Just outside my office door I overhear the next young couple whispering to one another. They have arrived early, sharply dressed as if for an employment interview, and are nervously practicing their rehearsed answers as they await their appointment. It is January, and the height of New York City’s private school admissions season.
In a recent TweetChat, a colleague touched on the hype and often hysteria of private school admissions, questioning what our roles and responsibilities as administrators should be in facilitating this process for the parents in our schools, and where we need to draw the line as professionals.
Speaking from the other side of the interview desk, it is time for everyone to stop and breathe. It is time for we the educators, to take the focus off adding to the hype, off adding to the air of exclusivity. Parents going through this process for the first time do a very good job of stressing themselves out. They do not need our help. Yes, there will be open houses and tours to attend. There will be admissions interviews and play dates to go on. There may even be essays and references to submit, but as the all-important decision date looms, we owe it to the parents and the children in our care to help them see past the stress to the bigger picture.
The pressure that families express to me year after year over admissions is both astounding and heartbreaking. I will never forget, about 15 years ago, a mom requested a meeting with me because her two-year-old son had bitten a classmate. As I began to explain that this is not unusual behavior for a child still developing oral language and that there were plenty of ways to mediate, she cut me off. She burst into tears, literally got down on her knees and begged me "not to put it on his permanent record" (a permanent record for a two-year-old?) When I asked her to please explain, she sobbed that if I put his biting incident on his "permanent record", her son would "never get into Harvard."
Of course all parents naturally want what is best for children but this example alone illustrates just how much this pressure has taken on a life of its own. So much so, that there are books written about it, blogs dedicated to it, study groups, practice tests, and yes, even tutors for one-year-olds. These exact things have made the entire process unpleasant, unrealistic, and unnecessarily myopic.
The all-too-often heard phrase “You can never get a space in that school” is a flat-out lie. Haphazardly quoted statistics about an almost completely unpredictable process achieve nothing more than instilling unnecessary fear for the families who are in the thick of it. Every school has a graduating class. Every school has children from a lower grade who then move up to the next level. The only absolute in the entire process is that every school has some space. That is just how it works. It is true that there are siblings, alumnae, and legacies to contend with. It is true that parents may not get their first choice, but every school has room for some incoming children. If we didn’t, we would not be in business. It is time for parents to stop worrying about being prepped with the right answers and start worrying about asking the right questions to find the right fit for their child and for their family. Finding a school isn’t about making or not making the cut. It is about starting a relationship and as the experts, it is our ethical responsibility to communicate that.
I recently had the pleasure of a hallway chat with one of our soon-to-be-graduating students, Allie, after attending a tour of a potential Kindergarten. When I asked how it went, she replied: "I liked it. I felt happy there."
Allie nailed it in her four-year-old summation. With any relationship, what matters most in the end is that everyone involved is happy. Preschool is like going steady for the next three to four years. Elementary school is a twelve year-long engagement. That's it.
Put down the study-books and pick up more story books. Parents need to hear from us that it is important to cuddle up and read with your daughter while she still wants you to. Build a model with your son before all he is interested in are the keys to the real car. Flash card drills, extra-curricular Mandarin lessons, and Kindergarten interview coaches, are not going to change the harsh reality of private school admissions. It has not changed for decades. What can make a difference to the whole process is us, the ones sitting behind the interview desk. No young mother should ever find herself weeping on the floor of the Headmaster's office and as compassionate professionals, we need to collectively speak up and change the focus.
We have failed as educators if the one lesson we miss out on teaching our parents and children is to enjoy one another today. And tomorrow, when they head to their next interview, we need to send them off with Allie's wisdom in mind: Forget Harvard and go find Happy.