A radical thought: what if schools made it their primary goal to ensure that students were… happy?
The goal of American schools varies from place to place in wording, but essentially, it’s this:
Educate and prepare the next generation of Americans to thrive and prosper, as workers and citizens.
Love that goal, right? Of course. Where we run into all kinds of conflict is implementation. That big “How” question. How is this best accomplished?
There is ample evidence that strict programs work for chronically-underperforming districts. The most convincing example is seen in the staggering results coming out of Success Academies, the New York City charter chain founded by Eva Moscowitz.
Critics of charter schools point out that public schools cannot replicate their results. My biggest problem with this critique is that I see no reason why public schools can’t adopt the policies that are helping charters thrive. In their original function, charters were meant to be “little labs” for public schools, places where forward-thinking teachers could test their better practices hypothesis, and then pass their methods along, if and when students blossomed with them.
So if uniforms and highly-structured, predictable lesson plans help students who experience a fair bit of chaos in their personal lives, why not adopt that approach in public schools too?
But here’s the thing. As important as all this is (and it IS important), the end goal is for schools to give students a foundation to be successful individuals, confident adults, critical thinking pursuers of life, liberty, and happiness.
And there’s ample evidence that the relentless focus on testing, data, and end results is not working out so well at the adult level.
In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz examines the puzzling unhappiness of his Ivy League students, and concludes that their constant need for As, for 100%s, for an authority’s stamp of approval, has left them without a sense of self, no inkling of their actual passions. Deresiewicz writes, “For that is one of the greatest curses of the high-achieving mentality: the envy that it forces on you – the desperation, not simply to be loved, but to be loved, as Auden says, alone.”
To endlessly work solely for someone else’s validation is not the end goal we have in mind.
I recently talked with a good friend of mine, who is getting her Master’s in England. She’s worked with low-performing students in Detroit through Teach for America, and she spent a two years in Austin, Texas, teaching at two different charter schools.
And she proposed a revolutionary approach: What if our first goal was to make students happy?
Immediately, this struck me as self-indulgent nonsense. Schools don’t exist to make students happy. If I had spent my middle school years being happy, Math class would have been replaced with a nail-painting seminar. And the rest of the day could have been called “Lounge With Friends.”
But the more she explained, the more the idea picked away at my settled notion of strict schooling.
Take Google, she said. They put the comfort and contentment of their employees first. Hence, napping pods. And mega vacation time.
Happy, settled employees are more productive, more creative employees.
Yes, I said. But Google is also hiring only the most brilliant and adamantly self-motivated workers. We can’t rely on an entire population (much less an entire population of children and teenagers!) behaving the same way.
Back and forth we went for a while, before switching topics to something else.
But after the conversation ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea.
What if schools tried to make their students happy?
What if classrooms had couches? What if instruction included more games? What if standards were there, and were the cornerstone of lesson plans, but the emphasis was on developing students’ sense of themselves, and their ability to look around at the world and think about the plight of everyone else out there.
What if we we shifted our mindset to loving students, and that was the first and by far most important thing we did every day?
I don’t think this would mean schools suddenly looked like hippie hideouts. I don’t even think classrooms would have to change much; maybe not at all.
It would just mean that a set portion of every class centered around getting to really know our students, and them getting to know each other, and finding ways to celebrate the uniqueness of each person. That would go a long way in helping students feel that their schools did not exist just to churn out money makers.
They might see their schools existed to help them realize their own inimitable worth.
They might start to see the inestimable value in that overused word “community.”
Photo: Flickr/Sean Freese