Greenport Long IslandCourtesy of Diane Ravich’s blog, I came across this excellent and heartening little essay on what makes a good school. It is written by David Gamberg, the superintendent of a couple of schools on Long Island, New York. So, not exactly inner-city Birmingham, but, actually, in this case it doesn’t matter. The essay argues for the core relationship between teacher and student being at the heart of education (where have we heard that before?), but also is a plea for all of us to be careful in the way we use words, educate for democracy and decide where we place our loyalties in the education process: in other words, what we give our heart to and how we speak of that. Read the whole thing – it is surprisingly insightful for something so short – but here are some snippets to get you thinking.

So, what truly defines a school? For me, the exchange between child and adult is at the heart of it. That exchange may be subtle or vigorous—not rigorous. Rigor, which shares roots with the Latin rigor mortis, implies severity, rigidity, and stiffness—all connotations that restrict the learner and the learning process—while vigor implies energy and dynamism. Yes, words matter. The best learning occurs when both teacher and student are in pursuit of a deeper understanding. It is a quest that is based on love, one that is filled with authentic, joyful, challenging, and impactful experiences. A school is a place of respect and wonder….

…All members of a community, from custodians to teachers and principals to kindergartners, are the learners of a true school. A climate of fear and hostility, or a tone of acrimony and mistrust, will yield neither a school that serves the needs of children nor the globally competitive country that some imagine will arrive when we replace the old with the new. Schools of the future—no matter their size, technological sophistication, or cost-effectiveness—should always begin with the best qualities of our humanity….

The call to have children as young as 8 or 9 years old “college- and career-ready” does not create the same narrative as building a sound foundation in childhood filled with play and creativity. Among the many other more important ways to engage the hearts and minds of our youngest students, we must promote the childhood experience in all its wonder. Schools have always existed as an expression of how a given community values its children, and how a society looks at the future—a covenant handed down from one generation to the next.

It is this idea of a democratic covenant, developed in the thinking of John Dewey in 1916, and fostered and explored since by teachers such as Neil Postman that is of first importance to us on this side of the pond. Americans generally are clearer about this – even if they ignore it as much as we do – but Gamberg bemoans the “rapid decline in civility, an unfettered belligerent approach to the questions central to the teaching and learning process” that now infects much of American political discourse (witness Mr Trump and Mr Cruz in what is laughingly called “debate”). I am beginning to see the same demonisation of those who are differently-aligned or differently-convinced politically in this country too, even if the rhetoric is not as rude. We have a responsibility to “begin with the best qualities of our humanity” – and that means speaking respectfully of children and adults wherever possible (I am guilty as anyone in this) and honouring, in our words, their Maker.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

One response »

  1. Chris Setchell says:

    Thank you so much for your posts – I find them very encouraging and are how I feel about education and beyond. I have just retired from teaching but my roots are that of school as a community and I was fortunate to work initially under a Head who felt as you do and viewed school as a community. Those views remain.
    I discovered your website through Sally when we were involved with the WNS cafe – please send her my best wishes and hope that she is enjoying her new job.

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