This week I have been reflecting on the distinctive character of independent schools. There are many different types of schools and we are fortunate in Canada to be able to choose the type that best meets the needs of our children. Having spent over twenty-five years in independent schools, I have had the privilege of benefitting, both professionally and personally, from schools similar to ours. I only wish that I had had the opportunity to attend such a school when I was as a child. I am very grateful that each of my four children has.
Why the gratitude? I am grateful for a number of reasons. To begin with, my kids had the privilege of learning in independent schools which preserved and fostered not merely a humane education, but the humane in education. Their time in these schools meant that they were largely spared from the excessively mechanical, excessively methodological, and excessively narrow perspectives that can lose sight of important long-term goals and, at times, even the student. Such perspectives are found in systems that can be madly driven by “policy”, which risks overlooking the “person” in the process. Are our children served better in a system or in a school? I know which one gets my vote.
During my career, I have observed that all the best independent schools have some things in common. First, they insist on a culture that commands respect from all of its constituents. This is easily seen in an effective school where every conversation begins and ends with respect (…some of which is inherent and some of which is earned). Words set the temperature both in a family and in a school and words are the first tools of respect. Secondly, good schools honour consequences. “Peaches and cream” discipline or rigid “drill sergeant tactics” are useless. Noted educator and parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso, has described this as the “jellyfish” versus the “brick wall” approach. Both are ineffective and both are damaging. Allowing logical consequences to flow naturally from the mistakes that precede them is the only sure method of ensuring a student body has the stamina needed for survival. Coloroso describes this as an approach with “backbone”, whereas the others are a “fool’s game”. Good schools are committed to this.
Independent schools are exceptionally committed to helping students discover educational purpose by encouraging a personal mission that springs forth from the school’s own vision. Such missions must be as apparent on the playground and in the lunchroom as they are in the administrative office, classrooms – or parking lot. Every independent school family should embrace such missions and understand that their efficacy depends on strong, consistent commitment to the school’s values while providing living, relevant support for the work of its teachers.
After spending time in dozens of Canadian independent schools (and a few American ones, too), I am convinced that having faith in the environment of your child’s school is also key. Teachers work hard to create engaging lessons, uphold traditions, and prioritize celebrations that encourage and inspire children. The interpersonal and aesthetic domains are crucial. The invisible embrace of a cared-for environment must never be underestimated in its ability to call children to healthy and happy paths of learning.
And, finally – laughter. While it can take a while to transform Johnny or Suzie into students “with a mission”, they undoubtedly appreciate teachers with a cheerful heart and a human face.
In any good independent school, the environment, tone and atmosphere are the stepping stones to the humane and the nexus of inspiration and learning. We are working hard – with your support – to be right in that “sweet spot”.
Ric Anderson, Head of School