What Makes a Great School?

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By Lark P. Palma, PhD, head of school

From the Fall 2009 Caller

A day in school, Charleston, South Carolina, 1964

A picture of George Washington hung on the wall of my class in the antebellum home housing the high school I attended. As I took notes in my thick spiral-ringed notebook, I noted that Mrs. Morgan looked very much like the picture of George Washington hanging to her right: same skin tone, same hairstyle.

The bell rang, and I ran down the hall to French class, distinguished by the one male teacher in the whole school, Monsieur Fraises. Our special pencil for French class had a blue end and a red end. We were to put a blue check next to our correct workbook answers (that day’s lesson was all about the subjunctive) and a red X next to wrong answers. I do not boast, but I got most of them right every time, even though the class just didn’t hold my interest. I turned to examine the huge poster on the wall of Mont St. Michel and dreamed, as I often dreamed in class, of going there someday and eating coquilles St. Jacques, which I’d read about in books. (I finally did both!) In English class my teacher returned our papers on Keats, and they ran red with her comments. I had written that paper all at once, while I was talking to friends on my pink princess phone with the distinctive ring. I always got a minus mark on my papers, and I would ask myself, why try harder? What good would that do?

Lest I be too hard on my alma mater, I know I got a good education. Some of what I learned there came to play a role in my education later—especially when I studied English and more English and more English in college and graduate school. The annotations in my Hamlet and my Palgrave’s Odes and Lyrics began to make sense. I learned to love it all, and the study and teaching of English became my passion and profession.

But as I read through this issue of the Caller, I have to ask myself: Was I the unit of consideration in my South Carolina school, as is our philosophy at Catlin Gabel? I have to answer no—because I cannot think of one single time I was uniquely led or taught by one of my teachers. I learned the material because I was attentive and loved the books, the grammar, the orderliness, the femaleness, and the beauty of the school, and the sense that learning something was an extraordinary thing. Certain themes thread through this issue, which focuses on how we live up to our philosophy in the ways we teach and regard the children who move through our classrooms. Teachers break down the content for students, using their knowledge of how the brain works and how to approach subjects so the material makes sense for each student. We see here 3rd graders being taught as individuals in ways that work for them. Our libraries are troves of information and centers for contemplation and expansive thought, and librarians are the key to unlocking that information. Colleges are selected by students, with the help of college counselors, because they are the next home, not the place “to be.” Our learning specialists explore with students the ways they learn best. And although we haven’t mentioned them much here, our counselors—George Thompson ’66, Kristin Ogard, and Jonathan Weedman—provide additional support to our students, and teach them to care for one another in programs such as Peer Helpers.

When I look back at my young self as a student, I am proud of my own education. In contrast, however, I have come to see the depth and breadth of what Catlin Gabel students, from preschool through 12th grade, both give and receive as they spend their days learning—and I am even prouder of that.