Nancy Higham and her husband ran their own school, teaching K-3 grade students for 22 years. Before and after that, Nancy was a teacher, program director, and principal in public and charter schools, in D.C., Japan and California. With almost 50 years of educational experience and a passion for working with children and seeing them grow and learn, Nancy has a lot to share about teaching children. In the interview, Nancy explains how they helped students learn responsibility and respect, solve real-life problems, reach high standards, overcome limits by refusing to accept limitations, enjoy the creative arts, learn to work in a garden, and much more.
How did you start the Higham Family School for children K-3?
I had a friend in Santa Rosa who wanted a school for her child. My husband, Bob, and I were teachers. At the time, my husband's school situation was not good. The new superintendent was hurting the school environment, and a lot of teachers were leaving. I could tell Bob needed a change. He was so dedicated to doing things that were right and good for children. So we found some property and started with a childcare license for two adults.
We ran a summer school program so we could attract public school kids. Our focus was creative arts, but we also had a swimming pool. We developed two-week themes on which we based our activities – performances, story-hour, garden work, singing, and more. In our second year, a very knowledgeable woman put her children in our summer school and then helped bring other children by recommending our program; we became a full-time school.
What was your vision for the school; what were some of the guiding principles or desired outcomes for your students?
The point of our school was to teach children how to be responsible, how to treat others with respect, how to follow through on things, and how to solve problems. We wanted them to learn how to learn. The subject matter takes care of itself. In today's world, information changes so rapidly, that what matters are life skills.
We had high standards for our students. We wanted them to be able to speak in public, so my 2nd and 3rd grade students had four-month long projects and had to give a thirty-minute speech at the end. We taught them how to get their homework home and back to school, and how to keep a journal before they could even write (younger students would dictate life stories).
We also wanted students to know how to behave in public. Before we went anywhere, we talked about the appropriate behavior for the situation. If someone was out of line, he or she got to hold my hand. After we got back from an activity, we always debriefed. We talked about what happened.
One time, we went to an opera. Beforehand, we had discussed how to be thoughtful of others. But there were other elementary students at this performance who were kicking our seats and yelling. When we came home, my kids pointed this out. I asked them, "Who do you think enjoyed the performance more?" They knew they had. It was really important for us to teach our students the value of enjoying our culture and that having good manners was about not intruding on other people, but rather respecting them.
It seems like some of your educational philosophy came out of the Sermon on the Mount.
It did, and we weren't bashful about kids living by moral principles. Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" (Matt 7:12). If there was a problem, we stopped the students right away and worked on it. We asked what the kids needed. We didn't let things slide.
We saw that love is also principle. There's a lot of temptation to indulge kids and excuse bad behavior. This didn't fit for everyone. Some parents wanted to be "god" to their children. Some parents wanted to excuse their child's behavior. But being principled really helps kids. They learn to pay their dues, follow through, and be respectful. They had an example from us. We always treated kids with respect. We tried to connect with whom they were in special ways.
We offered them the opportunities to be together as a school and to talk. Bob ran circle every morning with all of the kids, during which we'd have a planned activity and songs. I ran class meetings once a week where the students could bring up a school, home, or world issue. The kids ran the discussions, which were very good. They would contribute ideas on how to solve problems.
How did you help your students reach high standards? Did anything in the Bible help?
To me, Jesus saw people without limitations, without labels. That's how Jesus saw the woman at the Samaritan well who had had five husbands. It was to her, and not to someone of high stature, that he declared that he was the Messiah (John 4:5-30). Jesus saw the perfection in people and refused to let them accept limits about themselves.
I read the Bible every day to see what would meet the need of the child I was teaching. I'd lift my thought about that child. My husband and I saw each child in the highest light. We never accepted limitations about the kids. We believed in them. We always told them that they could reach their goals. And we didn't allow children to accept limitations, either.
We talked with them about their progress. We showed appreciation for moving forward, even if it was by little steps. We had them talk to other students. If a first grader felt things were hard, we would take him to a second grader who could explain that while it was hard, she learned a lot.
We involved students in setting their own high standards and goals that they all could reach at their individual level. For instance, the kindergarteners and first graders had to recite a poem and a "count" each week. Students would put the demand on themselves: one might have chosen to count backwards from a hundred by twos while rhyming. This didn't leave room for being wishy-washy or not participating.
We really tried to know our kids, to work with them as individuals, to get their parents' support and buy-in that their child could achieve the goal, and to provide or explain intermediate steps to help them achieve the standards. We had a child therapist provide parenting classes every fall, which our parents found very helpful. We were there for parents, not just their children. We did everything we could to help families be able to operate. We taught kids how to be independent and to help their parents with making lunches, doing laundry, cooking. That's why we named our school The Higham Family School. A child doesn't grow up in a vacuum. We were working with the whole family.
Are there any experiences regarding students overcoming limitations that stand out to you?
We had one family in the school whose elder child was mentally disabled. She was in a public elementary school, set aside in her own program. Bob and a teacher, who ran a professional development center and taught for us at times, went to look at the conditions of her education. It was a nightmare zoo. This teacher turned to Bob and said, "We can do better." So we took her at the age of seven, and she stayed five years with us.
After she left us, she eventually went on to junior college. While her speech isn't easy to understand, her vocabulary is amazing, and she feels very comfortable standing up in front of others and speaking. Every time her younger brother comes back from D.C., he visits our home and tells us that he learned everything he needed in his first four years of school with us.
Another student who was struggling finally learned the skills about organization. She really hung in there. Later, she became student-body president at the most academically advanced high school near us.
How did you teach the children life skills that enabled them to be successful?
We gave them real-life experiences. They all worked in the garden together, ate the food from the garden for snacks, and took care of the animals (pigs, chicken, a goose). Once we had taught the older kids what to do, they taught the younger kids how to weed the bed; pick tomatoes; gather the eggs, wash them, and take them home to their families; put out extra garden food for their parents. It became a badge of honor to be a good weeder. We also had a pet sheep whose pen needed to be moved, and except for safety issues, we let the kids figure out how to move it. We gave them a problem, and they figured out how to solve it on their own.
We had a Halloween carnival that my 2nd and 3rd graders put on for Bob's K and 1st graders. The students ran it and mentored the younger students, showing them how to run things. We also set up a store with a real cash register that the children used. You could buy stamps, mail letters to other kids in the school (I'd have my kids write letters to Bob's kids), buy or rent felt tip pens or other things they wanted. They would have to take real money they had earned out of their individual banks, and Bob was the banker. If they had five pennies, they had to trade up for a nickel. As the students grew in their understanding, they could move up to more sophisticated jobs. These are the types of experiences and skills that make students successful in business and life.
You mentioned you put a lot of emphasis on the creative arts. Why?
Kids are very creative, and they need to have opportunities to be creative. Our theory was to expose kids to lots of different things, to give them many experiences, and to help them learn how to solve problems. Then, when they are older, they can choose where to put their focus. School can't just all be drudgery; it has to spark creative interest. There has to be room for the kid who can't read well but can do beautiful art work, or can't do poetry but loves to act.
So we had artists, a poetry teacher, a drama teacher, and a special math and science teacher come in to help give the kids a rich environment. We took them to the opera, to the symphony, to other performances. The artist we had working with our students took them to art shows where they picked out their favorite artwork and copied it to learn. We also had the naturalist, Michael Ellis, take the students on all-day field trips.
Do you have any last thoughts you'd like to share?
After we closed our school, one of our mothers put her daughter into a creative arts magnet program, but no one could agree on anything. So this mother asked if I would take a look at this program. I ended up setting up a creative arts magnet program for 4th through 8th graders in a public school setting. I went in there with the same values we had taught to our K-3 students – being respectful, working as a team (teachers and students), listening to their problems, having class meetings. And you know what? These same values worked out just fine for junior high kids … and for all of us. The sky's the limit.