Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

Q&A With Joseph Gauld: Putting Student Character First

November 01, 2016 6 min read

This Q&A has been updated with an additional question following the results of the election.

Joseph Gauld, the founder of the Hyde Schools—a network of character-based public and private schools—has been an influential voice in the independent school community for years. Throughout his six decades as an education leader, Gauld, 89, has argued character must come first in education and has sought to instill such qualities as honesty, curiosity, and courage in the students who walk through his schools’ doors. Gauld has long advocated what many policymakers and political leaders are just now learning: A purely achievement-focused approach to education isn’t what’s best for students.

In September, Gauld received the Sanford N. McDonnell Award for Lifetime Achievement in Character Education, which recognizes an educator’s commitment to teaching character. Gauld is also the author of four books, the most recent being What Kids Want and Need From Parents, published in 2012. He’s also published seven Commentaries in Education Week over the past 25 years on topics that include character development and the role of parenting in student success.

Gauld’s Hyde School network, which has boarding campuses in Bath, Maine, and Woodstock, Conn., as well as public charter schools in New Haven, Conn.; New York City; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, celebrated its 50th anniversary this past June.

Joseph Gauld, Hyde Schools founder

Commentary’s Alex Lenkei recently interviewed Gauld by email about his thoughts on the importance of social-emotional learning, his legacy as a proponent of character education, and the 2016 presidential election.

For much of the past year, teachers across the country have struggled with how to approach the current election cycle in the classroom. What advice would you give to educators in the last stretch of this campaign for teaching about this political climate?

Our politics and personal views should have no place in education; students need to be able to trust the integrity of what we teach. If a teacher cannot deal objectively with “inflamed racial and ethnic tensions,” then don’t deal with it. Leave it to someone who can.

I feel this presidential campaign reflects more of an overblown TV reality show that has embarrassed our nation. I would like to see educators make a concerted future effort to bring a thoughtful understanding of America’s true issues to teenagers as an inspirational step to encourage a more mature America and leadership.

Update: After an election that has been widely characterized as “divisive,” how would you encourage schools and teachers to help manage student anxieties or enthusiasm following the election of the new president?

We need to help students understand that the difference between presidential campaigns vs. actual elections is much like teams preparing for their season vs. their actual schedule of games. In pre-season, every effort is made to develop the team’s potential, with the freedom of not having to keep score. But once the season begins, the scoreboard begins to dictate decisions.

Presidential campaigns don’t keep score, so candidates have the freedom to explore their potential electability. Unfortunately this year, both major candidates had unfavorable ratings with the public, so exploiting an opponent’s unfavorability was seen as a vital part of a candidate’s potential; thus, the campaign became unpleasantly negative.

However, November 8th started the season when the score finally counted, and Donald Trump became president-elect. Attitudes radically changed: Mr. Trump [was] the humble winner; Secretary Clinton [was] gracious in defeat, requesting we all offer President-elect Trump an “open mind and a chance to lead.” They are now operating as Americans, no more as candidates.

So, regardless of who we supported, our respect for the choice of Americans by our presidential electoral system should compel us as citizens and students to give our new president the opportunity to lead. Democracy requires this leadership from us.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which will go into full effect during the 2017-18 school year, requires states to include at least one nonacademic indicator in their school evaluation measures. This focus on nonacademic and social-emotional skills isn’t new to Hyde Schools, which has long emphasized the value of character-building and the development of other nonacademic skills. What is Hyde’s approach to teaching these kinds of skills?

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Forgive my bias, but this seems a rather pathetic step to try to humanize a very limited and underperforming system. As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The Hyde Schools’ mission over the last 50 years has been to develop the unique potential of each student by utilizing a new college-prep curriculum that emphasizes character—specifically courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, and leadership. These are human qualities, not skills. To us, academic proficiency reflects more important learning competence and cognitive skill.

Character is the whole; academics are a subset. Thus, academics are the tail that cannot wag the dog, which is why schools fail to effectively address character problems like cheating and bullying. Hyde turns today’s education system upside down, putting the student’s unique potential and character first. This not only helps students answer the three critical questions—"Who am I?” “Where am I going?” and “How do I get there?"—but motivates and develops them both individually and academically. Ultimately, both a better person and scholar emerge.

What guidance can you offer teachers and local school leaders as they begin to devote more of their time and resources to social-emotional learning?

To us, the present educational focus on academic proficiency seeks to satisfy societal and national needs by putting students in competition with each other. Students view schools not as something to experience, but as avenues to navigate to get to the best college or job possible, assuming they don’t drop out. Competition is meant to motivate capitalism, not education, which is meant to be powered by curiosity. To educate is to draw out; our focus needs to be on developing the individual student. We are delighted with several public school systems that have adopted Hyde’s Discovery Group approach, in which students regularly meet to share about their lives and participate in athletics, performing arts, community service, and jobs.

The change in these schools’ cultures has been remarkable. For example, the Upper Dauphin Area Middle School in Lykens, Pa., which first implemented the Discovery Group approach in the 2014-15 school year, recorded a significant drop in the number of cases of violence, from 43 to five, and a 53 percent drop in discipline cases, compared with the previous school year.

Formal efforts to improve parent involvement are rising in a number of states, including Massachusetts and California. But some parents are easier to engage than others. Parents from low-income, non-English-speaking, or nonwhite families may feel less welcome in the school community or be unable to devote the same amount of time as other parents because of other commitments. How can school leaders engage parents from these less visible groups?

I believe we will never solve our educational and national problems until we learn how to effectively educate disadvantaged students, which we cannot accomplish with our present system because it focuses on their greatest weakness: academic proficiency. I believe it will require involving their greatest strength within the educational process: parents and guardians.

Without placing blame, the education system has usurped parental authority. The students are their children, so what can schools do to give the parents a truly effective role? Hyde believes this: In character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom. We demand a lot in our program that regularly addresses parental growth and family issues. While sometimes parents don’t like it, they like the results.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Q&A With Joseph Gauld: Putting Student Character First

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