Since this month’s US section is on Teaching Children, I thought I’d put a few questions to Don Wells, the 44-year-old principal of the Carolina Friends School, highly regarded as one of the best schools in the country.

Founded in 1963, the Friends School’s main campus is in the country between Durham and Chapel Hill. Although set up by the Quakers, it welcomes children of all backgrounds. There are 400 students enrolled from kindergarten through high school and about 40 staff members. (The address is Carolina Friends School, Route 1, Box 183, Durham, North Carolina 27705.)

Wells doesn’t use a lot of educational jargon, which I appreciated (why is it that so many educators are windy?), and he’s certainly unlike any principal I ever had. Being sent to his office probably wouldn’t be the end of the world.

— Ed.


SUN: Were you one of those kids who hated the principal? How does it feel to be the principal now?

WELLS: No, I never hated the principal. I went to school in a small coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania in the late forties and fifties. As young people we were reasonably content. We didn’t confront principals.

Students here don’t put me in a traditional powerful role. We are a school. There are rules and we believe in them. Yet, in general, when students have problems, I’ll ask. “What’s going on with you that you choose to break this rule, that you always appear to be on the fringe, constantly challenging?” Most students who are at the limits of the rules in this institution are doing it for pretty understandable reasons.

SUN: Isn’t there such a thing as a problem child?

WELLS: I don’t like the term “problem child.” I think there are children with problems. The label entraps the student, rather than encouraging us to think through what childhood is.

SUN: Would you talk about discipline and permissiveness?

WELLS: I see discipline in schools as largely an effort to help children achieve a greater sense of self-discipline, a greater ability to make decisions and follow through on them.

I think what often goes down as discipline is, in fact, about control — of schools, and children, and environments. An awful lot of the rules and their interpretations and enforcement have to do with how to keep students manageable. And that’s an education in acquiescence to authority rather than a real searching for how to be a responsible citizen. That concerns me a lot, and is one of the reasons I am here. I don’t want to be engaged in that kind of control process.

It’s difficult for adults in the Friends School environment because we need to confront our frailties in self-discipline as well. I don’t think discipline, self-discipline, is learned in school. I think it’s learned throughout life.

SUN: What does the word permissiveness evoke for you?

WELLS: Permissiveness is normally used in a pejorative way to describe an adult who has basically sold out his or her responsibility for the raising of children.

But the issue doesn’t have to be who’s in control and who isn’t. The journey is different from that. Clearly, in this environment, teachers are the adults. We don’t need to give children permission. We need to ferret out what children wish their journey to be — what they really want to do. We’re participants, by virtue of our wisdom or certainly our experience.

SUN: What makes a good teacher, then?

WELLS: (laughs) That’s a monstrous question. I think there needs to be an enormous dose of humility in a good teacher. We are in an unusual situation of being older, more experienced, probably verbally more adept, more practiced in reasoning — all those kinds of things — bigger, stronger in what is largely a child’s environment. And hence, we are able to feed our ego in sometimes counterproductive ways. So humility helps a lot.

We need to be extraordinarily perceptive listeners and observers. The children are our clients and we’re in business; we are teachers because of the children. I’m talking about the ability, in so far as possible, to cleanse our agendas and to hear what someone is saying to us.

A good teacher must be an avid learner, kind of thrilled with the prospect. In many schools, teachers become dispensers of what they know, and have gotten out of the thrill, the challenge, the fear. There’s a vulnerability in not knowing what you’re doing, in feeling like a jerk for not knowing or because you can’t understand. Put yourself in the role of the learner. You’re up against something that was real hard for you to learn, and at that level you can empathize with a child who looks at a bunch of symbols on a page and someone says, “That’s the word ‘jump.’ ”

A good teacher is tough in the sense that it’s hard, hard work to be open in the forum of ruthless inquiry. Children given the freedom to be are merciless in that they have so many questions and don’t know when you’ve probably had it.

You need to be able to look a kid straight in the eye and say, “You’re botching it. Sure I care. That’s why I’m telling you. How can I help you turn that around?”

Finally, you have to have a real belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile.

SUN: These qualities are all found only in rare people. There is a growing home-schooling movement in part motivated by the awareness that there aren’t too many of these ideal teachers around. What about home schooling?

WELLS: It’s hard to generalize. Some parents may do better than some institutions, but the experience of living as a social being is a very big part of schooling. Diverse points of view, the experience of friends and of adult teachers who are not your parents is important. If I were looking at home schooling, I would ask how I would get those experiences for my child. There is no question that the schools can often provide the facilities and diversities of expertise that a particular family cannot. But again, that’s relative. This is a long life. I have to remember when I’m laboring earnestly with a 13-year-old trying to learn something, that the child will probably have another 60 years to learn that. I might add that there are absolutely no guarantees that a child in the midst of the socialness of a school will end up as a reasonably healthy social being, when in fact he may end up as a radical deviant because of that experience. The schooling of each child is a very important matter and how that should be done is almost a case-by-case study.

SUN: How have you changed during your last fifteen years at the Friends School?

WELLS: I have become less arrogant, less glib. I’ve needed to control less. I’ve become more open to multiple answers to particular situations. I’ve become more aware of my emotions and needs. I’ve become less “Super Don” — imagining I can do anything.

I’ve become happier — more childlike and less of an adult. I’ve become in many ways a more rigorously tougher thinker because I allow myself to process a much wider reality. I’ve become more accepting of strategic limits. And hence I cannot meet everybody’s needs and mine; I need to make some judgment calls and own my decisions. I’ve become less earnest about the future and more attuned to the present. And I feel a deepening of my commitment to make the world a better place for everyone.

SUN: The metaphor of light is important to the Quakers. You talk about many qualities of light and love, but what about the dark in ourselves?

WELLS: I can’t own myself until I own my dark side. I can’t love anyone deeply unless I own the wholeness of myself.

I think that I held at bay the dark sides of myself — my selfishness, ego needs, arrogance, dislikes, anger, and my potential to evoke those kinds of things in others — with great adeptness. The more I am in an environment where I don’t feel fear, where I feel accepted, where all my warts are out, the more I can explore those, share those, admit those. I think we help students do that by owning ourselves. I see no short cuts.

SUN: Is there anything else you’d like to say about teaching children?

WELLS: I once gave a writing class the assignment of going on a walk and then writing what meant the most to them about the experience. That’s all. Everyone but one boy began writing away. He just sat, perplexed, obviously thinking about the question for 25 or 30 minutes. At the end of the class I asked for the papers. He handed his in and I asked him to wait for a minute. He seemed discouraged. “Yeah, man, sure.” Like here it comes. And I said to him, “I don’t know what’s on any of the other papers. It might be some wonderful stuff. I’m prone to believe, however, that during the last half hour you have worked harder than any of the other people on this assignment because I watched you labor and I want you to know that’s absolutely legitimate as I see it. And some day you might want to tell me what you’ve come up with.” It was an affirmation that I think meant a substantive change in that person’s life.

You have to be exceedingly sensitive and open to those pregnant moments when you can a affirm someone’s extraordinary effort. And for some people, at some times, the extraordinary effort is not the obvious. For a given child, sitting in a class one day without anger is an extraordinary effort. How can I be attuned to that so I can say, “Here’s what I think you’ve just done. Here’s what I think I’ve just noticed. Well done.” And that brilliant flash of, “Wow! Someone saw what was going on.” These are the moments, I think, when people make great leaps.