05/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Schools Exist to Produce People Who are Happy, Empathic, and Effective

The best schools are cohesive and vibrant, filled with people who are seeking a just and exciting life, and who support each other in this quest. Every member of such a community deserves the chance to make a sincere, mindful effort, and in turn, each deserves the benefit of the doubt from everyone else. To these righteous ends, a school must provide opportunities for each person within it to pursue happiness, to understand others, and to develop power.

Independent schools have a unique opportunity to create days that encourage all members of the community to find the activities that engage them most deeply -- intellectual, athletic, artistic. This is the time when children set their compasses, sometimes for good. "Life is a daring adventure," declared Helen Keller, "or nothing." We must provide chances for our youngest citizens to sample a deep variety of adventures. In a beautiful setting, a school can define its walls as the horizon and its ceiling as the sky. This engenders a culture that gives everyone room to roam and encourages them to explore. Finding the most meaningful ways to engage one's energy is a crucial step toward balance.

At the same time, the school's denizens must recognize that they can't chase after their own happiness without heeding the needs and rights of those around them. In fact, whatever the restorative and creative value of solitude, great joy is to be found in the many. In a good
learning environment -- classroom, forest, farm -- students are therefore invited to imagine a wealth of communities. These may be nations, families, mathematicians, artists, teams, schools of thought. In a great classroom, however, students join communities. They may even form them.

The talk within such communities is likely to be noisy, passionate, at times choppy and combative. This can be painful. Empathy requires honesty: there's no point trying to understand another's position if you don't have a genuine idea of what that person's experience is. It's useful to remember that honesty means conflict, and conflict is healthy between members of a community if there is meaningful empathy between them. Sometimes faculty quarrel about whether kids can wear hats. Board members argue about the target for a capital campaign. Older students learn, and debate, the legacies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; younger ones strive to develop ground rules for how to treat each other in the classroom and on the playground. When we all believe we are pursuing the same goals, we can usefully disagree with each other, having faith in the process of dialogue.

Passionate, hardworking people make plenty of mistakes. Everyone in a school needs to know that it's all right to slip on a banana peel from time to time. You can take risks and make honest errors in an environment where your dignity is secure, where an observer knows it could be his legs flying out from under him tomorrow. Surviving occasional embarrassment is an important part of learning empathy, of course, and it is an equally crucial element of becoming an effective, powerful person. Artists create; they also suffer critique. An elected official's constituents will turn her out of office if her work is inadequate.

The great civil rights activist Myles Horton observed that "education is what happens to the other person, not what comes out of the mouth of the educator." In order to become effective adolescents, and later adults, it is not enough for young children to learn the best ways to undertake tasks. They must learn to identify the right tasks, and to actually carry them out. The youngest learners deserve some agency within a school community, learning how to make decisions by being entrusted with them, where appropriate.

All of these explorations can be facilitated by a school's leader. They must be enacted by that person as well. An honest teacher will not lecture for two hours straight about the value of problem-based learning. Similarly, a school leader who preaches communication will make plenty space to listen and, if called upon, to talk. A director's responsibility beyond his own actions lies primarily in two areas: first, helping the members of the community to articulate and fight for a shared set of goals; second, making space in the school culture for these key rights to be realized.

This means more conversation, rather than less; a willingness to prioritize; the ability to gather all the resources that can be brought to bear; transparency and honesty at every turn; principles of meaningful excellence for all. When members of a school trust each other, and believe in their own power, then the pursuit of happiness becomes suffused into the daily rituals of the community.