Imagine for a moment you could actually clarify a definition of GREATNESS. It is a strange term, overused to a large degree, misunderstood by many, and whose meaning denotes many permutations and interpretations. That being said, and without trying to display a degree of arrogance or presumptuousness, after thirty years of heading and leading schools, I am now convinced of how we should define greatness in preparatory education. If only I knew then what I know now. Specifically, and in my opinion, a great school can be defined as follows:
A Great School is one that strives to become a truly Relational School, dedicated to the Glory of Education, while at the same time placing the highest possible emphasis on the development of a vibrant, strong, progressive, and exciting Faculty Culture.
A simple statement, but rather complex, if one is to grasp a full and complete understanding. So let’s take the time to break down this definition. This must be done carefully, and at all times we must keep an open mind. To begin with, we know, through years of research, that the two characteristics of a school that appear to have the most substantial impact on virtually everything worth measuring in terms of student outcomes are the size of the school and the quality of the faculty culture. The size of the school, of course, correlates with the relational school aspect. Smaller schools have an easier time fostering, promoting, and developing important and sustained relationships. When this culture pervades a school, the results are staggering. With a boy, his relationship with any teacher is the most important aspect in determining whether or not real learning will take place. Without this relationship, boys are notorious for simply refusing to learn.
No matter which research initiative is cited, one consistent message is that the quality of education can never exceed the quality of the teacher, and thus the faculty culture component of the definition has merit. The statement does not try to convince anyone that we have the best teachers (we do), as I have no means of measuring the validity of such a statement. But I can measure the quality of the faculty culture, and I try my best to do whatever I can to provide the environment that allows each teacher to perform at their absolute best. Faculty culture is, again, quite complicated, and I personally have devoted much of my career to trying to understand the nuance, and thus the true impact of it. I remain convinced that addressing faculty culture is the solution to most problems encountered at school. It is that important.
Finally, the glory of education is a long-held triumph for educators and, in a nutshell, can be defined as when a school can take a “D” student and occasionally turn him or her into a “B” student. We know that strong students excel academically no matter where they attend school (not the most effective marketing line), and if we are to provide them with an environment that will allow them to reach even greater heights, we need to expose them to a wide range of intellectual, physical, social, attitudinal, and behavioural differences. Again, research tells us that these modifiers will allow for substantial growth and development for the highest achieving students.
There are many legitimate factors that prevent schools from achieving greatness. I have come to believe that, over the past seventy-five years, the independent school world has been guilty of convincing their clientele and the public at large that mediocrity is, in fact, greatness. The reason is quite simple, and no one is suggesting that greatness is easily attained. In fact, it is so challenging that we allow ourselves to drift into mediocre mindsets because we are challenge-averse. A philosophy that celebrates the glory of education is, by its very nature, a challenge, and the easy way out is to simply avoid admitting “D” students. We do so at our own peril.
Below, I list some specific tendencies that, in my belief and contention, are the causes of mediocrity:
- discipline philosophies that focus too much on punitive measures;
- admission selectivity based on intellectual ability alone, which limits character building;
- too many financial resources, which can lead to creative complacency;
- an unhealthy focus on pedagogical and academic development at the expense of what makes a great person;
- centralized control that results in bureaucratic processes that prevent faculty from taking risks and initiatives;
- an inability to accept mistakes and/or chaos (a necessity for advancement);
- a university guidance system that avoids actually preparing students for university and simply celebrates where students go to university;
- and a facility that takes away from creativity or the development of a more-with-less attitude.
These are all examples of how mediocrity creeps into our system. I have not even begun to finish my work in this regard, but I can make one promise to the Selwyn House community. Over my remaining two years at the helm, I will do whatever I can to promote true greatness, to create a mindset and a culture that will not allow us to settle for mediocrity, and to encourage all of us to strive for heights never before reached. A challenge, but I am ready. Heads up everyone, it is going to be an exciting ride.