In the current state, what does it mean to “prepare” students?
We can probably agree that all primary and secondary schools can be called “preparatory,” whether private or public. And at various junctures in this journey from preschool to high school graduation, we can often agree (debates about ‘standards’ notwithstanding) on the academic or cognitive skills we want children to possess along the route. We expect schools to serve that function, even though we have sometimes been distracted by discussions about standards.
The last few difficult years have placed into sharp relief the sense that academic preparation is only the tip of an iceberg. If we didn’t already know that what we often call “social and emotional growth” plays an outsized role in preparing children successfully for the world adults have bequeathed to them, we certainly know it now! The world has always roiled with trouble, but the levels of and the intersection among challenging issues that face us now present a tall order for anyone moving from childhood to adulthood. Name your issue, but make sure to include climate crisis, cold war 2.0, disinformation and the power of social media, economic and political divisiveness, the pandemic….the list is long.
So more than ever, the skills our kids need to think their way through these challenges are integrated and constantly evolving. As the leader of a Pre-K-8 school, with lots of experience in high schools as well, I know that without four qualities—resilience, hope, adaptability, and empathy—it will be hard to cultivate and sustain the kind of thinking young people need to avoid feeling overwhelmed and anxious. (Let’s not assume that adults have mastered these either!)
That is why schools need to re-define what it means to be “prepared.” Now is that time. When we are confronted with problems crying out for very creative, nuanced solutions, phrases like “college prep” or “test prep” start to sound hollow, existing as they do at the tip of the iceberg. In this post-pandemic moment, schools need to double down on our strategies for cultivating those qualities we used to call “soft” skills. And we need to integrate these skills, not isolate them in neat programs and packages, into everything we do. Will we produce children who have enough agency to feel hopeful about the future? Will we strengthen children’s capacity to persevere in the face of failure and disappointment? Will they be able to adapt to disruptions that are unexpected and often sudden? And of great importance, will our children be able to vicariously imagine a system of beliefs and values different from their own so that our civic interactions become inclusive rather than tribal and combative?
These qualities can be taught. Schools play a large role in doing this work. Yet another layer of this requires new ways to engage parents as partners in this challenge—parents who, after all, are also trying in parallel to strengthen these same children. Tensions between parents and schools, lack of clear communication, and difficulty finding common ground are all disservices to our children. What if we dedicated more time, parents and teachers reflecting together, to unpack this notion of preparation? What common path do we want to tread?
In an existentially challenged moment, we need every opportunity we can get to connect with a common purpose. We might supercharge that effort by building parent-teacher cadres focused on this effort in particular.
Peter Herzberg has had an extensive career as a K though post secondary educator in teaching, leadership, and partnership building, in independent, public, and charter schools as well as community college. In this partnership and consulting work, he specializes in the innovation and design of curriculum, the building of more robust teaching cultures, media literacy, and cultivating student engagement. Prior to becoming Interim Head at Mead, where he served on the Board for many years, he worked in 7 different schools—more recently as the founder of the first all boys charter Elementary School, Boys Prep, in the Bronx, and prior to that Associate Head of the Brearley School in NY and Academic Dean at Greens Farms Academy. He is on the board of the educational nonprofit Change for Kids, was on the National Advisory Board of the News Literacy Project, and works on collective impact projects with DegreesNYC, a college-career readiness project. Peter also taught composition and writing at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of NY, before moving to the Interim Head position at Mead. He has an M.A in literature from Middlebury College and an Ed.M from Columbia Teacher’s College as a Klingenstein Fellow.
"The Mead School has unique potential, in its intimate, lab-like structure, to model what PreK-8 progressive schools might do at their best. Mead has always led the way in this regard, but the current cultural climate makes its work once again urgently relevant. This potential, and its faculty’s thoughtful, loving approach to kids, is what makes this work special." - Peter Herzberg