Some high school students are unstoppable in their quest to get into the most selective of colleges–the Harvards, Yales and Princetons.They don’t need much guidance, advice or support. They seem to be on some homing system that delivers them to the college and future of their dreams. But that was not me, my own kids or most of the students I have worked with over my decades of service in secondary schooling. Most high school students need to establish a rich dialogue with a coach, mentor, guidance counselor–call them what you wish. They need to start the conversation early and maintain that communication zealously over their junior or senior years of high school if they want to surpass their own goals for college and beyond.
(The following is the commencement day speech of W J O’Reilly, Headmaster of The Hanal School in Ridgefield Park, NJ www.hanalschool.org)
We live in a world where almost everyone thinks more is better. For better or worse, it’s a world in which flashy wealth and celebrity status count for far more than they deserve…If you don’t believe me, please note the Kardashians, Jersey Shore and other over the top reality tv shows.
In schools, too, how big the science lab, how many championships your soccer team has won and how may ivy league colleges your graduates get into are all important factors that say a lot about wealth, winning and competition. By the way, competition for wealth and winning are worthy goals in life, and I wish you all the wealth and winning you wish for, I really do. And once rich and famous, please send in your generous alumni donation to the school. Believe me, you will be asked.
I remember our rising senior Wonyoung saying recently “the depth of the relationships” is something special here, too, you know, how closely students can relate with one another, and students and teachers, too. I happen to like that, probably because what Loren and Wonyoung focused on are the most essential aspects of powerful educational experiences, powerful life experiences. When people talk about character, warm human exchanges allow for the creation of “good character,” and good character is essential for a long, happy and successful life. It shouldn’t matter that much how fancy your car, your watch or your bank account. The quality of a persons life means much more than whether or not you have granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances in your kitchen. Of course, you should have both in life: good character and granite counter tops.
Some of you have heard my story about the high school I attended. Elite private boys school, founded in 1645. 33% of my class going to Harvard, highest SAT scores in the country. Only one very important thing was missing, in my view: its heart. Clicks gathered together for protection, bullying was an unspoken, permanent part of our experience, kids weaknesses were exposed and exploited and some of the teachers were just plain mean, arrogant and even sadistic to the students, at times, i. I’m told that the Roxbury Latin School in Boston has become more of a caring environment, and I certainly hope it has.
Of course, the irony of it all, is that I probably wouldn’t have gone into education if I had had a more warm and fuzzy experience at my old school. My motivation for getting involved in starting and operating schools (and this is the fourth such school I have come to start and operate) my motivation for being in schools has been to prove that you can have a rigorous academic program that operates largely in a respectful, humane and positive environment. And this is our school–most of the time–respectful, humane, positive. And when it isn’t, at least we have built into our school the power to communicate about things, for when you have the power to talk about what’s wrong, you can make it right once again. In this environment, the heart stands a chance of remaining open, protected and positively influencing everyone within the family of our school.
My dream for Hanal? It’s for us to have all the goodies that everyone wants to see in a school–all the science and computer labs, libraries, student lounges, soccer teams, theatres and music rooms. But let’s build the school of our dreams on a foundation of heart and open dialogue. I know how far that can take us in the world as scholars and as people. Heart can take us very, very far indeed and make of the world a better place. Congratulations to each of us on a challenging yet heartfelt year, and many, many more to come.
Be well, and may good fortune and happiness abound in your lives. Thank you.
From the first day I stepped into a classroom to teach, 21 years ago, I knew I had found the exactly right profession for myself. Teaching, by the way, is not dispensing knowledge. It’s inspiring people to become curious enough to teach themselves. Isn’t that what doctors are supposed to do—enable the patient to heal.
The word innerMotivation is an important one to me. As a teacher, what must I say, do or be in order to ignite the passion of a student to pursue relentlessly his or her mission in life. How do you do it? I don’t know exactly, but for one thing it means you have absolute respect for students and for what they bring to the picnic, so to speak. You must also show them what it means to be a passionate learner. In reading literature, finding innermotivation means validating the interpretation of the student–not cramming down their throat the widely held interpretation of, say, a short story. IF, as a teacher, I can suppress my own egotistical idea that I know the truth about everything, then I give my students a chance to test their opinion and follow those intellectual threads inward to their own self discovery.
That’s innermotivation, and it’s why I call myself a teacher every day.
(W J O’Reilly is headmaster of The Hanal School in Ridgefield Park, NJ (www.hanalschool.org and “thehanalschool” on Facebook) He is also producer and host of “The K-12 Conversation” a show about all things educational for PBS and NPR affiliate WVIA-TV in Northeast Pennsylvania)