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David Allyn Headshot

Can Students Love School? Yes, If Schools Love Students

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There has been a lot of talk about the need for greater academic "rigor" in education. Rigor is meant to be a synonym for high standards in the curriculum, but the word reveals much about our culture's attitude toward learning. "Rigor," according to Merriam-Webster, means "harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper or judgmental severity; the quality of being unyielding or inflexible." Think of rigor mortis.

Georgetown Day (GDS), the school I attended from K-12, is considered one of the top private schools in the country. Graduates typically go to the most selective colleges. However, nothing about the school would normally be associated with rigor. From kindergarten through twelfth grade, for instance, we called our teachers by their first names. The Head of School was Gladys; the Upper School Head was Frank. We did most work independently. There were no end-of-year letter grades until high school (in lower and middle school we had effort grades: O for outstanding, E for excellent, G for good, etc.). Starting in ninth grade we were free to leave the building at our leisure; the campus was "open."

Independent schools have an enormous advantage over public schools because they can select their students. Classmates who caused trouble at GDS or failed to work hard were not invited back. Nevertheless, the humanistic culture of the school infused the student body. The school was dedicated to creating a warm, nurturing environment, where each of us was free to express ourselves creatively and intellectually. Sports took a back seat to the arts, which flowed through every aspect of the curriculum. We read novels in history, learned music in English, studied philosophy in math class, produced plays, made music, and had classes in painting every year that I can remember.

I never encountered a traditional "textbook" until eleventh-grade American history. Even that was supplemented with college-level essays by America's greatest historians. (When I got to graduate school and met the renowned Revolutionary historian Bernard Bailyn, I was in awe because I vividly remembered his essay from junior year of high school.)

The school wasn't perfect; there were bullies who acted with impunity beneath the radar of the faculty, who perhaps looked upon us all as little angels incapable of cruelty. And as I have written before, I did have a dud of a fifth-grade teacher. On the whole, however, it was a magical place. We worked hard because it was rewarding to do so. I worked much harder in high school than I would at my Ivy League college.

What was the importance of first names? It created a culture of caring and mutual respect. We knew our teachers were there because they wanted the best for us; we never looked at them as authority figures or people to rebel against. Today, when the school hosts reunions, it's the teachers that everyone wants to see. Laura and Bruce and Janet and Bill. They were our champions and our mentors. People are always surprised that I remember the name of every teacher I had from kindergarten through twelfth grade. How can that be surprising? My teachers were the most important people in my life.

The world would be better with more schools like GDS. And what about the kids who don't behave -- the ones who break all the rules and abuse the trust of the community? Well, perhaps we're collectively responsible for creating such children. Perhaps we reap what we sow. If we assume that children are a "problem" to be solved (to be controlled or crammed full of knowledge or taught how to behave), are we creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Excessive rigor is rarely a good idea; it suggests rigidity. Rigid bridges snap. Rigid walls collapse under strain. Personally, I am very glad there was little rigor in my childhood. I was happy with grassy fields and lots of free time, crayons and paper and paint, smart and caring teachers, interesting books, plenty of respect, and good questions to ponder. None of my former classmates went to Wall Street or made millions starting hedge funds, but today none of them seems to pine for more money either. We learned early on that a rich life comes through creativity, exploration, intellectual endeavor and service to the community.