March 12, 2011

School, Leadership, and the Power of One Man's Words

Having lived as an expat family in South Africa for a year, we have been very happy with our choice of school. Whereas I've previously written about the pros and cons of South African schools versus international ones, today I just want to sing the praise of our kids' school here in Johannesburg, Dainfern College.

It's not so much a matter of South African versus International, IB vs Matric, or even Private vs Public (though it does probably help if you're not so much constrained by test scores and government mandates). Like in any successful organization, it's a matter of good leadership, and Dainfern College has plenty of that.

Our kids seem to have more of a purpose, sort of a glimpse into the future and what they want to become. I've never before had such a strong sense of why we're sending our kids to school, and it doesn't actually have much to do with academics. Yes, you send your kids to school because that's what's done, but here I actually want my kids to go to this particular school and can't wait to see how they come home each day and how they've grown in subtle ways. And the funny thing is, they are more relaxed than ever before, with less stress and more free time.

Founder's Day 2010 at Dainfern College

How is this possible? I'm sure there are many reasons, like a powerful vision for the future versus a mechanical adherence to curriculum, a sense of community between the prep school and the high school, the focus on well-rounded students and life skills, the involvement of the headmasters who are walking the grounds every day, encouraging the students, all of whom they know by name, etc. etc. But to me what stands out most in terms of bringing it all together are the weekly assemblies and other occasions where the entire school is addressed.

We don't go to church very often, but a Dainfern College assembly always has me walking home with a new sense of purpose and satisfaction, like you would after a good sermon. Whether a motivational speaker is brought in or the kids perform a skit, there's always something to make you feel good, some message to reflect upon, and lots of singing. Most often it will be Mr. Webb, the senior prep headmaster, telling you a story that will make you laugh or cry but most certainly reflect upon a value like working hard, being kind, or not giving up. And, unlike church, you will not drift off, because he is talking about your kids, the most interesting topic on the planet to any parent. Assemblies are completely optional for parents, of course, but you'll find yourself wanting to go to more rather than less if you're a parent at our school (unless you get put on the spot by the headmaster and must come up with something you're thankful for in front of 400 people).

And the messages are getting through to the children. Last week Tuesday, the eve before the start of Lent, Impatience was talking about what she wanted to give up for the next six weeks. Mind you, our family of one Catholic and five Lutherans has never before observed Lent, though we have talked about maybe someday perhaps wanting to try it, at a convenient time. But Impatience, it turns out, had listened intently to Mr. Webb at assembly that morning, who had talked about the idea of Lent, probably not so much in a religious sense but from the perspective of appreciating what we have (I wasn't actually there but I can hear it in my mind). By the end of dinner, our little 10-year old girl had convinced a teenage brother to give up Xbox and a father (by name of Noisette!) to give up chocolate, all in all six of us who would give up something dear to us. I'm not claiming we'll all be successful, but so far we've mastered four days.

If one man's words can change six people's behavior for at least four days, surely they have the power to change the world.

Dainfern College - beautiful grounds

Sports at Dainfern College

Interhouse Swim Gala 2011


For more information on Dainfern College, also see this article in Independent Education.