“Discipline without dialogue is crowd control.” My former boss at two different schools gave me these wise words of advice. Phil Riley is a West Point graduate and was a retired colonel when he became superintendent of New York Military Academy in 1993. Phil and another old friend, Steve Lifrak, helped to start the Cadet Counseling Center at the United States Military Academy. Phil and Steve are both masterful counselors and have helped generations of students (and adults) grow and learn through deep meaningful dialogue. Last I checked, Phil was working as a Senior Benefits Liaison for the Wounded Warrior Project. Steve and I recently reconnected on Facebook.
I think both Phil and Steve would be proud of what we do at Pinewood. A lot of the work of our counseling staff and administration falls in one of two categories: student achievement and conflict resolution. It is the latter topic that has captured much of our attention as of late.
Pinewood is a family and family members can treat each other poorly. Sometimes we are rude and insensitive, exercising what could be examples of bullying behavior. We do not have physical fights. Thefts are few and far between. On-campus drug or alcohol use is an anomaly. People violate the Honor Code on occasion by cheating or copying assignments. Most of what we do is manage conflict between people who generally get along.
That is what is tough when dealing with young people. Today’s best friend is tomorrow’s mortal enemy and then best friend again the following day. Social media and technology have only made this more difficult as kids send hateful messages from home in the evening and then see each other the next day during homeroom. Conflict between young people will always exist. A real test of a good school is the staff’s willingness to engage and work towards resolution. Our work is not just triage, trying to simply get kids back to class so we can focus on other issues. We typically dig deeper at Pinewood working to create long-term healing and lasting solutions.
Independent schools, unlike their public school counterparts, should have time and space to do this important work. We do not deal with many of the other issues challenging bigger schools. We typically do not deal with violence, weapons scares, or many of the other ills facing the public schools. We enjoy strong relationships with interested, engaged parents. As independent schools, we are asked to prove our value proposition. In short, the need to prove that our product is worth the price. Beyond the highest quality teachers and extraordinary college admissions results, it is our intent to help children grow through and beyond conflict. I believe that this is an obvious difference, part of the Pinewood difference.
Our approach is to focus on finding solutions and helping young people develop the tools to resolve conflict. John Murphy, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas and author of the book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools shares, “Many students are surprised to learn that they are doing something right, and they become more hopeful and energized when they realize that they already have what it takes to turn things around.” We want to help our young people learn “what it takes”.
I often hear some parents talk about moving their children to bigger public schools to avoid peer conflict or because they want their son or daughter to be exposed to the “real world”. While these goals are noble ones, there is also an associated risk. You see, the real world is sometimes an ugly place and our hardworking counterparts in the public sector may not have the time to truly help your child resolve a conflict with a peer or navigate the complicated college admissions process. As American boxing great Joe Louis said, “You can run, but you cannot hide.” No school community is immune to the phenomenon of gossip or catty behavior.
At Pinewood, we will continue to embrace the opportunity to create deep dialogue when students have conflict. Our mission is clear, “…Pinewood is dedicated to excellence in the intellectual, physical, ethical, and social development of its students, families, faculty and staff.” It is not easy work, but we are fully committed. We do not always get it right, but we are resolved to help all members of our community grow.