How to Speak to Our Children During the Presidential Election

Bob Weiman

Associate Head of School and Lower School Director

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School

I was looking through a memory box from my childhood recently and found many interesting items: a bronzed baby shoe, a tooth pillow for the tooth fairy, one of my favorite stuffed animals, some pictures of my dad on a college road trip to Las Vegas, and my button collection. As I looked through the buttons that I amassed from different events and experiences, it made me think about this year’s presidential election.

I am a political junkie, and the seeds of this affliction were sown many years ago. When I was in middle school and high school, while my friends were listening to the Greaseman and Howard Stern on the radio, I was listening to WTOP to get the latest news. As a middle schooler, I was able to experience the political process up close. My mom worked for a DC councilman who ran for mayor, so I spent hours at a time at his campaign headquarters stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. I rode around the city in a van with a megaphone on top of it and handed out flyers at metro stops and performed magic at nursing homes before the candidate would speak. I loved living in DC and experiencing such grassroots political endeavors. (My buttons also reminded me of other places that I love, like London and San Francisco!)

I also enjoyed celebrating our presidents and the peaceful and joyful transfer of power on their inauguration days and have the souvenir buttons to prove it. I attended Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade in 1976, Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 and 1984 (it is a little known fact that his second inaugural parade took place in Florida, so it is especially neat that I was there), George Bush’s in 1988, and Barack Obama’s in 2012. It was so exciting to watch the marching bands and performers and to try to get a glimpse of the President or Vice President! Growing up in DC we also attended various celebrations and commemorations on the Mall, such as Hands Across America. We cheered for the Redskins as they won the Superbowl and attended the Jackson Victory Tour concert when it came to RFK stadium, and I have buttons commemorating those events as well.

This summer I watched some of the coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. I really enjoyed the state roll call votes, which were a mix of history and pop culture and hyperbole. I watched the full acceptance speeches by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. During and after both conventions I listened to podcasts for analysis and went on Politifact and Factcheck to see where both parties adhered to and strayed from the truth.

And while I still enjoy the political process and appreciate watching democracy in action in this incredible country of ours, I am finding it harder and harder to stomach the divisiveness, the snarkiness, the ugliness of this campaign season. I worry about what this will look like in the final weeks of the campaigns and how it will affect our students.  So this election season has certainly posed a lot of challenges for us as adults.

In the Lower School at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, we have decided to address the election in a few different ways.  The first is to focus on the political process:  citizenship, political parties, the importance of voting, the electoral college, etc. The second is to be clear about what it means to speak respectfully and to respect other’s opinions and ideas. And in the final stretch of the election season, we’ll add a third topic: how to win or lose gracefully.

As adults we need to try our best to role model this and also to explain to our children not only what we believe but why we believe as we do (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course.) Also, share with them some specific reasons why reasonable people might support a different candidate than you do. These approaches will help them to be informed, thoughtful, reflective citizens and people. Also, if you have the chance, I would highly recommend that you canvas for your candidate of choice.  This is a great lesson in the political process- understanding that campaigns are more than commercials and debates and soundbites. Finally, regardless of whether your candidate wins or loses, living in the DC area provides us the unique opportunity to experience the inauguration or inaugural parade.

I do realize that, in this very heated and divisive election season, this is all easier said than done. I hope that these resources will be helpful as you have these important conversations with your children.


Vance Wilson


St Albans School

In one of my past lives, I taught courses in creative writing. In these courses I often felt I was providing, not advice on how to write, but therapy. Nevertheless, I soldiered on for my paycheck.

The most essential concept a fledgling writer needs to understand and seek to master is voice. Most simply, voice is the personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive way an artist puts words together—why William Faulkner doesn’t sound like Richard Wright and Maya Angelou doesn’t sound like Louise Glück. A great artist strives in poetry or prose to be so distinctive as to be recognized prior to being named.

Good teachers of writing ask students to imitate famous voices—write a sonnet about the woods in the manner of Robert Frost; describe a railroad station where a Hemingway story takes place or an oppressive drawing room in an Edith Wharton story. Students either give up, are satisfied with poor work, or in a slow, nonlinear, frustrating, and at times despairing way, mature through imitation into a voice they call their own.

Please indulge my use of this literary concept as a reminder of our most difficult task as parents, and that is, making it possible for our sons to seek their own voice. To do this, we must love our children so that (1) they don’t feel as if they must become who we are, and (2) they don’t feel they must become who we desire them to be, and (3) they feel they must become who they themselves are. We should love them in a way that helps them find their personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive “voice.” Here, as promised, my use of a writer’s voice modulates into the same “voice” that we mean when we speak about vocation—a call, from God I believe, to find what American author and theologian Frederick Buechner calls our “deep gladness” and how that gladness best meets the world’s “deep need.” How awful life would be if our children’s “deep gladness” was not theirs and God’s alone to discover.

So what, then, do we do as parents? In general, I believe that, with our children and even with ourselves, we should strive to focus very little on our desires for the future, even on our child’s and our own present accomplishments. We should focus on both their and our own day-to-day way of living.

How do we do this in a concrete way? When we sit down with our three-year-old to play Lego one day because we think Lego is the neatest toy alive, and we read that it’s educational and will advance our boy’s learning, and he in turn demonstrates that he is more interested in some other activity, we stop. First, we are in contact with our children—this is a day-to-day example. We are in an age-appropriate activity together—another example of day-to-day living. This is also an example of the need not to draw the line in the sand and create the confrontation when we have more power than our children, but instead of being imaginative enough to work on a slant with our children. Each day, then, your imagination is not focused on how you could improve him by Lego, but how imaginatively you could respond to his personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive desire. Rabelais said “a child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” We try to keep doing this every day, even when he’s five and could care less about the nature walks we absolutely love and are tempted to drag him on until he appreciates the woods the way we do, or when he tells us he finds our comfort foods absolutely disgusting and so on and so on. Remember we’re not talking about moral issues here, but letting the boy find his internal fire.

The rest of my examples will be briefer. When he comes home from school or at the dinner table or when we go on outings, we don’t have to answer all the questions because, frankly, we don’t know the answers and no one ever said that parents had to pretend as if we do. If we admit when we don’t know something, then he can do the same and feel comfortable about not knowing. We should tell the truth.

We should also admit that we have failed. We should never underestimate the value of sharing personal failures with our children. I read a joke once that adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas.

While we might not be able to do this day-to-day, we should make certain our sons get out of their social milieu. We should encourage their listening to mentors, to teachers, to priests and rabbis and other religious figures—someone other than us. We should send them away from home on their own.

I’ve been a son for sixty-three years, a teacher for thirty-nine, and a father for twenty-nine, and what I know most convincingly is that this business of families has at its center of things a complicated and extraordinarily emotional mystery. We can say to our children, as we all do, we love you no matter what. But oh how often we convey the message of what the “what” ought to be in loving them no matter “what.” And so we pray to God that they will somehow find the “deep gladness” in their souls and that we will always remember it is not for us to determine what that gladness is.


Richard T. Ewing, Jr. Ed.D.
Head of School

Norwood School

A school’s first obligation is to provide a safe and effective environment for student learning and growing. Unfortunately, we are reminded all too often that this is a difficult commitment to keep. Now, more than ever, everyone who cares about our schools and the people who populate them needs to participate in the national dialog about school safety and to understand that the issues involved relate not just to physical safety, but equally so to social and emotional safety. Students in our schools should be able to feel safe as well as be safe.

Wise and experienced school leaders strive to ensure that schools are places where students are known and respected for who they are even as they are encouraged in the process of growing and changing. Such school leaders also understand that safe does not mean soft and that students need to be challenged as well as nurtured. Effective schooling is about helping students make connections, see relationships, and sustain a spirit of inquiry as much as it is about imparting knowledge. Schools need to provide safe environments for students to build such relationships and connections, with peers and teachers as well as with knowledge and information. School professionals need to be proactive when such connections and relationships, socially as well as cognitively, are not being built effectively and to take steps as necessary to help young people in need.

Guns & Schools
For schools to be physically safe places for students, schools need to commit to enhancing safety measures. All schools in the U.S., independent as well as public, conduct regular fire drills. As a Montgomery County school, we are required to hold fire drills once a month throughout the school year. Although not required to do so, for years Norwood has conducted emergency preparedness drills, typically once or twice a year. At this point, responding to an emergency drill is not second nature as responding to a fire alarm is. While school fires occur every year in our country, according to U.S. Fire Administration data, no student or adult has been killed in a school fire in over a decade. The measures we have taken as a society – tougher building codes, fire department response training, and school fire drills –in response to tragic school fires (and in particular the 1958 school fire in which 92 children lost their lives) have made a difference. Now is the time we need to take similarly serious and thoughtful measures to reduce the likelihood of student loss of life due to gun violence.

Many schools such as Norwood bring in experts annually to train their faculty and staff in basic First Aid and CPR. We know it is our job to do the best we can to keep an injured person alive and protected from more serious harm until trained medical personnel arrive. Over the years, that training has become more simple and straightforward, acknowledging that under conditions of extreme emergency and stress, people are less likely to remember complex tasks that they do not routinely perform. The same approach should be taken in response to threatening intruders.

Norwood will be expanding training from security experts in the future on how best to respond to threats on campus. We will be conducting more frequent emergency preparedness drills. As we have in the past, we will work with Montgomery County police to conduct active shooter drills during professional days, when students are not on campus. We want to do all we can to ensure effective communication during a crisis and to shorten the response time necessary to get trained professionals on campus in response to a perceived or real threat to the safety and security of our school population.

It is one thing to argue that we need more and better training for faculty and staff in emergency response measures; it is quite another to claim that teachers, administrators or (has been suggested in some parts of the country) school janitors should routinely carry firearms. In my view, such suggestions are beyond misguided and irresponsible; they are symptomatic of the gun problem in our culture, not solutions for it. Encouraging or requiring teachers and/or other school personnel to carry guns would only exacerbate the already serious problem we have in this country with accidental or impulsive gun use that so often results in tragedy, all the while undermining the kind of relationships we try to build in school communities between educators and learners. There are certainly times that schools, whether public or independent, may need an armed police presence. Otherwise schools are not places for firearms.

Social & Emotional Safety
Even as we continue to address these serious external threats to school safety, we need to continue to work to make schools safe from within, providing safe and inclusive communities for all students. If we let some of our students be treated like second-class citizens or even outcasts, we rob our communities of their potential, and as we have seen time and again, such outcasts can turn to violence against themselves and others. Too often we have seen schools attacked by people who were themselves shamed and frequently humiliated as students. This is not an apology for such heinous crimes, but an effort to understand and address them.

Last September, I had the privilege to travel to Australia to participate in the IPSHA (The Independent Primary School Heads Association of Australia) Conference on behalf of ESHA (The Elementary School Heads Association). Not surprisingly, our colleagues in Australia are dealing with many of the same issues that we are, including how best to advance the social and emotional development of children while promoting 21st century learning skills. Professor Donna Cross, a Columbia University trained psychologist who has done extensive research on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents in Australian schools, was among the keynote speakers. Dr. Cross spoke eloquently and persuasively about how levels of school connectedness are associated with lower levels of emotional disturbance, lower truancy, lower rates of violence, less suicidal ideation and behavior, less substance abuse, later involvement in sexual activity, and less bullying.

School-aged children need lots of face-to-face connections. And yet research indicates that in this age of social media, the amount of time young people spend alone is increasing. Our schools need to pay attention to the social architecture that each of our children is building: the types of interactions they have with peers and the number, reciprocal nature, and quality of their friendships. Parents and educators need to make early interventions when we see issues of bullying and social isolation. Not everyone is or should be expected to be an extrovert, but children and adolescents who exhibit signs of social withdrawal need attention and appropriate care. And students who bully need to be held accountable for their behavior. Students need to be taught to respect the rights and feelings of others and to value the worth and dignity of each person. We must continue to do all we can to ensure that schools are safe places, socially and emotionally, for all students.

Character Education & Grit
While it is our job as school leaders is to provide safe environments for learning, we would be failing our students if we were to provide places safe from failure and from the realities of life. Instead, it is our obligation to provide safe places for young people to extend themselves and to know that it is OK to have to struggle at times and to experience failure, not because we seek failure, but because we value it as an opportunity to learn. Robust educational environments provide safe places for students to explore, to take risks, and to learn how to raise themselves up when they fall. Such environments teach students not only to learn from adversity but also to learn to manage it, and thus help and encourage children to be self- reliant and bold in their exploration of the world.

Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, supports what good independent school leaders and teachers have long known: qualities of character starting with resilience and persistence (which together he calls “grit”), and including curiosity, resourcefulness, optimism, integrity, courage, and also gratitude can and should be developed as part of the education of a young person. Encouraging such character development, intentionally and over time, makes a powerful difference.

Many years ago, a legendary Head of St. Albans School, Canon Charles Martin, cautioned parents that “life is not easy.” Paul Tough’s study focused in part on teaching character skills to students from less privileged backgrounds. Canon Martin, on the other hand, knew he was speaking to parents at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Washington elite of the early 1960s. Their messages are the same. Canon Martin acknowledged to his parent body of that day that, “We can give our children more, spare them more, protect them more. For that very reason we must be forever on guard against sparing them too much and failing to give them the strength they need to meet the realities [of life] that are hard, demanding, even tragic at times.”

More recently, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck noted in her important book Mindset that the best gifts we can give to young people are to teach them to love challenges, to be intrigued by mistakes, to enjoy effort, and to keep on learning. She argues that we should avoid praising children for their natural talents or abilities, but instead praise them for demonstrating a growth-oriented mindset – that is, an outlook that seeks always to learn new things, to improve skills, and to accomplish goals through practice, study, persistence, and thoughtful strategies.

At Norwood we want our students to experience the joy of discovery and the satisfaction and self- confidence that comes from mastery. We also want our school to be a safe place for students to manage challenges and overcome adversity, and through such experiences develop persistence, resilience, courage, and firm conviction, or, as we like to say at Norwood, to learn that “How you lead your life matters.” Part of what we continue to emphasize with our students is that it matters how they treat others and how they treat themselves, and it matters that they develop strong qualities of character. It matters to us, and we believe it matters to their future success and happiness. That is the hidden secret of success that people like Paul Tough are writing about now.

A Call to Action
We know how important it is for schools to provide safe environments for children and adolescents, safe socially and emotionally as well as physically. We also know that successful schools are dynamic places of learning with strong cultures that foster meaningful and powerful relationships between students and educators. It is also true, given the state of our world, that some schools in some areas and/or at some times need armed guards. Unless there is such a clear need, however, schools are better off with unarmed but well-trained security. Our society and culture cannot be sustained if our schools become fearful enclaves within armed fortresses.

Those who care about schools, those who care about the youth we are raising, those who care about the future of our country, need to take a stand on issues of school safety and security and in particular to be active in discussions and debates on gun control. We are faced with a gun and violence pandemic. We are not bystanders when a flu pandemic strikes. We should not be bystanders in this pandemic as well. We must also acknowledge that schools can be places that some young people with severe social emotional problems and mental illness associate with their pain. People concerned about gun control – as we all should be – should be focused on keeping guns out of the hands of people with such illnesses. People involved with schools should also be focused on ensuring that any such students (or adults) in their schools get the help they need.

I urge you to work in concert with teachers and administrators at your schools to continue to work to make our schools safe places for learning and growing. We know from research and experience that there are significant long-term benefits for those fortunate students who go to schools that successfully build character, resilience, and grit, and that there are equally long-term and potentially devastating effects for young people who experience ongoing shame and humiliation in their schools. We do not need more research studies or tragedies to let us know the importance of this work. We cannot protect our students from all forms of bullying or challenging behavior, nor can we protect our educational institutions from all threats of gun violence. That is no reason not to act on both fronts with the urgency and shared concern these issues demand.


Andrew Slater
Head of School

Edmund Burke School

One of the roles of a Head of School is to provide “the vision thing,” (to quote the first President Bush.) I try to be aware of emerging educational trends – what are parents reading about in the paper? What are teachers hearing about at conferences? As the head of a progressive school, it’s even more important for me to be up on the latest research because part of our mission is to incorporate proven innovations into our teaching.

Sometimes new ideas that we thought would be hard to incorporate turn out to be essential. Remember when schools sent home paper fliers? Mailed report cards? Going completely electronic was tricky at the time, but now it’s hard to even imagine school communication without emails, online newsletters and websites. Bringing the teacher and classroom into this virtual world appears to be the next step – “online learning” is now popping up everywhere.

Proponents of online learning cite the benefits of reaching a large audience, the reduced cost, and the flexibility of taking a class at any hour. Skeptics point out that there’s no substitute for the personal attention and expertise of a live teacher, it’s very hard to control cheating and plagiarizing, and it can be used as an easy way to save money without considering whether it works.

As is true of any technology, the medium itself is not bad or good, it depends how it is implemented. Here’s a brief primer on the different types of online learning:

Open Online Course

These typically do not include interaction with a teacher. They are just between a student, the software and a computer screen. While efficient and cheap, they require a lecture format, and don’t allow for the teacher to respond to student questions or to be flexible with concepts being taught. “MOOCS,” or massive open online courses, can have thousands of participants – they are known to work well for college level science and math courses.

Limited Online Course

Many colleges offer online courses that follow a traditional class format. Lectures, homework, tests are all online, but there is interaction with the teacher via email. Participants pay tuition and earn credit. Enrollment is limited to keep it possible for teachers to respond to emails and to grade student work.

Blended, or Hybrid Learning

This approach is a combination of traditional and online work. It means making use of online exercises and videos to complement the textbook and lectures. It usually means that students do some work on computers while in class.

Flipped Classroom

In this model lectures are delivered online, thus can be viewed both in school and at home. Class time is used for labs, projects, discussions or field trips.

All four of these approaches work well for some courses and students, and not for others. Just like traditional classes, much depends on the thought that goes into creating the course, the delivery and the effectiveness of the assessment.  It is critical to consider the ages and developmental needs of the students as well as their experience with computers. Not every young person has access to a personal computer or is comfortable interacting with an online video.

Over the course of my career I have seen technology in the classroom rise and fall and rise again in popularity. It’s clear that we cannot ignore the impact of technology on our students in their daily lives, in college and in the workplace. However, I firmly believe that there is no substitute for the wisdom, flexibility and insights of a teacher in a classroom full of students. I do think there’s a role for online learning in secondary schools. At Burke we are developing a pilot program using the “flipped classroom” approach, with an eye towards opening up more time in science classes for laboratories, projects and discussions. Our goal is to find the right mix that will allow us to enjoy the best of both the traditional and virtual world.

One thing is certain, today’s students will be exposed to online learning in college or even as adults. So it’s important that teachers and administrators look at ways to prepare secondary school students for online instruction. Although it might seem like a fad right now, I’m sure the day is coming when a school without online learning will be considered as outdated a school without a website!


Darlene Pierro
Head of School

McLean School of Maryland –

mclean-schoolJust how does a school make learning accessible in a discipline such as foreign language?  This has been both a challenge and a success at McLean, where our students bring varied learning styles and learning differences to the classroom and where our mission is to make learning accessible to a broad range of learners.

When McLean was a kindergarten through grade 9 school, Spanish was the only foreign language offered and it began in grade 7.  As we planned for the addition of the Upper School in 2000-01, we wanted to increase our language offerings with careful attention to how a second language could enhance our students’ language experience.  And, of course, we needed to make sure that our offerings would be accessible to our students.

Today at McLean, we offer three foreign languages that are entirely mission-appropriate and address the wide variety of learning styles that our students use: visual, auditory, kinesthetic – or a combination of the three.

Spanish begins in grade 3 and continues through Advanced Placement Spanish in Upper School. Students who take Spanish have easy verbal recall and are comfortable with the “produce-on-demand” requirements of an essentially verbal language.  Spanish students, at least in the younger grades, are those whose preferred learning style is auditory/verbal.  And even as reading and writing are introduced in the upper grades, students still rely heavily on auditory skills because classes are conducted almost entirely in Spanish.

In grades 5 and 6, our students take a semester of Spanish and a semester of Latin.  Latin introduces students to another kind of language and the exposure prepares them to choose a single language at grade 7.  Latin is a profoundly structured language, with conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns, and variable word order. Latin appeals to students who benefit from structure and order, who prefer visual learning, and who shy away from the instant recall of a modern spoken language such as Spanish.  Our students also love the study of Roman culture that is a natural piece of the Latin curriculum.  Latin at McLean is offered through AP Latin in Upper School.

At grade 7, our students choose Spanish, Latin, or American Sign Language. The beauty of the ASL offering is that it appeals directly to the kinesthetic learner.  If Spanish or Latin is a challenge, students often find that ASL is accessible – and fun.  Exposure to an entirely different way of communicating gives our students increased sensitivity to the importance of communication in the deaf culture. We teach American Sign Language through ASL 4.

In addition to language courses, our Latin teachers have developed a spring break trip to Italy for 7th and 8th graders, where their classroom experiences are reinforced by visits to ruins, historical sites, and cities throughout Italy. Spring break trips to Spain for juniors and seniors led to the creation of an exchange program with a school just outside of Madrid. Three seniors from the class of 2012 spent their 2-week senior projects in Spain, and we just said good-bye to seven exchange students from Spain who visited us this fall.

Conjugations…declensions…accents…inverted question marks…finger spelling…

Spanish, Latin, and American Sign Language – offerings that make second language learning at McLean accessible to the broadest range of learners.


John Thomas


Flint Hill School

Welcome back to another great year of learning!  The start of the school year is always a moment of great anticipation and excitement.  Whether your child is new to school, they are making a change and this is going to be their first experience in a particular school, or they are simply returning to their school after a fun-filled summer, this is going to be a very special moment for them. For everyone, students, parents, and teachers alike, there is that wonderful sense of a new beginning and a fresh start.  It is natural for students to have a bit of anxiety and maybe even a few questions – what will my teacher(s) be like, who will be in my class, etc.  But the focus should always be on the new upcoming adventure of learning and growing.  To make it all go smoothly, there are a number of things that we can as parents do to make this educational experience be as positive, productive, and worthwhile as possible.  To be honest, there has never been a more exciting time to be in education or to attend school.  There is an element of energy and momentum that is present on every school campus in the country and especially, in schools here in our greater Washington DC community.  A key responsibility of ours as parents is to help our children embrace this moment and prepare them to get the most out of it as possible.

What can you do? First and foremost, help create a climate of positive anticipation.  If possible, take time before school even begins  to visit the campus.  See the grounds at a very non-threatening time.  Walk the halls if this will be a new school and begin to make everything from driving to the school, walking in the front door, to being at the building very familiar.  This will be “their” school and we all want them to feel a pride and passion in being there.  Share the joy in seeing them be there and all that they will be learning.  For your child, encourage that sense of “can’t wait to get to school.”

When school begins, take the time to engage in the school.  Meet the teachers and the school leaders.  Introduce yourself.  Appreciate the fact that they want to partner with you in helping to nurture and support your children.   Believe me when I say that the great teachers we have in our schools can’t wait to work with your child (ren).  Our teachers today are committed to making a difference.  They want to have an impact and have probably spent much of their summer doing professional development and thinking of ways to make this a great school year.  Enjoy the chance to know them as well.  Great schools always come back to the relationship between the child and the teacher. Find ways to engage yourself in school life.  Join a parent committee, attend the coffees, and come watch the games and the performances.  Make the educational experience at your school “a way of life,” not just the place where you “send” your children.  Make it something special that you all share and benefit from together.  Trust these great educators and value all that they will be doing for your child.

Prepare for an adventure.  Real adventures in today’s world can be rare, but this educational adventure is real and all about change, growth, and development.  There is so much that is happening in our schools today.  There is the creative use of technology.  There is the focus on the development of “21st century learning” and all the opportunities to learn in new and exciting ways.  Your child will learn to collaborate, communicate, think creatively and critically, and they clearly will develop a sense of character.  All of those traits come from the Mission of the school that your child will attend and all of them will only occur when school and home are working closely together. School today looks and feels differently than it did when you and I went to school.  This is that tremendous sense of momentum that is evident in good schools today as we prepare our children for a world that is also changing rapidly.  The skills that this educational adventure will produce will have an impact on how they learn and will ultimately be the key to their future success.

And above all else, cherish these years for and with your child.  Never lose sight of the fact that time moves quickly and the growth that you will see on a daily basis will seem to flash by you in no time. Appreciate the fact that never in their lives have they had so many adults looking out for their best interests.  Home and school together make a tremendous partnership and the beneficiary of all of that love and care, challenge and support, nurturing and mentoring, is ultimately your child.  Helping our children get a strong and vibrant education is a gift – a priceless gift that will last a lifetime.


Katherine Schantz
Head of School

The Lab School of Washington

One of the greatest challenges for a head of school is to anticipate which of the advances in neuroscience, technology, psychology and cognitive sciences will transform the way we structure our schools, train our teachers, and educate our students.  Embedded in a society that is absorbing the impact of tremendous advances in these fields, we are constantly reassessing our beliefs about learning.   In the last few years, two closely related principles have dominated my thinking about how to create schools that truly foster our students’ potential for learning: our brain is more “plastic” and responsive to our environment than previously understood; and our intelligence is not “fixed.”

Neuroscience is informing education in ways that are dramatically changing the way teachers understand the potential of their students.    Previous to the 1990’s scientists believed that our brains were constantly making new connections among our neurons; however, they did not believe that we could generate new brain cells after an early point in our development.   In the late 1990’s, the theories on brain development were turned upside down when neuroscientists confirmed that our brains can generate new neurons well into late adulthood.  This significant finding in neuroscience research led to a new appreciation for the term neuroplasticity: the ability of our brains to generate neurons and connections in response to influences in its environment.   Educators were called upon to take a closer look at their practices and climates for learning.  Some of the influential factors such as enrichment were already part of our belief system while the effect of other factors such as positive emotional relationships had not been given our fullest attention.

Informed about the relationship between neuroplasticity and learning, educators were confronted with the corollary that intelligence of their students is not “fixed.”  Again our thinking has been turned upside down.   If the brain is able to respond to its environment with new cells and new pathways of connectivity, not to mention the chemical responsiveness, it follows that education has the potential to profoundly impact the “intelligence” of a student.   The quality of the time in schooling environments is truly mind-altering.

As these advances in our thinking have become more widely accepted, teachers are welcoming a new level of optimism. Teachers have been liberated from a mindset of predetermined expectations for their students.  Research in the last decade has shown that student-teacher relationships and a welcoming classroom milieu are powerful accelerators of learning.   Psychological studies revealed that students who are introduced to the idea that intelligence is not “fixed,” do better in school.  These students take more risks in their learning and show more motivation to improve the quality of their thinking.  Researchers also found that students who believe that intelligence is “fixed “ and have been told that they are smart tend to take fewer academic risks and do not show as much improvement.   The theory is that they do not want to risk losing the image of being intelligent in the eyes of others.

With a new understanding of the incredible potential of our students’ brains to develop and change in response to our school environments, we are recognizing the full importance of every decision we make for our teaching and learning spaces, staffing, and daily philosophy.  We are fortunate to be part of the independent school world where we can make the best choices based on current knowledge about learning.


Clayton W. Lewis
Head of School

Washington International School

If there is anything that has changed dramatically over the course of my educational career, other than technology, it is parenting. Being a parent has never been an easy role, but the demands seem to be ever increasing.

I have had lots of conversations with parents that suggest their high level of uncertainty about their role, or conversely, suggest a certainty that in itself can be problematic. I’ve never been inclined to send them off with a reading list, believing instead that good parenting cannot be reduced to a “how to” guide. Instead, it is really “on the job training” where a parent needs to adapt his or her approach according to the needs of different children, and to make conscious adjustments along the way. What might be some fundamental responsibilities that would appear in a job description, other than the obvious ones of provider and caregiver?

First, a parent must manage a child’s successes and failures. Intellectually, a parent will know that children must take incremental steps from being totally dependent as a young child to being generally independent as a young adult. The parent also knows from his or her own experience that learning from failure is a part of life. However, there is ample evidence that parents are finding it more difficult to apply these truths to their own children. I refer to three interesting pieces, the first a cover article earlier this year inThe Atlantic where Lori Gottlieb admonishes parents with the title, “How to Land your Kid in Therapy.” She describes the phenomenon of children who are not allowed to experience failure, or “what discomfort feels like,” and who grow up unprepared for what adult life throws at them. Wendy Mogel addresses the same point in her book, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, as does David Brooks in a New York Times article, “It’s Not About You.” He raises concern over young people with tightly regulated childhoods who “will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured.”

Is there really an epidemic here? Educators will attest to the trend where parents are more likely to rush in too quickly to solve a problem or to intervene before failure occurs. I have seen the fallout from this approach far too often, where the child (or college student) is not able to handle reality when it inevitably appears. Fortunately, this style of parenting remains the approach of a minority.

Parents and teachers simply cannot engineer success on their own timetable. I recently received an email from a colleague at a former school, who mentioned that a certain student had just complete his masters degree from Oxford and had an excellent job at a respected foundation. I was amazed. Could this really be the same student who had barely passed his academic requirements in high school, and who only seemed motivated to play basketball? I recalled his parents and their confidence that he would turn out fine, and how right they were.

Next, maintaining good communications with children is an important part of the parent’s job description. Parents are required to find those meaningful opportunities to engage with their children about real topics. They should be good enquirers together. Regrettably, I’ve too often watched parents sit in a restaurant while their children are engrossed with a digital game on their hand device and then reach for their own devices whenever messages arrive. What a lost opportunity! Parents should look for chances to find a quiet space to listen to their children, leaving their Blackberries behind. They should talk about life, share wisdom, but not preach…for sermons are unlikely to be heard.

Parents should remember that their job description is as supervisors and will remain so until their children are out on their own. I am a little uneasy when a parent says to me, “My child and I are best friends.” It’s great if that means that the parent and child are able to talk meaningfully with each other and enjoy the same experiences. However, it’s not a peer relationship. Consider the adult workspace. A supervisor may have a great personal relationship with someone in the office under his or her authority, but there are times when supervision must be exercised. Becoming too close can be a problem.

As a supervisor, a parent’s job is to provide age-appropriate parameters for his or her children, and to help them find success within those boundaries. Children have a job description as well, and that is to push against the boundaries. Boundaries can be moved, but in alignment with the parent’s best judgment and not because he or she has yielded to complaints. For example, most parents today are under some pressure about Internet access. “Everyone has Facebook!” “I need a computer in my room.” “Can’t I have an iPhone?” Parents need to draw the line, but where?

That leads to another item on parents’ job description: collaborator. They should seek the counsel and support of other parents; otherwise, the job will be a lonely one. As children grow older, their role is to divide and conquer. “You’re the only parent who won’t let me stay out later.” “Everyone else gets more allowance.” “Don’t worry, his parents will be home.” “Don’t you trust me?” Kids today are wired to each other around the clock, and parents are no match if they try handle their responsibilities alone. Through focused conversations, parents can help each other to establish social norms that they will try to enforce together. Parents need to take a position about those families whose norms are different. Take for example the generations-old question of alcohol. Some parents believe that alcohol is fundamental to adolescence and will allow their children to drink at home or accept that their children drink on weekends. “I want my child to learn to drink responsibly.”  Other parents take strong issue when this attitude is in violation of the law.

It’s tempting to gloss over these challenges, but avoidance is not a solution. Many readers will have heard of incidents in the their communities involving private weekend or summer parties that led to undesirable consequences, even when parent supervision was present and the rules had been clearly stated. It is at such moments that parents need to meet with each other to consider what they’ve learned about setting and maintaining boundaries. If I have any specific piece of advice, it is that all parents should make it clear that they would like to have a conversation when their teenager comes home, no matter how late. “Just knock on my door.” That serves as a clear message that with trust there must be accountability.

A parent’s job description requires long and irregular hours, sometimes late at night and on weekends. It’s those long trips to soccer practices, making it home in time for family dinners, showing up at school for presentations, and helping with the homework. Let’s project to the time when the child is about 16 and able to get around completely on his or her own and is quite independent with schoolwork. The moments that a parent finds at this juncture with his teenager are precious indeed, and conversations can be rich.

Write your job description and hold yourself accountable to its requirements.


Douglas Norry
Head of the Middle School

Landon School

Before coming to Landon, I taught and coached at Bryn Mawr, an all-girls independent school in Baltimore. During my first year there, I served as the assistant coach for a high school AAU basketball team. The head coach had more than thirty years experience, including many at the collegiate level; he even served on Tubby Smith’s staff at one point in his career. The team, comprised of top players from several schools in the area, was assembled as a group of all-stars, and they aspired to win at the state level. At our parent meeting to open the season, the coach delivered a line which I have never forgotten: “If you want your daughter to be happy all the time, this probably isn’t the right place for her.”

The coach, of course, was referring to the fact that these girls would need to work hard and be unselfish. The parents, who viewed this team as a key step toward playing at the next level, ate it up. At the time, I remember thinking that we should use his line at Bryn Mawr’s Back to School Night – to send a clear message that parent over-involvement and solving kids’ problems did more harm than good in the long run.

Then I had kids of my own, and I began to understand the impulses that I had previously disregarded as simply poor parenting. When an infant cries, our instinct is to soothe him. When our children become toddlers, we want them to be happy, not only because we love them unconditionally but also because if they aren’t, they will likely throw a tantrum. And so the foundation of parent intervention is set; parents are only as happy as their least happy child.

Back to the AAU team. While the coach’s message was crass, its content merits careful consideration. True growth and learning stem from life’s disappointments: being cut from a team, failing a test, or, as Wendy Mogel suggests in her book*, a skinned knee. Now more than ever, we manage our children’s lives, and our first instinct is to fix their problems. Mogel cautions us not to spoil our children emotionally by “trying to inoculate [them] against the pain of life” (91). Instead, we should teach them that they are both unique and ordinary, and, rather than assuming fragility, we should “prepare them for rough conditions by teaching them to tolerate some stresses and extremes” (113). Doing so will foster their development of resilience and self-reliance.

As a concrete example, consider the fact that, on average, one parent per day visits the Middle School Office to drop off an item that his/her son has left in the car or at home. By fixing these cheap mistakes, a parent is denying his son the experience of explaining to the art teacher why he does not have his portfolio. The benefits of that interaction far outweigh the loss of a few points on a homework assignment. Put another way, if we want our children to grow up to be good problem solvers, we need to let them encounter some problems on their own.

*The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D