s I travel through my final year at WT, I have been reflecting on the many memorable moments and experiences in my 16-year tenure; one that will always stand out occurred on February 2, 2004, when our Parents Association brought world-renowned educator Jane Elliott to our campus. Ms. Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, had become famous following a classroom exercise that became known as the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to help her students understand the consequences of prejudice for African Americans, Ms. Elliott divided her class by the color of their eyes: students with blue eyes in one group and students with brown eyes in another group. She began by giving the blue-eyed children positive affirmations and special privileges. The blue-eyed children began to perform better in school than the brown- eyed children, who were being suppressed and referred to in negative ways. Their performance declined. Then she reversed the lesson; shortly thereafter the brown-eyed children began to perform better and the blue-eyed children performed more poorly.
Although I would never wish in any way to diminish the core teaching about race in Jane Elliott’s classroom exercise, I have also thought about the lesson as it applies to the education of all children. How do implicit and explicit messages from the teacher and the school affect overall student performance? How does a positive social climate impact student performance? Can student performance be improved as a result of a student’s immersion in a more positive classroom and school environment?
Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Christina Hinton conducted a study in 2015 of students enrolled in independent schools. Her intent was to explore the relationship between positive feelings and student learning. Among other things, she found that happiness is positively correlated with academic performance and notes that this is significant because academic performance provides a broader picture of achievement than standardized test scores, encompassing multiple types of abilities and the influence of social dynamics.
With this in mind, it behooves each and every school and teacher to self-assess the messages that the teacher and the school send to its students!
Two years ago WT embarked upon a relationship with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s pioneering program, Making Caring Common (MCC). The Mission of MCC is to help educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice. This is in the service to fostering positive school communities, which is why WT chose to join.
One of the most informative and helpful aspects of our membership in MCC is the school climate survey. We distributed our survey to Middle and Upper School students and retained the services of a consultant to analyze the data. Her final assessment stated the following:
Think Also of the Comfort and the Rights of Others, the school credo, is being exemplified in the WT community. The results show overwhelmingly positive response to the questions regarding student connections with each other and their teachers. It is believed that the school’s values are influencing the way students behave and interact with one another.
Recently, a student at WT sent an unsolicited email to Mrs. Klein, our Director of Upper School, which affirmed the conclusions of the MCC survey and reminded me of the importance of happiness in a school environment. The student wrote:
Despite the stellar teachers I have (and the teachers I have have usually been the most important thing about a school for me), I think that the very most outstanding thing about Winchester is, like Mrs. Holmes said the other day, the community. I’ve only been to two other schools, and they were both private, but every day I walk in and I’m still blown away by the friendly atmosphere here. My peers have mostly been more than welcoming, no matter which kids they hang out with. My teachers seem to care genuinely about each of their students. People talk and laugh with each other in the hallways and mingle with many different people. In general, the mood here is positive and uplifting, not negative, rigid or stressful. For this reason alone, I find it hard not to be happy here.
I have had so many memorable moments at WT, but none of them are as important as knowing that our community lives what it aspires to be and that in doing so we foster intelligent and caring young people.