John Littleford Defines Independent School Excellence

"Great schools are led by great leaders who hire great teachers, who have a magical ability to ask children to give every single bit of the God-given talent that they've inherited and grown up with, without asking more of them than they can possibly get. In other words, that delicate tightrope between saying I know you can do it, versus making them feel they can do it when they can't, and thereby damaging their confidence for the rest of their lives. That delicate balance is what a great school is all about."

- John Littleford

In late August, TAS was fortunate to welcome back world-renowned independent school consultant Mr. John Littleford. Mr. Littleford, whose extensive client list includes many of the top independent and international schools in the world, has been visiting Taipei American School for over 27 years. This year he focused his presentation on the need to define "excellence" in the world of the great independent schools. Reminding his audience that while many public schools can be good, those who attend the finest independent schools have a myriad of advantages. He believes Taipei American School, given its history and its mission, combines the best of American independent schools, public schools, and international schools, and results in a unique definition of what an excellent independent school can and should look like.

Littleford is a firm believer in the power of independent schools, having attended both public and private schools as a student himself. The difference between the two types of schools, to him, is that truly great independent schools make students feel valued: "no matter how small you are, or how athletically poor you are, [they teach students] that you can do anything you set your mind to." With missions that fuse academics, extra-curriculars, athletics, and character development in radically intentional ways, the schools he believes best serve students owe their greatness to the ability to make students feel valued, cared for, and recognized.

Another important part of his discussion of excellence rested on the need for a school community to understand the mission of the School, be sure it is reflective of what the majority of families seek, and then take steps to support retaining institutional memory. To Littleford, great schools have both "long term leadership" and "consistency of mission," and those two things are interrelated. When crucial positions of school leadership have little turnover, schools flourish due to the symbiotic energy among the leaders as they enact the school's mission—one for present day community and one for the future generation of students. Citing years of research, he noted that when a school has to "constantly redefine the same issues," it is inherently regressing and not progressing in its mission. Institutional memory, consistency and continuity of leadership, and strong administrative and Board partnerships are hallmarks of the more successful schools.

Lastly, Littleford suggested that an independent school can look to its teachers to figure out whether it meets his definition of excellence: "Did you ever have a teacher who made a positive and dramatic impact on your life?" Most people will answer yes to at least one teacher. It is the responsibility of those who recruit teachers to assure that every student will one day be able to say "Yes, I remember that teacher, and he or she made a big difference in my life." If TAS is to continue to pursue excellence, always supporting and nurturing those memorable, impactful teachers is essential.