The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have
By Malcolm Gauld, Laura Gauld
When we became teachers in the seventies, we looked forward to teaching subjects like math and history to the teenagers in our classrooms. Our motivation, however, was deeper than the development of academic skills and the transfer of intellectual knowledge. We saw ourselves as trying to develop the whole person. We wanted to teach character. Therefore, we spent a good deal of time just talking with kids, getting to know them outside of our classrooms. We coached sports-soccer, basketball, and lacrosse-three seasons a year. We were engaged in extracurricular activities like performing arts and community service. Some of these activities were as foreign to us as they were to the students who were required to experience them. We simply wanted to be where the action was in as many ways as possible.
Fresh out of college, we were flush with the confidence that we possessed enough charisma, commitment, and capability to make a difference in the life of any teenage boy or girl. We quickly discovered that often we also needed to make a difference in their parents' lives if we were going to have any lasting, effective influence. This was harder than it sounded, as we, like all teachers, had been trained to work with kids. In our early attempts to bring parents into the learning equation, it seemed that they fell into four categories:
1. School and home are in "sync" in regard to what is important regarding the values and priorities of proper education. We could really "hum" with these families.
2. School and home are basically in agreement, but both parties need to sometimes engage in some good old heart-to-heart discussions in order to either get on or stay on the same page. Sometimes these discussions led to inspiring understanding and personal growth.
3. School and home hold sharper disagreements. Although we might never quite be on the same page, we might at least be in the same chapter. For example, perhaps a student was late for school and lied about the reason. We might focus on the lie while the parent focused on the tardiness rule. In more troubling cases, the parent might even regard the lie as insignificant. In such cases, the family would move into category four.
4. School and home are not even reading the same book. In these cases, there might be obvious family dysfunction at work-parental denial over substance abuse issues, fallout over an ugly divorce, or perhaps psychological problems in the home.
In a number of these instances, particularly those in category four, it often seemed that our best teaching would consistently lose out to their worst parenting. We learned that good teaching cannot overcompensate for bad parenting, regardless of how either is defined. We were sure that we had the correct perspective as teachers and we were fairly confident that we saw what the parents needed to do. Then something happened: We became parents ourselves (our first child was born in 1990). Once in the dual role of teacher and parent, we struggled to find the point where one role ended and the other began. We were sure that we needed to separate the two roles, but we were not sure how. Eventually we realized that the trick lies in finding the critical connections between them.
Two Things We Have Learned About Character
All parents hope to raise children who will grow up to be adults of character. As teachers, we have dedicated our professional careers to this same hope. When pressed to describe what we have learned about character development, we offer a two-sentence response: (1) Character is inspired; it is not imparted. (2) Character development cannot be limited to a site; it must include a context.
Character Is Inspired
We won't teach much character it we simply post a list of ideals (e.g., respect, tolerance, honesty) and beg the kids to pay heed. In his book Dumbing Us Down, John Gatto presents a comparison of the painter and the sculptor as a metaphor for great teaching. Gatto observes that a painter begins with a blank canvas and transforms it by adding patterns of color to create a new design. A sculptor begins with a mass of stone and transforms it by subtracting matter to reveal a shape that was always there waiting to be exposed to the world. Gatto maintains that the great teachers are sculptors rather than painters. We agree. We don't pour character into our students; we summon it forth with value-forming challenges and experiences. With this view, character is a miracle that must be developed. Once developed, it must be maintained: "Use it or lose it!"
Over the years, we have been approached at graduation ceremonies by appreciative parents who have made comments like, "Thank you so much! You and this school truly gave my kid character." We would be less than honest if we didn't acknowledge that such compliments are gratifying. But they are inaccurate. We don't give our students anything. We help them uncover something that was always there. It may be buried under a lack of confidence or under a heap of family dysfunction, but great teachers remove the barriers and ignite a dormant confidence that can help a kid "take off." Parents play a similar role.
Site Versus Context
The second point-site versus context-further clarifies the power of inspiration. The dynamic of site versus context can be demonstrated in our use at Hyde of a high ropes course, an effective and powerful character-development site. The high ropes course fosters courage, risk-taking, and trust. Let's take the case of sixteen-year-old Debbie, who has climbed the rope ladder to accept the challenges offered by the course. It demands that she place her trust in a peer who stands on the ground thirty feet below holding her safety belay line. Thus, her life is literally held in the hands of her partner.
Now, what happens after Debbie descends from the ropes course, unfastens her harness, unstraps her helmet, and talks about the experience with her family? Let's assume that her parents do not value courage, risk-taking, and trust. Perhaps her family is highly dysfunctional. Debbie cannot possibly reap the maximum benefit of the ropes course if she spends most of her time living in a context that does not reinforce its lessons. If Debbie's parents are not striving to develop their character, it is doubtful that she will continue to seek out the kind of challenges necessary for her own character development.
As teachers or parents, we are being arrogant or foolish or both if we believe that the power of our character sites will overpower the dynamic of the daily context of the lives of our students. Thus, we must nurture that context with the same vigor that we currently apply to developing our learning sites. Think of the benefit to Debbie if her parents were to experience the ropes course with her. Then both site and context would be working in concert for Debbie's benefit.
Both of these points-the power of inspiration and the idea of site versus context-add up to the same conclusion: Parents need to be critical players in the development of their children's character. While this idea does not break new ground, the 10 Priorities will often test parents in ways they might not expect.
In preparing to write this book, we decided to spend some time exploring the shelves of various bookstores. We naturally assumed that this exploration would begin in the psychology or education sections. Much to our surprise, most major bookstores today have separate sections for parenting and family. We very quickly came to understand why this is so-there are so many books on the subject! We read a number of them, and many of them are very good. Some gave us ideas on how we might improve our own parenting. However, our book differs from those in a significant way. Most books offer prescriptions for how parents might change behaviors in their children; we intend to help parents change behaviors and attitudes in themselves. Many of the parents we have worked with over the years have been so preoccupied with the behavior of their children that they have neglected to address their own character. As the story in the following chapter about a typical student-parent-teacher conference suggests, this can have a very negative effect on family dynamics and morale.