Head & Heart Ch. 11: Choosing the Right School: a Teacher’s Suggestions

By Robert Freeman, public school teacher and private school parent

Robert Freeman is a history and economics teacher in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.

Choosing the right school for your child may be one of the most important choices you’ll make for his or her future. It is surprising, therefore, that so few tools are available to help.

image029Many parents simply cede the decision to convenience or cost: they send their child to the local public school. And in most cases, this is more than adequate. Ritualized hysteria notwithstanding, most of our public schools are very good.

However, for parents who choose not to go with their local public school, choosing a private school can be confusing or even overwhelming.

As a public school teacher with two children in private school, I believe there is a fairly simple method for determining which school is right for your child.

I call it “The Embodiment Test.”

The Embodiment Test directs that you should choose the school that best “embodies” those character traits you want your children to develop. Its efficacy rests on three foundations.

First, character is more important than knowledge in determining the ultimate success of your child.

Second, character cannot be conveyed by teaching, only by modeling.

And third, once character is set, it is very difficult to change.

Let’s look at these foundations and how they play out in choosing a school.

Most parents will readily understand the idea that character is more important than knowledge. It is character that parents are inculcating when they remind their child, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But while multiplication tables fall to mechanical repetition, developing character is not nearly so easy or routine. This is why nobility of character is so much more rare – and prized – than mathematical dexterity.

A child with strong character – embracing honesty, discipline, compassion, perseverance, and self-respect – will find the way to whatever knowledge he or she desires or needs. The reverse, unfortunately, is not always true: knowledge without character is at best impotent, and at worst, malevolent.

The second foundation is equally important: character cannot be conveyed by teaching alone (though it can be reinforced). It can only be conveyed by “modeling.” It is not what I say that speaks to the child, it is what I do.

This is the same as in parenting, isn’t it? If I am an engaged teacher, interested in each student’s welfare, curious about the world, passionate about my subject, and embodying integrity and dignity in my actions, the children will see it. They will know it, they will esteem it, and they will do all they can to emulate it. It is not so much what I teach that they learn, it is what I am.

Once set, character is difficult to change. This increases the urgency of the other two rules. Weak or conflicted character becomes its own worst enemy. Rather than searching within him- or herself for the solution to difficulties, the child with weak character will blame the world.

With these foundations, how should parents apply them in evaluating a school for their children? At this point, the process is fairly simple, although not necessarily easy. First, decide on what kind of character traits you want your children to develop. Then look to see how different schools “embody” these traits – how they manifest in the behavior of the teachers, administrators, students, and parents.

Observe the teachers for more than just a few minutes. Spend a few hours.

Look beneath their credentials and degrees. Do they embody the kind of character you want your child to be tutored in? Do they honor the individuality of each child? Are they passionate about teaching – holding it as a calling? And is their passion reinforced in the larger context of a guiding philosophy, administration, and community?

Talk with parents who have children at the school. Why did they choose this school? What is working for them and their children? What is not? What is it like to work with the administration? Are they the kind of people you want to work with on a PTA committee? That is, as parents, do they embody values and aspirations for their children that are similar to yours? This is important.

And, of course, observe the students. Are they happy (not just playful) on the playground? Do they appear to be able to resolve problems on their own? Do they show confidence in expressing their individuality? Do they exhibit competence in the classroom – no matter what grade they’re in? Do they show patience in their studies – a certainty, borne first of faith and only later of experience, that the world will yield rewards for their diligent explorations?

These are the true tests of a school: does it help you deliver the kind of “whole” child you’ve intended to raise? For, make no mistake, it really does “take a village” – an entire school – to educate a child well. And it is only a “whole” child that is happy, successful, and fulfilled.

Information? Knowledge? Intellect? These are, of course, critical in today’s competitive world. No sane parent or teacher would overlook them. But they are the easiest things to teach and measure. The deeper elements of character are more elusive, harder to cultivate: How do you discern good information from bad? What knowledge do you aspire to? How can you use your intellect wisely?

These are the components of a good education that will stand the test of time. They will enable your child to adapt to the tumultuous, frenetically changing world that we live in. These are the foundations of true happiness, of true attainment, of true meaning for a life well lived.

Private schools are private businesses. They all want your patronage. Most have genuinely good intentions for your child, and most are genuinely able to impart the basics of a good education. But they all embody the elements of character in different measures and proportions. This is precisely their virtue, their strength, and their appeal to demanding parents and deserving children.

Know what is really important to you. Know how to find it. Maintain your own high standards. And your children will do well.