Building Schools That Care: Creating Authentic Learning Experiences for Our Students

Jay Parker
Building leadership capacity in our students, at its most basic level, is about believing – deeply – in each student and creating authentic experiences for them to learn and grow. As Stanford professor, researcher, and author Dr. Nel Noddings offered over thirty years ago, “the student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.”
We all strive to inspire our students. Each summer, since 2007, I have had the privilege of leading boys and girls into the outdoors, challenging them to set aside their phones (yep – no phones), tune out FOMO, and tune into nature. I am grateful to spend these moments with these amazing young people and am privileged to witness their transformation into more confident, assured versions of themselves. Their optimism, good humor, and love of long van rides while singing at the top of their lungs (it’s like the bus on the Muppets) never fails. They persevere through long hikes, rainstorms, and heavy packs. These moments on the trail serve as a reminder that our students want and need to be pushed. In the moment, on a ridge at 4,000 feet—laughing, supporting, reflecting, and not having showered for three days—they are at their best. They are confident, good-natured, and driven. They are ready for more.

Keep in mind, that FEW of these students, even veterans, would label themselves as “outdoorsy.” In the three wilderness expeditions I led this summer, 27 of the 40 students were returnees, and, combined, those 27 boys and girls had amassed SEVENTY outdoor trips from Wyoming to Vermont in previous years. On these expeditions, there is no promise that we will build leaders, only that we will offer an experience with opportunities for meaningful accomplishments.

So What Is It That Keeps Students Coming Back?

In the mountains, students have the time and space to reflect, leading to transcendent moments, though these moments are never planned. We strive only to provide the time and space for these opportunities to materialize with the hope that students will walk away open to future challenges. John Dewey would be proud, “Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another,” he wrote. Who could have predicted the serenity of three wolves coming within 200 yards of our campsite in Montana’s Madison Range? Who could have predicted the magical, hour-long reflection amongst our youngest girls upon the overlook in New Hampshire’s White Mountains? We cannot create the perfect leadership curriculum, but we can establish the parameters for students to have transcendent moments by setting the stage with love, thoughtfulness, and – most importantly – care. This summer, as I looked around at all the incredible adults who co-led these trips with me, I recognized they were a key ingredient. They care deeply about these girls and boys; the care is contagious.

The lesson is clear: authenticity starts with us as adults. The kids feed off of our energy, our attitude, and our sense of purpose. Students need to feel safe and secure, supported by adults who care deeply. This is the ethic of care. Identified by Nel Noddings, the ethic of care embraces the emotional connection between teachers and students as a fundamental component of effective education. This ethic of care reaffirms that students who believe in the adults around them ultimately believe in themselves. Care is not simply a component of leadership development, it is THE HEART of leadership development.

This concept of care is re-emerging across schools thanks to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. This initiative has re-engaged the conversation about how we as schools approach bullying, college placement, and a myriad of other topics relevant to the healthy emotional development of our students. It is an invaluable resource that reminds us what Noddings implored years ago; “The main goal of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.”

It is this ethic of care which makes me so proud, as not only a Calvert School administrator, but also a Calvert parent. I see the genuine commitment to each child every day in the hallways of our middle and lower schools. Nowhere is this truer than when you enter our Fifth Age (Kindergarten) and Sixth Age (Pre-First) hallways. It is tangible to guests on admissions tours immediately. As a Calvert parent, I feel it, too; my young son and young daughter LOVE school because they LOVE their teachers. It is that simple—they know they are cared for and loved.

This past spring, we proudly launched the Institute for Leadership & Purpose at Calvert School, an initiative that reaffirms our goal to cultivate young people with a conscience. Our mission is to weave this ethic of care further into our ethos as a school. In the coming year, we are engaging in three distinct initiatives that will strengthen relationships across our whole school community, increase opportunities for authentic learning experiences, and elevate the ethic of care into even more of our programming.

  • A full-scale overhaul of our school-wide service learning program that emphasizes cross-grade partnerships in our work with community and global organizations. All service initiatives will now have a unique emphasis on the Head (education), Hands (action), and Heart (reflection) components of meaningful service for our youngest to oldest students.
  • A new Sixth Grade leadership course will serve as a platform for middle school students to act as peer educators to our second and third graders on lessons of friendship, social skills, and positive behaviors. This empowers Sixth Grade students and builds a powerful bridge across our divisions.
  • A Parent Education and Speaker Series that will expand our reach beyond our students and faculty, to our parent community to further cement our commitment to the emotional development of our students. Ross Wehner, the founder of the World Leadership School, will be our featured speaker in April. Ross will spend two days with our students, parents, and faculty to lead workshops on the importance of inspiring purpose in 21st century learning.
These are just three clear steps we are taking in the next year to reaffirm our promise to provide our students with a “Foundation for a Lifetime.” Give them the time and space to flourish, and approach each day, and each interaction with care. Ultimately, we keep returning to the words of Nel Noddings, “The main goal of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” This is our goal at Calvert School, too.

This article was originally published on the gcLi blog.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.