We have been provided with an excellent opportunity to think about the role of a school in a young person’s life and to consider the essential elements parents should look for in a school. In my years as a leader in the education of young women, I have loved talking with parents about their dreams for their daughters. Their convictions have educated, challenged and inspired me. Over the years, my experience has taught me that there are seven essential questions parents should ask when choosing a school for their daughter. These questions may surprise you, but I hope they spur good conversations and inspire your dreams for your daughter.
1) Who do I really want my daughter to be?
You need to start by thinking very early on about what kind of woman you want your daughter to be. Not to do, but who you want her to be. You should also be confident that whether she becomes that woman you visualize or not is not a matter of wishful thinking. There is a path. Nothing involving free human beings is automatic, of course, but so much is possible with the right direction and guidance. That is the task of education, and education always implies a concept of the subject to be educated.
Ask yourself: What’s important in life? I often hear, “I just want my daughter to be happy.” This is good, but you need to think about the nature of happiness. If we look quickly at Aristotle, we see that happiness is not just a matter of fleeting pleasure, but of authentic human flourishing, a kind of fullness in the exercise of human capacities that he called "virtue."
You will want to ask yourself if you hope your daughter will be a person of faith, someone for whom God makes a difference in her real life. This is part of the understanding of the human person that drives a school.
2) Will this school actually help her become that person?
Studies show that stable happiness is achieved through virtue, a good part of which is learning to master oneself for the sake of a greater good. Research shows that the single most important determinant in whether a young person will go on to live a fulfilled, successful life is his or her education in self-control.
You should know if the school you are choosing for your daughter is one that values and teaches virtues and how they actually do that. You should look at whether the school promotes more than material goods as constituent of a happy life. Try to find out the intangibles of the schools you are researching. They are there, even if they are implicit, because one cannot educate without them.
The view of religion and faith is essential in your choice of school. It will influence your daughter deeply in these formative years and shape her for the rest of her life. More important than how it is expressed in the school’s website, it is crucial to know how the people in the school live this. And this ties in with my next point.
3) What will she absorb by example - the most powerful teacher?
The best kind of learning comes to us without instruction. You have to see it to imitate it. It seeps in through lived example. In a great school, this kind of learning happens all the time.
The faculty of the school you choose for your daughter will spend an inordinate amount of time with her. They will have a great deal of influence on her in many ways, many of them indirectly, by what they say or don’t say, the way they dress, the tone of voice. At least one or two may become for her a model of life to imitate.
The people in a school create the culture that your daughter will imbibe on a daily basis. If it is positive, she will likely be moved to act more positively herself. This is what is called elevation in the terms of positive psychology. It is an emotion elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of remarkable moral goodness. It motivates people to act more virtuously themselves.
Parents should look at the kind of example the teachers in a school are modeling for their daughters day in and day out.
4) Will she gain a noble work ethic?
A key element parents should look for is the school’s attitude towards work. Is a solid work ethic championed at the school? Is there an underlying appreciation for the privilege of study, or is there an attitude of entitlement?
I believe this is a fundamental and a deeply philosophical stance that relates to the end goal discussed above. If we hold as a school that God created the world and that we are his children called to work and love in this reality, we will be moved to work very hard, but gratefully, with an outlook of service. It is a religious attitude towards creation and work, with God and others in the center. Lacking this, we will put something or someone else at the center, and unfortunately that usually means ourselves and our pride. This creates a school in which competition and selfishness mar the joy of learning and academic success and fear of failing can paralyze and inhibit creativity and risk-taking. It creates a school in which the students are accomplished, professional, but it is not clear that they leave with any strong or clear sense that they know who they are.
These attitudes are planted deeply in these formative years. It is important to see if the school imparts a noble attitude toward work because this will shape your daughter for life. She will value all work as good and worthy if she sees it from the attitude of a daughter of God. She will be happy whether she is cooking for her family or sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. She will know not only how to think but how that thinking can serve others and bring goodness and joy into lives.
5) Will she be taught to value true friendship?
Our early years shape our very definition of friendship. A great school teaches that friendship is a highly valued human reality - a great treasure that one has to work hard to attain. Each of us has a responsibility to learn how to be a good friend. It is actually by seeking to be a good friend that we find one. This is all part of the focus on virtue and, ultimately, on the school’s most important values. It is important for parents to try to understand if a school values friendship and what kind of friendships it fosters. How is friendship discussed? What models of friendship does it share in literature and history classes? How do graduates of the school speak about their friendships? Are the teachers good friends with each other?
6) Do I even have a choice?
You may think you don’t have a choice in your daughter’s education because of financial constraints. Having worked in independent schools for most of my professional career, I can tell you that the money is there for those who want it badly enough. A great school's admissions process is need-blind. In our school’s case, we seek students and families who want what we offer and we give very generous amounts of financial assistance, gladly. I think this is true of many, if not all independent schools.
7) Is this really my choice to make?
Some parents, especially those of middle and high school girls, want their daughter to make the decision about school. This is understandable. However, it is the responsibility of mature adults to guide the young so they learn how to make good choices and thus how to grow in the good use of freedom. Freedom is a gift that is best used when it is in service of the good. To be “free” to make a bad choice is not beneficial, especially when one is still young and developing.
What is key is that we not stand by and let young people make bad or less good choices in areas that will leave a deep mark such as the choice of school, the choice of friends or types of entertainment, the choice of a boyfriend, etc.
Choosing a great school for your daughter is the best legacy you can give her. It deserves time, study, and prayer. And it is an act of leadership. Her education will form her for life, one way or another, and as parents you have the responsibility to ensure that it gives her what she needs to live a happy, virtuous life. And that, dear parents, is your choice to make.
Mary T. Ortiz holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University, and B.A. degrees in both English and German from Bowdoin College. She has been dedicated to the education of young women for over 25 years and has been the Head of Oakcrest School since 2012.