Monday, September 24, 2007

Running a High School

“Why can’t the high school be more like the middle school”?

This question, often wistfully posed by parents whose children are now in the high school, implies two things: First, it speaks of the high esteem with which our middle school principals, teachers and program are held. Second, it suggests the high school just isn’t measuring up.

The problem, however, is that it would be a dreadful mistake for the high school to emulate the middle school! In best describing why, I believe it's helpful to consider how our parenting changes as our kids move from the pre-teen years to the older teen years. Consider:

When our children are young, we:

--Insist on particular study times, how much study is done and where it’s done
--Keep in frequent communication with teachers, reacting swiftly to poor performance, intervening before there is failure.
--Impose bed times on them to insist they receive the proper amount of sleep
--Structure our children’s activities and tightly monitor all “away from home” events

In contrast, as our children become older teenagers, we:

--Give them say over their homework, until evidence suggests they aren't handling it well.
--Allow them to taste the consequences of poor academic performance so as to learn from it, rather than immediately intervene
--Give them some flexibility in bed times, within reason.
--Set parameters and curfews even while allowing some flexibility in choosing activities.
--Increase our role and impose consequences after the mistake(s) rather than before.

Of course, some of these differences are more matters of degree than substance. Parents of 12 year olds don’t rescue their kids before every mistake any more than parents of older teens allow their kids to totally self-destruct before intervening; indeed, the great challenge of parenting is knowing precisely when to do which! Still, all of us want our children to stand on their own feet upon graduation from high school, and we understand we cannot be there like we once were when our children learned to walk, hands outstretched to catch them from falling each time they wobbled.

Put another way, as our children grow older, our aim is wean them from us. Our modus operandi is to give them increasing amounts of freedom, a snippet at a time, observing them carefully to see how they handle each step, curtailing the freedom for a time when they misuse it, insisting they pay the piper, even while giving them the chance to start over after each mistake. We expect that our children will take missteps, but know that by experiencing the consequences of these missteps our children will mature and move closer to the day they can lead independent lives. We must give them "space."

Good high schools run this way, too. Despite the strong temptation to control daily activities so tightly that students are not allowed to make mistakes without being intercepted by teachers before-hand (because the school would be perceived as more “orderly” and the principal seen as a better “disciplinarian”), doing so would be bad principaling as much as it would be bad parenting. Rather, good high schools give their students room to fail and insist they experience the consequences of their failure, even as they are ready, like parents, to help lift them from their stumbles and get them back on track. Good high school teachers, like good parents, sometimes have to insist on “tough love” by holding students accountable for poor effort or performance, even at the risk of being labeled as “uncaring”-- though like good parents, too, they allow their students to start over and are eager to assist them when approached.

This means, to be frank, that running a high school is often "messier" to the untrained eye. If there is greater freedom, there are also more disciplinary incidents. The obligation of the high school is to insist on proportionate consequences, each and every time, so that the offending student gradually shuns the behavior on his own. Schools can expect that freshmen in particular will struggle with their new found freedom and are thus prudent to allow them more missteps than they would upperclassmen, even while "stinging" them with punishments each time. Similarly, if parents and teachers allow their children greater freedom in making academic decisions about their homework and grades, there are also more "failures", though wise schools, like wise parents, structure these potential failures to be more short term ( a 4 week marking period grade) than final outcomes (a trimester average), thus giving their children a "taste" of the failure while also allowing ample time to recover.

When our children were younger, my wife and I would often lament how parents of older teens raised their children. With our two older children (see pic above) we began to understand! As parents of younger children, we are tempted to believe in our own omnipotence and omniscience, since we have control and responsibility over so many facets of our their lives. But if we want our children to grow to be men and women, we must give up some of this "power" and allow our children more freedom, even while insisting on parameters. One particularly astute parent called it the difference between riding a horse and creating fences within which the horse can roam. When our children are younger, we can ride that horse, directing the horse when to turn, trot or run. If we try and ride teenagers, their natural instinct is to buck us off! Good high schools, like good parents, build fences instead, all the while shaping a landscape that leads the horse to a final destination, with the horse believing it's getting there on its own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always - what a great post! It's hard to stop being a helicopter parent, especially for parents of kids who need to learn everything the hard way! It's hard to stop hovering, but how else will we know when they get it right?

How true it is that parenting changes very much, often in ways that is hard to imagine while our children are very young. I've heard parents of very young children respond to news about a teenager's (not great) behavior, "If that was my kid I'd lay down the law. I'd tell him if he was going to live in my house he'd do everthing my way." I always ask them to give me a call when their kid is 16 and let me know how that is working for them!!! Upon hearing that there is this look of panic on their face as if maybe they had never considered what they would do if that did not work.