Here’s something I love about my new school. The vast majority of the students come to school with a joyful spirit. Take today, for example. On the last Friday before exams begin next week, after a week of slogging through final tests and papers, the upper school students organized a round of Christmas karaoke during break. It was the brainchild of the students, the students organized it, and the students are – as I write this – supervising it. Teachers are walking through the hallway, but there’s really very little oversight because it’s honestly not necessary. The students do an excellent job of policing themselves. (When I walked through a few minutes ago, I got a round of applause for who knows what reason! Ha!)
Listening to the students sing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and watching them dance with each other dressed in their “tacky Christmas” sweaters, I am struck by the amount of joy and school spirit amongst the student body, and I wonder how it came to be this way. This is not the way every school operates, but it is the way schools should operate, I think. How did this school get this way?
Here’s my tentative answer: joy and school spirit come out of the proper balance between student freedom and student responsibility. Students who are restricted too much, who are subject to too many unnecessary rules, tend to rebel and push the boundaries as much as possible. Students also tend not to grow up and take responsibility if someone is always taking the responsibility for them. At my school, the students have more freedom than other schools. They do not need hall passes, they do not have to be in a specific location during free time such as lunch, and they are free to organize and decorate the school for pep rallies and holidays freely among other student-led activities. For instance, all the indoor Christmas decorating that you see around my school right now was done by students over the course of about a week. Students during their free time made Christmas garland out of construction paper that they hung throughout the halls, each day the garland getting just a little longer. The Christmas tree in the main entry features homemade ornaments of seniors with their kindergarten buddies. If the students hadn’t bothered to decorate, no one else would have in their stead.
While some would argue the freedom they have is a recipe for disaster, surprisingly that freedom actually increases their responsibility. The school culture is such that they realize that no one is going to do the work for them. No one is going to make sure they didn’t miss crucial information because they chose to go to the bathroom or their locker during class. No one is going to make the school festive during the holidays unless they do it themselves. No one is going to make sure they are using their free time in substantive ways. If they want to goof off, so be it, but grace will not be given if they then fail their test as a result.
I know that we live in an age when security is of paramount concern to many administrators, but there comes a time when you have to believe you’ve done all you can to make sure students are safe and believe that God will take care of the rest. And truly, no matter how many security measures we put in place, there’s always going to be a way for someone to cause harm if he wishes. In placing so many restrictions on students, even if we have the very best intentions for those restrictions, there are unfortunate tradeoffs. The level of student freedom decreases and so does the level of student responsibility as a result. If I am attempting to prepare my high school students for college and the wider world, increasing the level of student responsibility also has to be of paramount concern.
The tradeoff of fewer safety measures and rules for more freedom and responsibility among the student body directly results in more joy and school spirit as far as I can tell. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.