How do you know if a school is a “good” school? What can you tell just by walking through a school, or peeking into classrooms? When I was looking for a preschool for my daughter, I visited a good number of them, and they all seemed nice enough. All had easels and paints, playdough and blocks, dress up areas and nap areas. So, if they are all the same, aren’t the things to consider driving time? Or cost? Or if they serve lunch?
Having spent many years in many different kinds of schools - parochial, all-girls, progressive, traditional - and in many roles - parent, teacher, and administrator - here is what I’ve learned. There are important things to look for along with logistics and cost. Here are my top 5:
1. Children's artwork and writing on the walls and in the hallways.
Schools that display student work send a message that children’s work is important and that each child has something to share and to teach. School’s that honor student work send a direct message to children and parents about what the school values. You can read a great deal into what's on the walls, in the hallways and the classrooms, and even how it is displayed (see #2).
2. Children's work that isn’t cookie cutter.
One preschool I checked out for my daughter had children painting the exact same pre-cut spider for Halloween, and they were given only one color paint -- black. All the spider’s looked alike and they were going to make a truly fantastic Halloween display for the school. But for me, the kids were display-makers rather than discoverers, or experimenters, or learners. Spiders do come in all shapes, sizes and colors after all! Cookie-cutter bulletin boards tell you one thing only – that the adults are more concerned with the look of the product then with the learning.
3. Children and teachers talking.
Think of your most favorite teacher and your least favorite. I’m going to bet that the favorite teacher was the one who took the time to know you, to talk with you, and to care about you. And the least favorite? I bet that teacher was the one who spoke down to you or made you feel small, unimportant, and powerless. When you see children learning in an environment that encourages questions, critical thinking, and creativity, then you know you’ve found a school where your child will learn lifelong skills. Look for respect going both ways – adult to child and child to adult.
4. Teachers engaged and happy.
Look for smiling teachers. Be wary of teachers who say things like: “these kids are impossible" or “I just want to tear my hair out," even if they follow with "just kidding" or "but I love them." Imagine a waiter coming to your table and saying "Wow, can't wait for my shift to be over. Just kidding - now what would you like to order?"
Instead listen for and appreciate things like: “I’m so happy we’re going to be studying poetry next week, I can’t wait!” or “I’m going to try a new approach to math this month, I’m excited to see how it goes.” Teachers are human, and have good days and not so good days, just like you. But when teachers are generally excited, engaged, and creative, then their classrooms become exciting, engaging, and creative!
5. Parents inside the school walls.
Some schools keep parents at arms length. Some insist that parents drop off at the curb or at the school door. Look for parents helping out, chatting, and volunteering, inside the building not just in the parking lot or for special events! Being welcome to walk your child to his/her classroom in the mornings (and seeing what's on the walls while you do) implies a deeper partnership and trust than a once or twice-a-year parent conference or pot luck. Those small moments, inside the school walls, makes a difference to you and your child. School isn't a separate land for children, like in a Charlie Brown comic where adults are unintelligible honking noises; rather school can be a commuity of teachers, children and parents.
Want to broaden your child’s answer of “nothing” when you ask “what did you do at school today” Go to school!
We shop for cars, for clothes, for computers and spend diligent hours doing so. We look for just the right fit, right price, and the right features for our needs and our families. I encourage you to consider that shopping for the right school means taking into account the five observations above! You may still choose the school closest to your home, or the school that is the most cost effective; still it is worth shopping to know what your choices might be. I encourage you to visit my school, Touchstone Community School in Grafton for children age 3.3-13 as well as other options in your community. Use your eyes, ears and gut to "read" the hallways, teachers, and parents.