Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Schools As Home

At a going away party a couple of months ago, someone asked me if we had found a home in New Mexico. To my regret, I offered a somewhat snarky riposte and said that we had a house in Albuquerque, but we had a home in St. Louis. It was only later I learned that Webster’s defines a home as a domicile, i.e., the place where one lives. I was attempting, in my response, to differentiate between the house location in which we would soon reside versus the house in which we had lived since 1994. This “home” was where we brought our children when they left the hospital after their births, the living room where the brit milah (the Jewish circumcision ceremony) was performed, and also where we shared many of our emotionally-laden experiences over the past seventeen years. (If you’re the person who innocently asked the question, I apologize here.) Maybe it was our moving that made me draw such a clear distinction between two seemingly synonymous words, house and home, particularly as we watched the moving truck with all our possessions pull away, and I walked around an empty house and reminisced about the many things that happened there. The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that home connotes something more than merely being the place where we rest our heads every evening.

The notion of what constitutes home also applies to those of us working in schools as we endeavor to create learning communities where every child and adult can feel safe physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As we know, schools can be warm, joyful places where adults engage in meaningful work together; unfortunately, we are all too aware that schools can also be cold, cruel institutions that persistently devalue the people inside their walls. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to create schools where everyone can feel “at home,” but how do we do that?

To make a school a home, we must begin with the adults who work there. We need to make our schools places where every grownup feels valued, trusted, and supported. This does not mean that we do not have standards or that we approve of everything everyone does, but it does mean that we are honest with one another, we address issues when they arise, and we know that we can disagree with each other but still respect one another.

In a similar fashion, we need to teach our students that our school is a place where children are allowed to be who they are and to develop into the people they want to be. Here again, this is not an argument for anything goes; as parents, we don’t approve of all our children do, but we still love them as we’re correcting their behavior or reprimanding them. A major component of adolescence consists of the process of identity formation, where teenagers try on a variety of personalities much like they’re shopping and seeing how different clothes fit. In order for them to do this and to learn who they are, they must be able to experiment with a variety of personality types in the full assurance that they will not be ostracized or castigated. They must be able to take risks and know that they will still be accepted for the people they are.

If we can create schools where each child can be his/her full self every day, then we can give our students the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and become the people they were meant to be. As the writer Mary Angelou once said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Our students want their schools to be a home for them; let’s do everything we can to give them what they so richly deserve.