Private School Educators Urged To Foster a Sense of Humanity

March 12, 1997 3 min read

San Francisco

While educators depend on innovation to help push the limits of what they can do for children, they must ensure that their schools sense of humanity isnt lost in the process.

So warned many of the speakers here at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. More than 3,200 teachers, administrators, and board members attended the Feb. 26-March 1 conference, built around the theme, “Innovation and Imagination: Artful Approaches to Educating Children.”

“You can only spur innovation and imagination in children through intimacy and shared humanity,” novelist Anna Quindlen said. ''I am a writer because of teachers who said, ‘You are good, keep trying.’”

Robert Hass, the current poet laureate of the United States, issued a similar plea for educators not to lose sight of the people they serve. “Although it seems education is back on the national agenda, you would get the general impression that the point of it was to beat Japan and get jobs,” he said.

Mr. Hass lamented a “growing culture of despair,” in which young people worry about such issues as pollution but feel helpless to solve those problems. He advocated interdisciplinary study to help students become “imaginative stewards” of their world.

As an example, Mr. Hass read the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which Langston Hughes had published at age 20. Mr. Hass said the poem can’t be fully understood without learning something about the poet’s life, the poem’s context in social history, and the natural life of rivers. “We don’t know these stories very well because our curriculum keeps them apart,” he said.

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher who’s written widely on the subject of school discipline, urged caution as more schools experiment with character curricula.

Many of the character education programs used in schools appear geared mostly toward preserving the existing social order, complained Mr. Kohn, who challenged educators to find ways to alter their schools’ environments.

“It’s easier to try to fix the kid, rather than evaluate our own systems,” he said. “Behavior takes place in a context that educators have created.”

Mr. Kohn encouraged those considering a formal character curriculum to ask such questions as: What is the program’s ultimate goal? How optimistic is the organizers’ view of human nature? What specific values are to be promoted?

Although proponents of such character curricula often imply that such traits as hard work and honesty are universally accepted as highly valued, Mr. Kohn suggested that schools try encouraging the values of empathy and skepticism. But these values cannot easily be taught through rules and rewards.

“Kids, and for that matter adults, learn by actively constructing meaning around ideas,” he said.

In their drive to implement innovation at their schools, many administrators fail to recognize the emotional impact that major change can have on staff members, said psychologist Robert Evans, the author of a recent book, The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation.

“If you want somebody to change, you’ve got to tell them the what, why, and the how,” he told a workshop at the conference. “It is amazing how often you can talk to teachers in a school where change is under way, and they don’t know those answers.”

In making a case for reform at a school, officials should couch new programs and policies in terms that staff members are familiar with. Officials should try showing, for instance, how an innovation fits in with the school’s mission statement.

“There has to be something that preserves the continuity between the old and the new, so I don’t just feel harassed,” Mr. Evans said.

The Washington-based NAIS used the conference to launch a home page on the World Wide Web. The new site at is aimed at parents and provides links to hundreds of schools and regional accrediting bodies.