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. Continue reading

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The Goal of the Parent-Teacher Partnership

Two weeks ago, I walked through the double glass door of a large, rectangular, brick building that houses the Baker Demonstration School in Evanston, Illinois. To my right was the Principal’s Office, but on my left were two three-year-olds who greeted me with: “Good morning. Would you like to come to our art gallery?”

“Why yes, of course,” I replied.

“Admission is five cents,” the boy said.

“Rats,” I answered. “I don’t have any coins.” Continue reading

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Parents, Teachers, Do You Trust Your Children? What Does it Mean to Trust a Child?

“I Want to be Trusted.”

When Katie was growing up, every once in a while she would blurt out an emphatic, “I want to be trusted.” She would always say it with an intensity that was a little startling, as if she were mad at not feeling trusted, or profoundly afraid that she would not be, or terrified, herself, that she was not trustworthy. Perhaps it was an emotional outburst in anticipation of a scary decision she was about to make. Continue reading

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Authority, Discipline, Punishment, and 4 Rules for Getting Good Kids

The Secret of Raising Good Kids (Hint: Don’t Think Bad)

Judy Stone, one of the all-time great teachers, and I were in charge of 48 seventh and eighth graders for their lunch/recess period one day in March several years ago. Judy called us all together and said: “There are three rules: no running, no throwing balls and no jumping off the stage.” (We were in an old, newly acquired parish hall that had not yet been fitted out for children.) For 45 minutes there was no bad behavior, but we spent the rest of our time together adjudicating whether what we had just observed was “running” or a fast walk, “jumping” or a giant step. Was that projectile that went flying past us a “ball” or a wad of duct tape? Continue reading

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Pedagogy over Poverty

Between poverty and impoverished pedagogy there is a high correlation. Quality of education goes down with income.  Wealthier children go to better schools, and children who grow up in poverty have a very high probability of getting a bad education. We all know this.

Then we adults make the standard mistake of turning correlation into causation, Continue reading

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What Do Good Parents and Good Schools Have in Common?

How to Exercise Authority

Of the 20 schools I visited last fall, two stand out. Any parent would know in the first five minutes of each visit what I knew: I want my child in school A, and I will fight like hell to keep my child out of school B. One was a place of education and one felt like a prison. I will call one The Learning Academy and the other Brand X.

In The Learning Academy all kids were on a mission, they seemed lit from within with the joy of learning. In two hours I saw no bored or unhappy students, and they were all engaged in challenging academic work. Each classroom exuded creativity—in every corner of every classroom.

In Brand X I saw three students Continue reading

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Can the Good-enough Parent Demand Mastery?

Great vs. Excellent

Last week when I wrote that trying to be a “superior parent” is crazy, I seem to have been like the little boy who said: “The emperor has no clothes.” The idea that if children get only the three things they need (love, respect as a decision maker, and accurate feedback) they will turn out just fine hasn’t been said much. Once said, however, almost everyone nodded, cheered, or breathed a sigh of relief. Striving to be “The Best Parent I Can Be” is driving parents crazy.

What about our children? Should they be striving “to be the best they can be?” Continue reading

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“Superior Parenting?” That’s Crazy Talk. Children Need Only 3 Things.

Years ago, I was standing in the back yard of my uncle’s house talking to my cousin. “I feel like I messed up my kids,” I said.

“Oh, Ricky, Don’t you know? We all mess up our kids. It’s all set up that way.”

I was an educator, who by then had known about a thousand parents, and was experienced enough to know that she was right. However for me, the Dad, I needed to be reminded that there is no way to do the job of parenting “right.”

Since then I have seen about three thousand more parents in all situations, and I still know that she was right. Three of my four children have children, and I watch with admiration how they raise my five grandchildren. I also watch the “mistakes” they are making, and I am smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Anyway, just look at them. They are terrific. My cousin was right.

So when Amy Chua came out in the Wall Street Journal ten days ago claiming that Chinese mothers are “Superior,” Continue reading

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Arrogance is a Learning Disability

The Education of Character is Education Itself.

Many years ago I was consultant to a school that had a reputation for “strong academics,” but was experiencing a lot of “behavior problems.” The kids were mean to each other and to their teachers.

In one conversation about a seventh grader named Justin the teachers expressed their frustration that Justin interrupted his classmates, sounded like a know-it-all, blurted out answers, put others down for their questions and insulted teachers. One teacher said: “He takes after his father.” Others agreed.

At one point in the conversation one of the teachers said, “It’s a shame because Justin is such a good student.” At this point I said: “Wait. That statement is oxymoronic. Arrogance is a learning disability. He may get good grades on tests, but he is inhibiting his own learning as well as others. A know-it-all will not learn as much as someone who will listen to others.” I paused. “And we will never get his father to help us help him change if we label him a ‘strong student.’ That’s what his father cares about.”

By placing “academics” and “morality” in separate categories we compromise our ability to educate. Whether a student is searching for the right words to address a classmate or the best way to state a thesis in an essay, the challenge is essentially the same. Collecting oneself before entering the exam room, the sports arena, or the playground requires the same disciplines. The skills for solving math problems and social problems overlap. Educating “the whole person” starts with understanding that our work is to fully educate each kharakter in our care.


Humility, perseverance, openness, courage, patience, creativity, integrity, resourcefulness, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are not so much virtues as disciplines, and they serve us well in all endeavors from the social to the academic, from the artistic to the athletic. The habit of taking responsibility is necessary for both homework and interpersonal conflict. The habit of always being respectful no matter what produces best results both in and out of the classroom. Respect, like other disciplines, is not a character trait, but a skill that can be learned. Parents and teachers need to work together to teach our children the disciplines that will help them build character. In the end, education of character is education itself.

 

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

Continue reading

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