What Good Schools, Happy Families and Successful Adults Have in Common

An educated person has the ability and inclination to use judgment and imagination in solving the problems that confront them at work and at home, and to participate in the maintenance of democracy.

-David Berliner

Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy for the same reason. (Tolstoy only got it half right.) The same principle holds true for schools.

That reason came to me yesterday, when one of the men who was working on our new home in Decatur discovered I was an educator and wanted to talk. He started with: “If you ask me, the problem with our schools is all about discipline. The problems all began when parents stopped supporting the authority of the teacher. When my kids were going to school, there wasn’t much misbehavior. Students usually did what they were told, and if one of them didn’t there were consequences at home—and you know what that meant. We smacked ‘em. Back then the teachers had a paddle in their classrooms. They may not have used it that often, but the students knew it was there.”

He was on to something, although perhaps that something was different from the something he thought he was on to. It is all about authority, and indeed the world has changed since American soldiers fired on teenagers at Kent State 41 years ago. It’s true. Authority based on coercion just doesn’t work anymore. For many of us the change is welcome; for others it is lamentable.

I visited 40 schools in the last eight months and talked to many parents, teachers and principals. There are two kinds of schools: happy and unhappy. The difference is that in the happy schools the adults are learning how to exercise their authority in ways that enhance the authority of the students.

All happy schools and families are organized so that children are expected to use their judgment and imagination to solve problems, where children are treated as authors, scientists, artists and researchers and learn the academic disciplines related to becoming proficient at those endeavors, where a classroom is a model of participatory democracy so that children become brilliant at harmonizing the needs of the individual with the needs of their community. Students rise to those expectations. They take responsibility because they are given real responsibility, and they are respectful because they are respected as decision-making learners. Achievement is high.

An entire generation of people has spent the last 40 years practicing how to raise responsible, respectful decision makers without making them. The research that children rise (or fall) to our high (or low) expectations of them has become common knowledge and millions of Americans and hundreds of schools have acquired the disciplines of putting that knowledge into practice. Consequently millions of young people now enter the work place as self-directed, life-long learners who know how to get what they want from others without having to pack a gun or a paddle.

But we are still a nation in transition. I have visited all too many unhappy schools where expectations are low. Kids are expected not to want the adult agenda and therefore the adults have to make them. Authority is expressed as coercion and engenders compliance or rebellion and fosters low enthusiasm for learning, low achievement and by high school, lots of dropouts.

In Jennifer Roger’s “Seven Ways to Love your Child” the seventh is: “Maintain Authority.”

The difference between a happy and unhappy school (and family) is that in a happy one the adults know they have a challenge and are rising to it. They are also discovering how much fun it can be without that nasty “generation gap” we used to have.

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4 thoughts on “What Good Schools, Happy Families and Successful Adults Have in Common

  1. Wow, that lead in, YUCK! I think you really should have included a comment about violence against children. I agree about the coercion, but “smacking” anyone isn’t just coersion, it’s violence. Sadly, despite the fact that violence against adults is completely illegal and is called assault, violence against children is only prosecutable when someone hurts them enough to leave a mark. Using fear and threats doesn’t work with adults AND doesn’t work with children, and it demeans the aggressor as well. That lead in was added in a way that was far too flip for the true damage that that history of violence in and out of the classroom has caused.

  2. Brandi, You’re right. I was taking your point too much for granted. Indeed, he really was in favor of “smacking ’em.”

  3. What good schools, happy families and successful adults SHOULD have in common is a genuine, deep and abiding interest in the safety, healthy growth and continuing development of people, both kids and adults. Safety means more than security, it means the ability and comfort to express one’s self, thoughts and feelings openly in an atmosphere of respect and concern. Healthy growth is holistic, taking into account the lifelong mental, physical, emotional and spiritual evolution fostered by a learning community. Continuing development is just that, ongoing, progressive, and forward thinking, planning for the future and acting on projected goals that are both reasonable and realistic. A tall order to be sure, but well worth the investment of time, energy, resources and one’s best self.

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