In Context III by: Melinda Tsapatsaris
Three years ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends in L.A., Sarah Shulkind, also a head of school, wrote a piece exploring Rosh Hashanah for her Sinai Akiba school community (now called the Lainer School). Her message got at something I had grappled with for years as an independent school educator. Parents wondered it. Prospective parents asked it while I sat on admission panels. It was a question I wondered how to answer with clarity and integrity, because in my gut I had the answer, but my gut doesn’t always translate into the articulate.
The question always went something like this: “How will our children be prepared for ‘the real world’ if they’re growing up in this ideal, even unrealistic private school bubble?”
The question popped into my head a month ago at New Parent Orientation, when a father asked about the non-competitive nature of Westland’s philosophy in the context of physical education. While he asked the question with curiosity and zero-cynicism, it did prompt me to think of a powerful passage from Sarah’s piece:
“Our program enables students to experience the best version of our society. We are a community of learners that celebrates each others’ successes as our own. Our students perceive the world as supportive and encouraging. They perceive learning—whether in or out of the classroom—as joyful and relevant. Many have asked me if we’re sheltering our students; they ask if this reassuring, constructive environment reflects the ‘real world’. My answer? It reflects what the world could be, especially if our students come to expect it.”
I sort of want to end my blog here, that passage is so poignant and powerful. In the context of Westland, however, it’s exciting for me to expand upon Sarah’s words when I consider our school’s powerful mission and philosophy. I got the chance to meditate on our mission at the first board meeting of the year. I sincerely appreciate the fact that Gillian, Westland’s board chair, began the meeting with reading the mission statement to her fellow trustees. It’s also how she began the Fall General Meeting.
Westland’s mission is understandably long, because the work we do with children is incredibly complex. And in an independent school world in this particular city of ours, schools and their missions are most oftentimes catchy and brand-forward. I see Westland as mission-forward. (Oops…do I sound a little competitive?) The noncompetitive section of our mission statement is essential for the adults of our community to understand—and maybe even to be more comfortable and confident with:
“…Westland focuses on enabling students to be self-motivated and to view learning as an exciting and rewarding process that will continue throughout their lives. We strive for a learning environment that is child-centered and non-competitive. Each child at Westland has a commitment to his/her group; each group has a commitment to the school and the school has an important commitment to the world around us. Westland values experiential learning to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills...”
The individual’s commitment to the group is essential in understanding our noncompetitive framework. It’s the essence of it. If our children are consistently thinking of themselves in the context of the group, then the competitive framework (a competitive framework that is everywhere around us!) begins to be dismantled. Peers aren’t seen as people to one-up or to be better than, or even to be threatened by. They are seen as resources, treasured friends, and fellow problem solvers.
The end of our mission articulates that the goal of learning here is to develop children as creative problem solvers and critical thinkers. Westland students will optimize these skills to the fullest because, as a professor of education at Brown University, Eileen Landay, used to say again and again to her graduate students: “Learning is a social act.” In his article “Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat But Also Hard to Find,” Alfie Kohn expands upon Professor Landay’s words, which have come to be one of my educational mantras of sorts. Kohn writes, “Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children—separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided.” Westland deliberately avoids competition because Westland educators have known for decades that problem solving flourishes in the context of merging and leveraging our diverse strengths.
I was facilitating one of my ongoing entry interviews with a board member this month and when I asked him how he describes Westland to other people he said, “Kids know how to assert themselves, and lead and work within a group. It’s these base skills that make them not intimidated for future learning. They want to learn how the world works around them and why...which is key to what progressive is. Without these base skills it can become problematic—either you’re afraid to take the risk or you don’t even think to take a risk. Our Westland kids feel they can try anything and not fail. They realize it’s worth the risk and to not try is to fail.” By placing the emphasis on the process of learning, students become less attached to outcomes, which is often associated with what Dr. Carole Dweck deems a “fixed mindset.” Thus our students become growth mindset-oriented and capable of falling and getting back up. I’m coming to discover from talking to Westland parents and colleagues that, in fact, a noncompetitive framework is an ingredient that contributes to developing our children’s sense of grit and perseverance, which I’ll admit is somewhat counterintuitive because it’s so countercultural.
Because of our noncompetitive approach to learning, students at Westland become comfortable in their own skin. A mom several weeks ago shared with me what one of her friends described as a remarkable moment in her kitchen when a bunch of girls were sitting around and one used the word “copasetic.” The Westland student, the only one in the bunch, said upon hearing the word: “I don't know what that word means. What does it mean?” The woman was in awe of this small moment of bravery. This small moment demonstrates something big: that when students feel safe and not threatened in a noncompetitive learning environment, they take academic risks. They ask questions. They don’t feel the need to know it all because they know they are life-long learners.
Another Westland parent told me a beautiful story that for him marks one of the most quintessentially Westland moments of his five years here as a parent. Last school year he observed a multiage collection of Westland students, including a 5’9” Group Six girl playing basketball out on our court. She had substantial skills and was dominating the court in an awesome, powerful way—dribbling with finesse, capturing rebound after rebound, and intuiting the court with skill. At one point in the game though, a Group Two boy grabbed a rebound and started dribbling. The father explained how she and her older friends gingerly backed off. They still took him seriously as a player, but got down to his level so he could thrive and take a shot—take a risk really. The father said, “It was beautiful.”
His story has remained a powerful visual moment for me and it’s how I answered the Group One dad asking about the noncompetitive framework at New Parent Orientation. When Westland students are adults, I want them boxing out and throwing up their elbows as they pivot to keep the ball in board rooms, in operating rooms, and on movie sets. I want them to be tough. I want them to have skill, acumen, and prowess in their perspective fields. And, I want them in those same board rooms, operating rooms, and movie sets to know when to step aside, to mentor, to assist, to guide, to problem solve, and to ask for help with those they encounter.
This is more how our world can be, because we keep sending our Westland children out into it.
*To read Sarah’s full piece, here is the link: http://jewishjournal.com/tag/sarah-shulkind/
**As some of you have requested, to view the video clip of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” from last night’s general meeting click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4pH6TxKzus&list=RDD4pH6TxKzus