Jenifer Fox, M.Ed., has worked in day and boarding schools, single-sex and coed schools, as a teacher and administrator for twenty-five years. She is currently head of the Purnell School in Pottersville, New Jersey. She holds a B.S. in communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and M.A. in English from Middlebury College, and a M.Ed. in school administration from Harvard University. She lives in Pottersville, New Jersey.
Jenifer Fox M.Ed.
About Jenifer Fox M.Ed.
An Interview with Jenifer Fox M.Ed.
More About Jenifer Fox M.Ed.
Q: What is the premise of Your Child's Strengths?
A: The premise of Your Child's Strengths is that when you focus on developing and utilizing children's strengths rather than spending all your time trying to fix, or remediate weaknesses, they grow up to be happier, healthier and more productive citizens. Additionally, the book is a call to action, claiming that the single biggest issue facing America's future is the education of our young people. The time for change in our educational system is now, and every day more and people see that is the case. I believe the Strengths Movement will play a very important role in the new system that emerges. Your Child's Strengths provides parents, teachers and schools clear and practical direction to take in building upon children's strengths.
Q: How did you come about creating this program?
A: I have spent twenty-five years as an educator and throughout that time, I have always been a champion for the underdog. This means that where others saw weaknesses in people, I sought out the strengths and was able to find them. When I arrived at Purnell School, the school was failing as a business and I was determined to make it successful, I built a program that turned away from trying to fix what was wrong and sought, instead, to build on the inherent strengths that were in place. This began to work, and because it worked so well, and the school began to thrive, I developed a program that would also work on the students. So, I started to develop it from the outside in. I began by creating a strengths program for the school culture and then wrote the actual four-year curriculum for all of the students to take.
Q: What kind of student were you?
A: I was a great student in grammar school when it was all about learning and pleasing the teacher. In high school, I was a terrible student. I was not engaged, played the system as much as I could and received less than mediocre grades. I was bored by school and distracted by other things going on in my life. When I got to college, I realized that I actually liked to learn and I ended up doing well when I was able to direct my attention to things I felt were going to be meaningful later on in life. I ended up getting two graduate degrees, which I am sure would greatly surprise most of my high school teachers.
Q: You run a girls school in which you have implemented this program. What has the response been among the students, teachers and parents?
A: The students love the classes! They feel the Affinities Program in general and the whole philosophy of the school has created a safe haven for them, while challenging them to be their best selves. I know this because they give speeches about it and talk to me often about their strengths. The teachers also enjoy learning about their strengths. They have a whole professional development program built around developing their own strengths. We also have a personal leadership program that Mike Morrison, the Dean of the University of Toyota created for our teachers that works along the same thematic lines as the Affinities Program. He made it after reading the program. Many of our teachers volunteered to be part of the piloting this year. Finally, I held a workshop with parents about discovering their own strengths a few weeks ago. My living room on campus was full. I'll tell you what, this is like some secret sauce and everyone seems to want to taste it.
Q: You have toured with Marcus Buckingham who uses a similar premise of working with one's strengths in the business world. How does the world of education connect with the business world?
A: In a purely economic way, businesses are the end users of the products of the educational system. Unless the schools can train and develop multitudes of talents and strengths in children, business will not have a good stem-line of employees. There are already areas where this is true. I want to be clear, though, developing strengths is not a feel-good, false praise program. Instead it is challenging. The premise behind it is that if you see what your strengths are in your relationships, your activities and your own learning, then they become your responsibility to develop them. That is a big responsibility that takes work and dedication. So businesses have an economic interest in an educational system focused on strengths. It is my belief that because they hold this interest, they can become persuaded to use their influence to help change the current educational system. This can happen on many different levels and be taken up as part of any corporation's social responsibility program. Many businesses today have thriving social responsibility programs. What better place to focus than on developing strengths? Ultimately, it will be a win-win for families, businesses and most importantly, the children.
Q: What are some other areas in which this program is beneficial?
A: I have been contacted by everyone from social services to foster care, to the people from the juvenile justice system about how they can use strengths development and the Affinities Program in particular, to help the people they serve. Many churches, camps and youth groups have also contacted me. The ideas that are in the book can be used with all kinds of groups of people. Doctoral and masters candidates in both the field of teacher preparation and positive psychology have contacted me about using the book and its ideas for classes, for teacher training, and for study for their thesis papers and dissertations. UNICEF has contacted me about using the ideas in the book to develop whole programs to be distributed to their human resource department because they believe that when their worker's families are taken care of and healthy, then the worker will be more productive. So, it seems to me there are endless uses for the idea in this book.
Q: Can you explain what specific educational system your program falls under if any? For instance, does your program follow the “progressive” method of teaching? (I understand the Purnell School is a progressive school.)
A: Purnell can be considered a “progressive” school in that we follow the basic tenets of John Dewey. The school ascribes to the philosophy that doing and experiencing is a better way to learn than passively sucking in facts. We believe in educating the whole child, meaning that learning is about becoming and discovering one's self and one's meaning and value. We are also a school that has taken Dr. Mel Levine's neurological constructs to a different level by implementing the ideas school-wide and creating this program as a complement to those.
Q: How do you think the larger community can function within the larger auspices of your program? Is there any outreach that exists between your school and local community groups for instance?
A: Currently, there are a lot of different groups of people who are reaching out to me, to the school and to the Strengths Movement as it unfolds in schools. People from the Positive Change Corps and the Taos Institute, for example, have met with me to begin planning an international conference on Strengths to change the K-12 system. Employees from Best Buy have visited the school several times to determine how as a corporations they can link in with the school and the strengths agenda to advance their own social responsibility program that focuses on teenagers. Schools from all over the country and in fact, the world, have called us to see if they can come and observe what we are doing, and asking if I can speak to them. Schools in California, New Zealand and Canada have requested information. I am also working with the Kellogg Foundation on creating a tool that will assess the strengths (among other things) of drop-outs and be used to determine lost or hidden talent that may help them enter the workforce as productive workers without a degree.
Q: How can we utilize your methods as parents when helping our children set limits?
A: This is a great question. I think that when children push limits it is because they are testing parents. My experience tells me that kids want both limits and boundaries. When these things are not in place is when kids go a little (and sometimes a lot) nuts. When kids push and break the boundary, the best thing a parent can do is get the child to accept responsibility for the action, engage in a constructive consequence and have a conversation about those behaviors are not going to create a positive life for the child. Parents fall short of this approach when they immediately give out a punishment, and don't have genuine follow through conversations that refocus behaviors on choices and options having to do with strengths. Good discipline takes time.
Q: What is the earliest age at which teachers and parents can start incorporating your methods? How would this differ for elementary age children versus high school kids, for instance?
A: Strengths can be developed in children at all ages. It begins with noticing what children's natural tendencies are and helping children to understand what differentiates them from other people. Elementary children should be offered choices and have a say in deciding the things they wish to do. This is often very difficult for parents who have a lot of expectations for their kids. When kids are in high school parents can begin to really engage them in conversations about what makes them feel strong and energized. This is very different from what they are good at doing. Some kids are “good” at doing a lot of things, but not all those activities energize them. It helps if people are able to figure out what truly energizes them. I think that can be determined by looking at how much time a person is willing to spend engaged in any one activity.
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