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Paradox: Education and Accreditation

by Jay Stroud
Director for Accreditation and School Improvement
NEASC Commission on Independent Schools

Many [many] years ago, my professor in a graduate course on curriculum design asserted a fundamental principle I’ve carried with me ever since: “Everyone,” he said, “who becomes a teacher should be capable of loving the child and the world equally.” By “the world,” he meant the world of standards, of expectation, of knowledge and fact, of better and worse — yes, right and wrong — of objective understanding. And by “the child” he meant, of course, the unique, wiggly, indeterminate, fascinating, maddening, frightening, inspirational, despairing, eternally hopeful reality of each child and young person in your care. Actually, in that graduate class, he declared the principle more forcefully: “no one should become a teacher unless they can …”

He went on to note the entire history of American education might be summarized as a vast cultural pendulum, swinging from one pole of this paradox to the other. “Progressive education” in the ‘30s or ‘60s centered on “the child’s interest” and “the primacy of the child.” And the hollow requirements of “No Child Left Behind” emphasized high stakes testing and measured teachers by their students’ objective achievement.

One might make a variety of amusing observations of the failures of either extreme. The pilot or surgeon or electrician who believed how they felt about their job was more important than accuracy. Or the counselor who reminded clients that living up to her expectations was the goal of the sessions. Yet, education is oft beset by a call for extremes.

Even accreditation, itself, contends with fundamental paradox. Accreditation protocols are presented as standards and procedures and policies but assiduously and articulately avoid commenting on individuals. But we all know that schools are mostly all about individuals. When your own child is in school, the only really important question is “who is their teacher?” We have all watched our own kids elated or despairing over their teacher. And, similarly, whole schools over their Head. 

Here’s the point of this: a great independent school and an independent school faculty member undertakes a fundamental commitment to balancing on the sharp edge of this paradox. The best independent school proves capable of helping young people find new dreams rather than inanely telling them they can “be whatever they want to be;” distinguishes between honest failure and laziness, exalts achievement without arrogance, raises the bar for the possible, and invests acceptance of reality with the persistence of hope. Through force of personality, depth of education, commitment to both individuals and subject, and freedom to exercise good judgment, the effective independent school and teacher truly help their students prosper in a culture that refuses to compel them into a feigned acceptance of either extreme. 

My graduate professor all those years ago got it straight: the truly effective teacher bears out the paradox of equal love for the child and the subject, balancing respect and affection for the developing youth with the exacting realities of achievement. Five- and ten-year-olds absorb more attention than the subjects they study; seniors in high school must develop the independence to learn on their own. The teacher’s role in this delicate and essential educational enterprise remains an eternal balancing act: "Do I truly know and care for each of my students as they need me to and have I helped each of them gain the strength to engage with their unknown future?"

I don’t know an independent school mission that includes “embracing the paradoxical in life” but, paradoxically, the best ones do so with terms like “resilience” and “optimism” and “courage.” Some kids come to know these terms all too well in their young lives but they will all discover the signal need for these qualities at some point. Knowing — and preparing for — the realities on the horizon is the point of a truly lasting education.

NEASC | May 2021

"...the truly effective teacher bears out the paradox of equal love for the child and the subject, balancing respect and affection for the developing youth with the exacting realities of achievement."