There was more behind the inception of Birchwood School of Hawken than the establishment of another elementary and middle school. Not even superior academic programming was our goal. Our purpose had moral underpinnings. Our aspiration was to create an educational institution that could mirror our values about achievement, character and responsibility. We drew upon our Western heritage (rooted in early Greek philosophy), Judeo-Christian ethics, strands of a classical liberal education, and biographical histories. This background informed our view of human nature and human development and consequently shaped our vision for the education of our children, and how that vision could be supported through Birchwood School of Hawken.
Our beliefs animated our educational decisions in curriculum and administration. During the over 30 years since our founding, as the school embraced a culturally diverse population, we found that many of our beliefs had corollaries among a wide range of cultures. There has been continual and broad corroboration about educational and child development issues from our Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Jewish, and Christian friends.
We hold that each child intrinsically possesses two potentialities: one to do what is good and one to do what is bad. Education cultivates the good and mitigates the bad. It plays a part in forming good habits and minimizing bad habits. For our purposes, we define “good” by using the ancient Greek notion of virtue, specifically the cardinal virtues. Bad behavior is in contrast to good. Furthermore, we contend that the cultivation of virtue ought to commence at the “dawning of reason,” an age that can vary from three years to seven years, when children are most formative and when instruction and training have their most profound effect. This view finds significant cross-cultural support.
Early cultivation of virtue has a cumulative effect. The benefits of good habits, formed early, unfold year-after-year, accumulating to a child’s profit. On the contrary, bad habits and bad attitudes can also form early. Their effects also accumulate, not only to the detriment of the child but also as a barrier to developing good habits. We recognize that anyone, at any point in life, can commit themselves to establishing habits of virtue. However we also believe that delaying this effort creates additional challenges. Often bad habits have to be undone before good habits can be formed. The task is twice as hard.
We knew our aspiration to shape our children’s character was a daunting challenge: for us and for our children. Parents would need unwavering commitment and patience. They would impose expectations and limitations necessary to create good habits and define children’s character. In this setting, we knew intuitively we had to double our efforts of love and support. High expectations require an environment of understanding and compassion. If we hoped to push our children to reach their highest potential, we had to provide our children with extraordinary support. We held that expectations, whether for academics or for character, are not only challenging but also intimidating. Sometimes children will not succeed. They may grow weary and want to quit. An environment expecting high academic expectations and demanding discipline for character development can foster psychological hesitation and fear because there is risk. This psychological insecurity must be met with love, kindness, support, and encouragement.
We understood that if Birchwood was to maintain some of the highest academic standards in Ohio, if it was to be a place to learn good habits, it must also provide a family-like atmosphere, filled with psychological security and support. All of the children, and their parents, should come to discover through experience that their teachers not only expect superior performance, but their teachers also love them, care for them, and will do whatever is necessary to ensure their progress.
To offer a greater understanding of the thoughts, ideas and aspirations that came together to develop Birchwood’s mission co-founder and head of school, Charles Debelak, authored “Creating Mission: Ten Decisions That Framed Birchwood School” which is available for purchase on Amazon.com.