Education Feature: Purposeful Work Today for Tomorrow’s Leaders

By Molly King

It’s September—time for all of us to go back to school or work. One of my favorite moments while raising our kids was watching my husband zigzag across the yard pushing the lawn mower while our then five-year-old son Josh, proudly followed the path with his multicolored toy mower. Dad was working hard, and so was Josh.

It reminded me of an important discussion we had in a graduate school seminar. Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, MacArthur Fellow and professor of sociology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, explained to us that children understand from an early age that adults engage in work both personally and professionally and therefore, children too want to feel that they are capable of engaging with authentic work. It fuels their sense of purpose. School is their work and more than any dimension of their childhood, it is their place and their opportunity to develop their work ethic, their independence, their capacity to interact with others, and of course, their academic skills.

The Millennial generation of parents is sometimes accused of seeing their children’s school experiences as an extension of their own resumes. This can lead to overprotectiveness or even a management style of parenting, seeking to leverage opportunities for the sake of advantage rather than allowing their children the necessary space that school provides to develop a well-grounded sense of oneself. Pushing for a trophy at every turn—that “everyone is a winner” mentality—doesn’t ring true to kids. Children and young people know when they are being authentically challenged, and they relish it.

The value of work isn’t a new notion at Greenwich Academy. Headmistress Ruth West Campbell, who served from 1925-1955, articulated this concept with her quintessentially British sensibility when interviewed by a local newspaper in 1936. She said, “The standards of the school require real work. We want the girls to come to grips with things!”

When we are being our best parental selves, that’s what we all want, too. We want our kids to be able to come to grips with things. We want them to have the genuine confidence, grittiness, independence, and sense of purpose that fortifies them and gives them the requisite skills to move through life’s inevitable challenges. School provides those challenges in developmentally appropriate ways and motivates and inspires students to work hard and be aspirational in their learning and growth. 

These values are fundamental to the GA experience. As just one example, every summer since Hurricane Katrina, rising seniors and faculty volunteer for a full week’s worth of mixing, lugging, and hammering at a Habitat for Humanity site—all in the unrelenting New Orleans sun. As Head of Upper School Tom Sullivan says, “It’s our most popular and enduring trip. Not a shred of it is expensive or flashy, but after a hard day’s work, the simple meals couldn’t taste better.” In short, it’s real work! 

And ideally, the value of work should also be promoted at home so don’t be afraid to ask! Whether it’s helping to clean up, make dinner, care for a younger sibling, or reach out to a grandparent, purposeful contributions strongly correlate with a child’s self-esteem and helps to develop young people and adults who are the problem-solving leaders that know how to “come to grips with things.” Isn’t that what we are all seeking to do—raise and educate tomorrow’s problem-solvers and leaders? What a wonderful shared goal for our children. So here’s to getting back to work together this September and onward to a great school year ahead for all.

Molly King is the head of school at Greenwich Academy and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bowdoin College and a Masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.