Handshakes or Hugs? A School’s Culture Defines Student/Teacher Interaction by Anne Simon

Christina’s daughter and her amazing guitar teacher getting ready for a recital.

What characterizes the quality of a great school is a complex puzzle. The pieces can have different shapes at schools of differing philosophies and missions, but there are a few key ingredients that must be present, regardless of their form. One of the most important elements involves the nature of the relationship between the teachers and the students. It doesn’t matter what grade, discipline, or gender we are talking about – each school’s culture reflects its own way teachers and students interact.


One indicator of the school’s formality (or lack thereof) is set by the way teachers and students address each other. Every school sets a tone regarding how faculty and students relate. There are schools that have quite formal structures that define relationships between faculty and students. Other schools are much less formal and you might observe a student talking to a teacher more like a peer than an authority figure. Both formality and informality are demonstrated by either a practice where students call teachers by their first names or the formal alternative, using sir names for teachers and administrators.


Another defining characteristic is whether there are handshakes or hugs. Observing how teachers and students interact is an important way to determine if the school is a good fit for your family and your child. If you’re offended by students who call their teacher “Jennifer,” than you may want to look at more traditional schools. If you want a school where a teacher kneels down and asks a kid who has fallen down if they are ok, rather than a quick “get up buddy, you’re fine,” you need to look for teacher/student interactions that are nurturing and warm. At the secondary school level, if you want your child to consider their teacher a friend or a “cool” mentor, keep an eye out for this type of less formal student/teacher interaction.


When you’re touring schools or talking to other families about a school, look beyond the classroom to the engagement between teachers and their students. Try to observe informal conversations happening at the school, see where teachers spend time with students on the playground or at lunch, and whether teachers make themselves available informally in their classrooms for homework help or questions. What is important from the parental perspective is to observe these relationships, or talk to families involved in the school you are considering, and try to imagine how your child will feel in various kind of school structures.


Ask yourself if your child will be known, accepted, and included. This goes beyond the name, grade and even interest level of a teacher knowing your kid. You want to feel confident that your child’s teachers will understand your child – strengths, weakness, learning style and the essence of who your child is. When a child feels known and accepted, he/she has the freedom to explore, ask questions, test situations and take risks while feeling confident that she/he has a safety net of understanding that will support these efforts and guide their growth. While this is a subtext of the first issue of safety, this requires a personal level of relationship that empowers students beyond the basic issue of security. Your child can be known, accepted and included in a traditional school where structure and formal teacher/student relationships are the practice or in a less formal school culture. You need to know which type of school culture your child will flourish within. It’s worth noting that the school’s culture will also be reflected in its sports programs, art, music, how discipline is handled and other aspects of the school, not just the time your child spends in class.


We all have challenges that arise, but what we hope for our children is that they are placed in an environment that will deal with inevitable situations and difficult issues in a way that supports the emotional growth of our children and reflects the values that are consistent with those of our families.


The most important aspect of your child’s relationship with their teacher, whether formal or informal, is that your child feels known and accepted.


Anne Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She has more than 30 years of experience as a private school head of school, admissions director and teacher.

5 Reasons You Should (Or Shouldn’t) Cross A School Off Your List

When you’re checking out school websites or touring schools, its easy to get distracted by seemingly important issues and quickly decide a school isn’t for you. Or, you may be willing to ignore an issue that should be a red flag.

Map of LA Private Schools

Here are 5 reasons you should (or shouldn’t) cross a school off your list.

1. Don’t reject the school if the parent leading the tour is rude or not well informed about the school’s curriculum or which math program the is used. This happens and its up to you to excuse this one parent if you like the school. I’m not saying don’t make a mental note of it, but he/she is only one out of many parents at the school. Leading tours is a coveted volunteer gig and there are many reasons why parents are selected for this job. You can always attend another tour and hopefully it will offer different tour guide. Disappointing? Definitely. Dealbreaker? No.


2. Don’t reject the school if the school’s website is outdated or disappointing. Yes, we assume a private school in L.A. should have a great looking, informative website, as well as a Facebook Page and even a Twitter account. Well, that’s not always true. Don’t cross a school off your list just because its website falls short of expectations. There are many reasons for this and as the saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” You might be surprised to learn that some schools are behind the technology curve by a few years. Maybe you can be the volunteer who changes that!


3. Do reject the school if the distance will make you crazy. For kindergarten, if a school is too far from your house, delete it from your list. What is “too far?” This is different for every family, but with young kids a long drive too and from school can be difficult on everyone. Carpools are unpredictable with little ones and its best to assume you’ll be doing a lot of the driving. Try driving to and from the school during morning and afternoon on a weekday.


4. Do reject the school if you are on a tour and you don’t like the way a teacher is speaking to the kids, that’s a red flag. If a teacher seems disinterested or is snappish with the kids, this could end up being your child’s teacher. Of course, there are different teaching styles and educational philosophies, and some schools are stricter than others. But, if you hear or see something that doesn’t sit well with you, it might be because it’s the wrong type of school for your family.


5. Don’t reject the school because you dislike the behavior of families on the tour. Obnoxious questions and over-the-top-bragging are overheard on too many tours to let it influence your decision about a school. Remember, these are parents who are touring, but that doesn’t mean their child will be attending the school.



Touring Schools: Ideal Conditions for Growth and Learning by Anne Simon

Los Angeles private elementary schools have begun their school year.  For parents who are sending their children off to school for the first time (or to a new school) it is a time of hope combined with anxiety. Moms and dads hope that their children will grow and learn as they become happy, well adjusted members of their school community. But, as parents can also be afraid of all the things that come along with the ride. Private school families (and public school parents too) have great expectations and great hopes, and therefore great stress.


It’s a time of year when parents of 3 and 4 year olds who are planning to go the private (independent) school route start to think about where they want their children to be a year from now. There are many questions to address and decisions to make. Tours, coffees, applications, interviews, testing… These are all part of the process that will consume their lives for the next eight months.


I want to take a step back from all the logistics of applying to private schools for a minute and offer some ideas about what parents need to think about as they seek out the best school for their child and family. It is very important to consider these issues in the context of your own family values and circumstances. There is no best answer, best school, or best situation. Each child is unique and each family must decide which school(s) will give that child the best education for him/her and for their family.


I call these ideas Conditions for Growth and Learning. I have tried to distill them from my decades of experience in private/independent schools with different styles and philosophies. This is a rubric to be filled in by parents as they look at the schools. It is hopefully a tool to help determine the best fit for their child and/or family.


They are:

  • Physical and Emotional Safety
  • The Foundation; Challenge and Expectations
  • Setting the Bar Just Right
  • Encouraging Risk Taking
  • Appreciation for the Value of Mistakes and Course Corrections
  • Limit Setting –Padded Walls; and Engagement
  • Being Known and Encouraged to Participate


Look for further embellishment on each of these ideas in the future!



The most basic need that we all have is to feel safe – safe physically and emotionally. This is something that some of us, especially those of us who have lived our lives in relative comfort, take for granted, or at least assume comes with the package of being able to offer opportunities to our children. It is not necessarily so! Sometimes we don’t even recognize that this essential need is absent until we experience some kind of threatening situation. Every child has her/his own unique personality and will grow optimally in an environment that compliments her/him within a foundation of safety. As parents, we spend those first precious years discovering who our children really are and trying to figure out what they need. In choosing a school, it is important to make sure that the environment you are thinking of placing your child into is one that will enfold him/her and offer the security that will allow your child to feel safe enough to attend, explore, and flourish.


There is no “one size fits all” school! Everything about a private elementary school is thought out – its philosophy, mission, structure, and style. These institutions are very intentional. The values of each school flow into the environment and influence every aspect of the school culture. This plays itself out in many ways.


A school that focuses on traditional academic rigor can be intimidating to a student who is has a unique learning style. Intimidation does not allow a child to feel safe to explore and take risks, even ask the questions he/she might need to ask in order to learn. Similarly, a school that focuses on allowing children to choose their own learning experiences all the time might find a student paralyzed by too many choices and not know where to start. This can have an equally damaging result.  There are numerous other examples within this spectrum.


You should assess each school you tour in the context of what you know about your child and your family values. First look at all the written material you can – brochures, websites, reviews, etc. Talk to people you know who have attended the school. When you visit, take a good look at the way the school lives out its mission and philosophy – the tone and style of the school.  Ask yourself if it is an environment that will support and challenge and encourage the development of your child’s best self. If you sense a hint of toxicity for your child, pay attention to it.


The more we know about learning, the more we understand that the first order of business is attention. What makes it possible for a child to attend deeply and engage in the curriculum and the culture of the school? The elements that comprise this ability to attend, and therefore grow and learn, are wrapped up in the nuances of the style, tone and culture of the school as much as it is in the school’s program and curriculum. A sense of safety – security, being known, being cared about – is the basis for any learning that is to take place. Once that benchmark is met, you can look forward to assessing the next condition for growth and learning.


Coming soon:



Anne Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles. She is the former head of Wildwood Elementary School and the former dean of the Crossroads Middle School. Her daughter, a veterinarian, is a graduate of Crossroads. 

Thank you to everyone who voted for Beyond The Brochure in the Circle of Moms Top 25 Mompreneurs! We are one of the proud winners!  

Thank you! xo Christina, Anne and Porcha

What If You Don’t LOVE The Schools You’ve Toured?

When One Stands Out: That “Ah-Ha” Moment

I’ve talked to a few moms recently who’ve said they haven’t seen any schools they’ve really loved. They like them, but don’t really understand what the big deal is. That said, they’re applying to these schools that they don’t really love. So far, they haven’t had that “ah-ha” moment.

I must have looked surprised during these conversations because when I toured schools I had trouble narrowing down the list. It seemed like each school I looked at was more amazing then the next. But, geography limited our choices.
If you haven’t seen any private elementary schools you’ve fallen in love with, keep looking! More likely than not, you’ll find a school or two that will find you making a mental note, “must get our kid into this school” category.  If that doesn’t happen, tour more schools. Expand your options. Then, if you still don’t find at least one or two schools you absolutely must get your kid into, tour your local public school to see if it would be a good fit for your family. Private schools are expensive, especially if you think they’re just ok. And, try to find something about each school you are enthusiastic about before your parent interview. A lack of interest in the school will definitely be obvious to the admissions directors.
Tour, tour, tour. Tour some more! You gotta love it! And, when those letters arrive in late March, you want to know you’ve given your family as many options as possible. Opening one painfully thin envelope because you didn’t see enough schools probably won’t be a good thing.

Here are some of our blog’s most popular posts. Our guest bloggers and I went on lots of tours before we found the right schools. And, thinking about what defines your unique family can help you figure out which schools will be best for your child. 

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Guest Blogger Jenny: Every School Tells A Story——-Part 2

Looking At The School From The Inside

Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you already know the basics when it comes to assessing a private elementary school for your child. You’ve already balanced your educational belief system (progressive or traditional, etc) with what your child needs (and they don’t always match up). You’ve eliminated schools that would require a daily helicopter ride to attend. So far, so good.

There is, however, another side to choosing a school. Your child is the major attendee, of course, but you will end up attending the school as well. All private elementary schools demand a certain amount of volunteerism and annual giving. And sometimes, it’s really hard to get a grip on what the parent body (and subsequent pressures) really is at a particular school.

So you’re going to have to dig. Try talking to current parents of the school and subtly getting the scoop. For instance, every school has big fundraisers every year, but some are much more low key than others. You might prefer a daytime fair to a nighttime black tie event, for instance. But you won’t know that unless you inquire about the nature of these events. If the school holds events at exclusive country clubs, where the price to join is $100K, you can be fairly certain that parents at the school have memberships at the club and do their socializing there. That’s great for those who have memberships at the club, but what about those who don’t? 

Another good indication is the type of silent auction items that are in demand at a school. All private schools have these silent auctions (and guess who supplies the goods? YOU!!!). But while at one school the hottest item that went for the highest price might be some great Laker tickets, another school might offer a pricey dinner party catered by a family’s private chef, at their mansion. Or, to ratchet up the bidding, how about a trip on a family’s private plane to a lavish vacation home, fully staffed (also owned by the same family)? These are status symbols that garner big payoffs for the school. What’s important to you, and fits with your value system? Remember, you’re going to have to put up with this production every year, so you might as well be able to tolerate it.

How about teacher and staff gifts? This has been a longstanding issue at many a private school, since elaborate gifts (think the latest Gucci bag kind of gifts) are often given out quite liberally by wealthy parents. This could be seen as some sort of bribe. Some schools have a very strict policy regarding gifts (Mirman is one of these), and simply doesn’t allow expensive gifts to rain down upon the teachers. Other schools have similar policies, but the parents blow them off and distribute the largesse anyway. Try to get a parent to answer these questions honestly, because it will save you aggravation later. (See piece below about Holiday Gift Giving)

In previous posts, we’ve squawked on about the cars in the carpool line. Are they window tinted Escalades or a bunch of Priuses? Yes, it seems so shallow and judgmental, but if you aren’t a luxury car driving parent, a parking lot full of Range Rovers and Porches might not really mesh with your priorities.  You know that totally obnoxious car ad involving the boy embarrassed by his parents’ car? Do you want your kid to start making those snotty noises at you?

And speaking of snotty noises, you should try to find out what the celebrity quotient is at the school. Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrities. L.A. is full of them, and they help keep our economy afloat (when they’re not collecting swag, that is, but I digress). I went to Crossroads a million years ago, and I benefited greatly. For instance, when we did a Sergio Leone unit in English Communications, James Woods came in to talk to the class about “Once Upon a Time in America.” Ditto for Martin Sheen during our Conrad Heart of Darkness and Coppola “Apocalypse Now” section. It was incredible.

What wasn’t incredible, though, was being at a school heavily dominated by industry types when I didn’t come from an industry family. So, if you are in the industry, you’ll probably have no issue sending your child to a more “Hollywood” school. But, if you aren’t involved in entertainment, it might seem much less appealing.

Finally, all you moms applying to schools out there, please check out the current mothers at the school. Although I’m a firm believer that there’s a place for everyone in the universe, shared aesthetics and values are important. If you’re a crunchy mom, you might not enjoy a school full of moms wearing 3-carat diamonds and pumped with enough Botox to kill a small village. Just saying.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. Her daughter started 4th grade at Mirman School this year. She previously attended 3rd St. Elementary School. Jenny has been published recently in the Daily News and on Mamapedia, The Well Mom, Sane Moms, Hybrid Mom, The Culture Mom and A Child Grows In Brooklyn. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad

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