of the great work that we have been given to do, experiences, challenges, and opportunities that will truly engage and inspire our students. There’s no room for shoddy programs or for low standards when the potential of each student is at stake.
To reiterate a point I have made earlier, the best kinds of schools are those in which students are indeed encouraged to grow into themselves. Almost fifty years ago I attended a school in which there was then (no longer, I am quite sure) a kind of beau ideal of the “— Man:” athletic, hardworking and book-smart but not intellectual, socially at ease, and modest about his many accomplishments. Other schools have had and promoted, explicitly or implicitly, their own ideas of what children should be, of what boys or girls should be, of the perfect artist or athlete or even intellectual. I like to think that the work independent schools have been doing around diversity has opened many eyes not just about race and ethnicity but also about the essential nature of children, and that idea of helping kids to become “the best version of themselves” (as opposed to beings measured against some school-established standard) has taken hold even among the traditionalists among us.
A few years back, “risk-taking” was a staple of school mission statements, and while the idea behind this was noble and good, we have not done much of a job to really encourage this in our schools, and we need to do better. Learning can be described crudely as a feedback loop, and part of good feedback involves finding out what happens when you try new approaches. Sometimes you fail; sometimes you need two or three tries to get something right. How many of our schools really encourage kids to take risks by allowing them to fail (with the failure as its own penalty) on their way to success?
A quick and slightly disturbing thought: At the moment my main work is as a college counselor, and we joke sometimes about being the “shipping department”—a line that is perhaps too clever by half. Cynically, I worry that there are many people who believe deep down that our schools’ actual products are in fact commodities in list form to be judged and measured by the “quality” (i.e., perceived prestige) of the places they go when they leave us. I reject this, and I hope you do, too.
If we are doing our jobs, we are giving students the time, space, and opportunity to learn and try new ideas, new attitudes, new approaches, new understandings, and above all new ideas of who they are and who they can be. With good and well understood curricula—the intentional, the hidden, and even the null—we produce people of whose accomplishments and growth we may be proud, but mostly importantly people whom we are proud to know.
And what’s really cool: As we work with children, we grow and develop ourselves. As I said, What a job!
And I thought this would be a short post.