11 Elements that Constitute a Strong Independent School

11 Elements that Constitute a Strong Independent School

By John O’Brien, President of the Academy of Notre Dame

Serving in the field of education as a teacher, administrator, and coach for more than three decades has been a continually inspiring as well as tremendously rewarding experience for me.  My varied experiences with the independent school world have allowed me to grow significantly in both personal and professional ways and have also helped strengthen my commitment to the welfare of children and to independent school education. Through my experience working with both day and boarding schools, I have identified eleven elements that constitute a strong independent school:

  1. Developing Self-Confidence
  2. Encouraging Risk-Taking
  3. Providing Collaborative Problem-Solving Opportunities
  4. Providing Stimulation
  5. Providing Challenge
  6. Exposing Different Modes of Thinking
  7. Inquiry-Based Learning
  8. Nurtures the Whole Person
  9. Faculty that Embrace Student-Centered Approach
  10. Demonstrating Integrity
  11. Instilling a Global Mindset

Self-Confidence, Risk-Taking, Problem Solving

I have long believed that a strong independent school program must focus its energies on developing self-confidence and encouraging risk-taking and collaborative approaches to problem solving in and for its students.  Continued emphasis in these areas is vital to a student’s success in school, and the foundation work must begin as early as possible, both in school as well as at home.  Learning is a complex process that results from the student’s own thinking as well as from his or her real life experiences, and then proceeds according to each student’s individual timetable for growth and development.  Teachers, therefore, have a responsibility to stimulate learning in all developmental areas and to strengthen a student’s self-esteem and positive feelings toward learning.  A secure and effective school embraces and cultivates this philosophy. 

Stimulation, Challenge and Thinking Modes

My experiences as an Elementary, Middle, and Upper School educator have allowed me to appreciate a diversity of elements that contribute to a dynamic school program.  Students thrive in an atmosphere that stimulates them (through a variety of activities), challenges them, exposes them to different modes of thinking (as evidenced in the various disciplines), and allows them to make discoveries and see connections - connections among the academic disciplines and connections between school and life outside of school.  Teachers who are both specialists in their subjects and well trained educators promote this connection-making by prompting ideas, questions, and information from students, as opposed to just providing them with facts and figures to memorize.  Educators have a special opportunity as well as a pedagogical obligation to commit to this model of inquiry-based teaching and learning. 

The Whole Person Approach

A successful school program also nurtures the development of the whole student; spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, morally, and physically.  In addition to encouraging curiosity and a love for the challenge of learning, a well-rounded program advances the development of individual character (especially honesty and integrity), fosters an appreciation for diversity of thought, background, race, culture, and socio-economic standing, and engenders respect for the needs, rights and beliefs of others.  The school community has an added responsibility for teaching students to appreciate and to respect one’s own body, to enjoy physical activity, and to develop the skills necessary to participate in various athletic endeavors. 

The Student-Centered Faculty

Additionally, a thriving school is one filled with teachers who are among other things articulate, approachable, perceptive, humane, and who possess good humor.  Their commitment to being part of a student-centered program in a warm and supportive family-focused environment is central to a strong school’s philosophy.  They will work in partnership with equally committed parents and will welcome and value the involvement of parents in the educational process.  A school is a community, and as such all of its members must continually seek ways to strengthen it through ongoing collaboration and the creation of a shared vision. 


My experiences have drawn me to the firm belief that along with working toward the above goals, it is essential that a school community expect and command integrity of all its members.  Students, parents, and faculty must also be resolutely committed to the common ideal of gaining from and contributing to both the school community and the greater global community.  Risk taking and creative approaches to problem solving must be encouraged and teamwork stressed, both on the athletic field as well as in the classroom. 

Global Mindset

The face of education in America and elsewhere is changing rapidly as the world becomes more and more of a global community. Globalization has made it abundantly clear that schools and the students and teachers in the 21st century will need to continue to focus less on memorization of facts that are unconnected and more on studying information in ways that promote deeper critical thinking (analysis and synthesis) and creative, innovative, and collaborative approaches to problem solving. Developing a true global mindset and an understanding and appreciation for other cultures and beliefs will become increasingly important for students.  More inclusion in the curriculum of both non Western history and world language study will also be necessary in American schools, as English is no longer the most widely spoken language on the planet.  Additionally, technology has become part of the fabric of education, and schools must acknowledge their pedagogical obligation to not only embrace it and remain current with the latest practices and applications, but to also address the ethical and responsible use of technology by students. Today’s students are being educated for jobs that do not yet exist, but the mastery of the previously mentioned core skills and abilities will be vital to students’ successes in whatever careers they choose. 

Here at NDA

At NDA, we dedicate ourselves to following the aforementioned elements and practices on behalf of all of our students.   We are also not content to rest on our laurels, as we continually seek ways to enhance our overall program and help prepare our students for the next steps in their educational and life journeys.