“A school in which every student is both known and loved. . . "
With perspective as both an educator and a parent, what more could one seek from a school? This mantra, a hallmark of the educational philosophy of both St. Albans School in Washington, DC and St. Andrew's Episcopal School in New Orleans, two institutions I have served with pleasure for nearly 20 years, forms the core of my own educational philosophy.
I have been blessed in my life with diverse and formative educational experiences, beginning with my K-12 studies at the Collegiate School, a co-ed independent school in Richmond, VA; anchored by nine summers as a camper and counselor at Camp Virginia, an all-boys character-building camp in Goshen, VA; continuing as a student of history at the University of Virginia; and culminating most recently as a student of education at Harvard University and a Klingenstein Fellow at Columbia University.
However, my time at St. Albans, as a teacher, dorm master, coach, and administrator; and at St. Andrew’s, as Head of School, most profoundly shapes my outlook as an educator. The first tenet of my educational philosophy is best captured in the aforementioned quotation. I firmly believe that the most significant common denominator of successful schools is that every student benefits from multiple meaningful relationships with both faculty and peers.
While anonymity for young people is often the first component of academic, social, or emotional distress, happily, its converse, familiarity, marks the first step to educational success. And while no school should be seen as a replacement for the most fundamental relationship in a child’s life—the relationship with one’s family—great schools strive to create a sense of intimacy that is both quantitative (student: teacher ratios in the low double-digits, for example) and qualitative (observing a student walk through hallways greeted by name by familiar and friendly faces).
Over the last 10-15 years, a rare consensus has developed among educational scholars, practitioners, and even popular media that schools of the 21st Century cannot look and feel like schools of the 20th Century. This point, I believe, is beyond debate. Educational models that mimic the “factory model” approach of much of the last century, that focus on simple information transfer from teacher to pupil, or that are designed as anything but student-centric are clearly relics of the past. Technology in the classroom, once considered an “add-on” or curricular elective, must be integrated much in the way that critical-thinking, collaboration, and communication skills must be imbedded in every lesson.
Change may be the one constant of our dynamic and hyper-competitive era. Even so, or especially so, relationships—human-to-human interaction, both peer-to-peer and student-to-adult—must remain at the forefront of any successful school. Successful independent schools such as St. Christopher’s do not have a monopoly on a relationship-based form of education—it can be found at any type of school, public or private, across the world. However, for independent schools to remain leaders in secondary education, they must embrace all that is now viewed as essential in the 21st Century, but chief among those elements must be a fundamental regard for the unique and irreplaceable worth of every child in the school community. St. Christopher’s has a proven 100-year history of relationship-based education.
“Age-appropriate academic rigor...”
The second element of my educational philosophy is my belief in an appropriately challenging curriculum. I am careful to include the phrase “age-appropriate,” in that I do not believe in homework simply for homework’s sake or in assigning tasks that deprive younger children of their need for balance, including time and space to enjoy the curiosities of the world around them. However, through my own academic career as well as through my time as a teacher and administrator, I have observed the benefits of challenging young people to extend themselves beyond their natural comfort zones.
My most meaningful triumphs as an educator have come from working with a student who initially struggled with a task, but through personal grit and my insistence on high expectations, eventually succeeded—perhaps not with an easily-earned A, but with a B born of desire and dedication. Particularly in a modern world fraught with economic, political, and social challenges, students should know the meaning of hard work, and yes, failure, so that they can learn the valuable life skills of persistence and recovery. Schools such as St. Christopher’s, with academic programs that are both broad in a diverse array of curricular offerings and deep in the level of specificity and rigor in a particular discipline, have a distinct advantage and relevance in the 21st Century.
“The hard right over the easy wrong...”
A second mantra I embrace from my time at St. Albans and brought with me to St. Andrew’s, this statement captures my belief that schools should produce more than solely academically-prepared pupils. Rather, schools have both the opportunity and the obligation to instill a moral compass in young people that can serve them well beyond their secondary education. In my view, a school that produces a first-rate mathematician, viola player, or soccer player, but one who lacks the moral acumen to make his community and his world better for his presence has, on balance, failed.
The notion of choosing the hard right over the easy wrong teaches students the meaning of character, something I describe as “how one acts when no one else is watching,” an attribute students will take with them long after the Pythagorean Theorem or the specifics of the Battle of Thermopylae escapes them. Consistent with my belief in intimate educational environments, the opportunity for moral education exists when there is a deep and mutually respectful relationship between student and teacher. Faculty should view their role as both educator and mentor, and that means modeling moral behavior in the classroom, of course, but also in the hallways, in the lunchroom, and on stage or the playing fields. St. Christopher’s possesses proven excellence in this arena, with its stated conviction that, “We care most about developing young men who possess character and integrity.”
Further, the relative simplicity of this dichotomy, of choosing a right over a wrong, instills in young people the confidence that they possess the human agency to define their own fate. Too often young people, especially in school, feel trapped on a pre-determined pathway, with a set of coordinates set for them by caring but controlling adults. Students, whether 6 or 16, need to internalize the notion of choice, of altering one’s fate through the power of decisions and their consequences.
While there are certainly other attributes of fine schools, I firmly believe that if a school can define itself first and foremost as an institution focused on meaningful relationships, can instill a culture of high expectations and age-appropriate rigor, and can produce graduates with a clear sense of moral citizenship, it has succeeded in serving its students and the world at large.