A School Head’s Story

We know what it’s like when schooling is painful...

“I was the head of a boys school in a city that had a good number of really strong boys schools. Ours was terrific, but I’d be less than honest if I said we were clearly the ‘best’ of those schools. Each had its own niche and its own strengths.

One of these schools, though, had an incredible – for lack of a better word – I’ll call it ‘culture.’ We all talk about individual attention and about making sure kids don’t fall through the cracks, but these folks really had that down pat. You could just feel it when you walked into the building. The adults there really cared about their kids. It was almost palpable.

Before I moved, I went over to have a last cup of coffee with the head of this amazing school (we had become friends over the years) and I said, ‘Look. We’re no longer competitors. Can you tell me what makes this place so good? How do you do it?’

He went over and closed the door. Then he looked around the room for bugs. (For a moment I thought he was going to give me the secret recipe to Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken!) Then he said something that has stayed with me for years:

‘I have a learning disability. I never did well in school. I spent most of my life on academic probation, and I never hire anyone who had higher grades than I did in school. In other words, what we have here is a school full of teachers who struggled in school. Lots of them had undiagnosed learning issues, and some just came from tough home situations. But what we all have in common is this: we know what it’s like when schooling is painful. Because of that,  I think we can connect with boys in a way that a school full of Ivy leaguers never could. I’ve got nothing against the Penn and Columbia crowd, but what we’ve got here, well, it’s not something you’d pick up in Harvard Yard’.”



6 thoughts on “A School Head’s Story

  1. There are so many reasons that a student struggles in school. Not all struggles are related to learning disabilities. Not all students with learning disabilities do poorly in school. I have a learning disability. I am going to an “elite” school and doing very well. So is my transcript or my school going to pose a problem if I submit them to that school in DC? I suspect that anyone who will not hire someone who did better than they did in school has some self esteem issues.
    What message is sent to the children in that DC school? What happens if they do better in school than their teachers did? Do they get counselled out?
    The whole thing makes no sense. If you believed what you heard you would have a faculty made up of people who had a bad time in school? Do you ask that when you are hiring? Do you fire the really smart high achieving people who never had school troubles? Would you let them stay if they had been great students but proved their suffering some other way like parental loss at a young age or if they grew up on welfare?

  2. Your remarks again suggest that elite educated people know little about compassion; that intelligence and empathy are mutually exclusive. “Elites” of all kinds are open target these days in North America whether by our national Conservatives railing against “urban elites” our mayor or Sarah Palin. I know many Old Boys, “Ivy Leaguers”, who devote a lot of their time and money to helping others locally and internationally.
    The remarks also suggest that those who attend elite universities have never known hardship. I suspect that might have been true in the 50s and perhaps some of the 60s—but just look at some of our students here and the variety of hardships they experience. Hardship knows no class barriers.
    When Patrick Bassett suggests hiring quotas, what are we coming to? The implication in his and your remarks is that future teachers aspiring to teach at UCC and who have gone to an elite university might have to delete that fact on their application.

  3. What is being presumed here is that those who go to elite universities have never experienced hardship nor are they capable of compassion. This point of view echoes the Conservatives’ “urban elites”; I’m sure Sarah Palin would subscribe to it too. North American politicians can score big by denigrating “elites”. Why are intelligence or intellectual achievement and compassion mutually exclusive? Because Tom Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) went to Yale, are all Yalies bad? Patrick Bassett would have quotas for “types” teachers. Imagine a prospective teacher looking to teach at UCC. Would he/she now have to hide the fact that they were educated at an elite university in order to get hired?
    I know a number of old boys, “Ivy Leaguers”, who devote a good deal of their time to community service here and abroad. Why are they being disparaged so generally?
    And that school in DC? Why not look a little closer to home?

  4. Fascinating. Which boys school in DC? I’d argue you need a blend: about 1/3rd of really high IQ teachers from highly selective colleges/universities to set the aspirational academic climate; 1/3rd of high EQ teachers who lived and identify with the struggles of kids; about 1/3rd who are or want to be professional experts in teaching and learning. And pay more for those who meet all three criteria.

    1. Patrick, it would be very difficult to find any of those meeting all three criteria. That said, having seen a bunch of kids through school, I do find it difficult to believe the story as told.

  5. Some of the best educators I know have come from the ranks of people who struggled through school. A key factor in their success is the way in which they can relate to a child in the same boat. At the same time, some educators who did not do well in school are intimidated by the more academically inclined students in their classes and do not do very well with these students. It can go both ways. While the story may be true, it seems odd to employ only teachers who have struggled through school when we have a diverse student body. We need all kinds of teachers.

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