Education Commentary

An Education: Just Do It

By Joseph W. Gauld — October 21, 1992 7 min read

Where is the American “can do’’ spirit when it comes to education? We defeated both Hitler and Japanese imperialism in four years and then sent a man to the moon and back in eight. Our feeble educational-reform effort is ridiculous.

As a dedicated teacher, I recognized 30 years ago that our present educational system was unsound, because it failed to address the deeper potentials of students, teachers, and parents alike.

  • Students: True learning occurs only when the unique intellectual, physical, spiritual, and emotional resources of each youngster are fully engaged. Yet our curriculum was (and is) narrowly focused on just intellectual growth, and mostly in the form of rote learning. So we ended up giving false confidence to the few whose learning styles best fit this mold, while unnecessarily discouraging the remaining 80 percent who were labeled “average’’ or less.
  • Teachers: I chose teaching for the exciting challenge of truly preparing kids for life, hoping to have them return one day to say, “If it weren’t for you, Mr. Gauld...’' But I found myself and other dedicated colleagues assigned to becoming academic clerks on a mindless assembly line, with only haphazard opportunities to inspire the deeper spirit and character of students.
  • Parents: I found that parents--the primary teachers--had been totally removed from the educational process, and even worse, that the system itself was unwittingly undermining crucial family values (cheating flourished because achievement outweighed the untaught value of integrity; helping others was discouraged because there were only so many A’s to go around; conformity was encouraged because being what friends or teachers wanted you to be got you ahead; etc.)

In protest, I finally founded the Hyde School in Bath, Me., to find a better way to help American kids prepare for life. Now, 26 years later, here is what the Hyde experiment says American education needs to do:

First and foremost, resurrect the American family, the real source of both the American character and its can-do spirit. I can’t speak for other countries, but the American spirit can’t be developed by some “system’’ (American education isn’t really even a system; it’s an overblown bureaucracy). And Hyde School has confirmed one basic truth: Teachers can seldom push student attitudes, effort, and character growth beyond those of their parents. Our schools are wasting huge amounts of time pursuing the illusion that they can somehow change kids without changing their parents.

Forget “parent involvement’’ in schools. We need school involvement in parents. Schools need to learn how to help both parents and families achieve child-rearing excellence. Character development has never worked in schools, because character can’t be “taught’'; it is “caught’’ through example. So parents--and teachers--need a curriculum to address their own character growth.

If you think all of this is implausible, it’s the way education is practiced at my school. Once parents weather the initial shock of focusing on their own growth, they become motivated to help themselves and each other examine their attitudes, character, dreams--virtually every aspect of their lives. Why? Because they watch their efforts directly benefit their kids and dramatically improve their own lives in the process. If an effective parent and family curriculum can work in a boarding school, it certainly can work in public schools where parents live nearby.

A second national blindness regards the role of adolescence: Teenagers are not children. I’ve found that how teenagers handle adolescence largely determines how they will conduct their entire lives. We should help teenagers address questions like “Who am I; Where am I going with my life; What do I need to get there?,’' then challenge them with extensive responsibilities while encouraging them to take risks, since they learn most from their mistakes. It is a national shame that the same teenagers who are traditionally asked to fight our wars are still expected, in our schools, to have even a tardiness verified by an adult--just like 3rd graders.

Hyde School says, “Eighty percent of what adults presently do in high schools could, and should, be handled by the students themselves.’' Hyde students help set and maintain our academic and personal standards, automatically running a class in a teacher’s absence; dismissing a classmate without homework; requiring each other to honor school ethics like “no smoking’’ and helping to determine the discipline when they don’t; evaluating teachers--even interviewing prospective ones; often assuming a leadership role in their families; the list is endless.

A third national blindness regards the embarrassing role we assign to the American teacher--like hiring a Michael Jordan to clean up after practices. Parents willingly pay professionals who straighten their children’s teeth five times those who could change their children’s entire lives. Most teachers enter education hoping to have a deep influence on kids, then become stuck in a system in which they can’t deal with their students as human beings, and may even be mistrusted when they try. The emphasis on achievement further encourages teachers to see students only as achievers, not as growing individuals. I agree that what teachers presently do in schools is not worthy of professional status. But that is our fault, not theirs. We need to create a new role in which teachers help guide the entire growth process of youngsters, including the family. Even beginning Hyde teachers have proven effective in this new role.

How do we begin these dramatic new roles for parents, teachers, and students? The roles will naturally follow once we clearly and effectively define the basic purpose of American schools. Ask 20 people the basic purpose of American education, and you’re likely to get 20 different answers. Schools are expected to meet everyone’s expectations with the added proviso that accountability begins and ends within the school itself. If you don’t think so, what do you think would happen if a teacher told a set of parents they were not doing their job?

The biggest educational concern of adults today seems to be that the poor academic skills of young people are screwing up our businesses and universities. What incredible arrogance! Kids are not some herd of cattle designed for our purposes. As Kahlil Gibran so wisely wrote about children: "... [T]heir souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.’' So help children believe in their own spirit, and they will provide the leadership for tomorrow’s world.

We have found that a powerful unifying school purpose can be built on the premise that each student is gifted with a “unique potential’’ that defines his or her destiny. So the school’s goal becomes helping each student develop both his or her potential and the necessary character to fulfill it. This purpose has proven to highly motivate students and to recenter the educational process on the family, while molding parents, teachers, and students into a powerful team. And this larger purpose seems to take care of the poor academic skills; for example, 100 percent of Hyde graduates are being accepted to recognized four-year colleges.

Once parents and the community determine the school’s basic purpose, they should allow--even expect--the teachers, together with students and parents, to design the necessary program. I’d like to shoot whoever first decided American schools could be run by “elected’’ officials. Education is not a “democratic’’ process, and it never will be. “School boards’’ today make too many decisions that should be left to professionals, or at least to the participants. By contrast, the “Hyde Board of Governors’’ assigns itself just three tasks: 1) approve all short- and long-range plans; 2) evaluate the administration; and 3) keep us from shooting ourselves in the foot. They expect us to operate like high-level professionals and will simply find someone else if we don’t. Treat teachers the same way, and you will be amazed at their performance.

Will Hyde’s concept of education work outside the somewhat greenhouse conditions of a Maine boarding school? We’ll soon find out: The first Hyde public school program opened last month in Gardiner, Me., a school system of 2,800 students. A Hyde public school-community model has just been approved for Washington; similar models in Indianapolis; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Springfield, Mass., are now on the drawing boards.

To me, the question is not whether the programs will work. In my opinion, American schooling is presently tapping less than 20 percent of the potentials of students, parents, and teachers, so these Hyde models could do a mediocre job and still be a spectacular improvement. The question is whether the American can-do spirit will be allowed to work in its schools. I’m betting 30 years of my life that it will.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as An Education: Just Do It