We’re eager for the next step in academia. Be it preschool to college; the application process is surprisingly similar. We’ve done our research and filled endless forms and waited…
Now our patience (and hard work) has paid off. We’ve heard back. We’re “in” and we’re excited… except that we didn’t know if you’d like us as much as we liked you and so we applied near and far. Now it looks like lots of places think we’re a fit. Cool.
Now it’s our turn to choose.
How do we do that?
We return for a visit. We attend open houses. We listen to your spiel. We ask questions. And invariably somebody asks THE question. The one that makes me cringe. The one that makes me silently pray that you won’t answer it. This time. But, of course, you do, and it does not go well. And I cringe for you.
Because the question we all want to ask is, “How does your school/major/culture compare to the school across town?” We want to know how you stack up and whether you’ll be a good fit for us and how you differ from the OTHER GUYS.
And the reason I cringe is that you can’t answer it without throwing shade. Without putting down the other guys, if only in jest. Without trying to convince me that you’re better than them.
But here’s what I’ve learned from many years of open houses... This question is impossible to answer. It’s as though you’ve been asked to compare your beloved firstborn to some stranger down the street.
How can you be objective? You can’t. And even if you could be objective, how could you invest the amount of time needed to deeply acquaint yourself to another’s attributes and quirks? You can’t. It’s not a reasonable question for you to answer… but the people asking it don’t seem to realize this. They’re clouded by anxiety. That’s understandable. A lot is on the line.
As a parent of a prospective student, and then a teacher hosting school open houses, I’ve wrestled with this question from both sides. My colleagues and I finally concluded that our best recourse was to politely decline to answer. In doing so, we’d challenge the questioner to devise a list. Then they could pose the same questions to each school in turn. And through this approach, they’d have some means by which to judge.
Their questions would embody what they saw as necessary. They could focus on the issues they valued and skip the rest.
I'm no longer in the classroom, but am writing curriculum full time. And even though my open-house days are behind me, I still get the question. "How does your curriculum compare to this other one?"
But the question no longer scares me and doesn’t make me cringe. I help the person come to see that the only curriculum I can discuss is mine. It’s the only one I know with this depth of understanding. I can’t compare it to others because I don’t know them well enough to do that and I’d be doing us both a disservice to try.
But I am thrilled to answer any question you can think of regarding my curriculum. I love discussing it… almost as much as I love talking about my firstborn ;)