I’ve had the great fortune over the last few days to engage in several conversations about ideal schools. One of the wonderful things about Educon is the serendipitous mingling that happens. Even though the sessions go through a proposal and approval process, and are meticulously planned by the facilitators, there’s always an element of unpredictability when they can go off EdCamp-like in any direction.
So the idea of what makes a great school came up quite a few times. We talked of the challenges of testing and common core and unfunded mandates and professional development. We discussed the need for next generation skills, life-long learning, authentic assessment, and a greater focus on inquiry. Some conversations were polite discussions. Others were lively debates. A few times, they devolved into mean-spirited attacks. We’re all passionate about our beliefs, and we all want the best for our children.
But every conversation came down to the same thing: education is about relationships.
It’s about relationships between students and parents. Students and schools. Principals and teachers. Students and students. Teachers and everyone. Every Science Leadership Academy student I’ve ever spoken to describes the school as a family. They feel like they’re an important part of the whole. When they’re not there, they’re missed. When they screw up, they let the community down. When they succeed, everyone celebrates.
The teachers and parents and administrators feel the same way. When I arrived and signed in at the conference, I couldn’t find my name tag on the registration table. I looked through the whole table. No name tag. The parent volunteer was very apologetic, and solved the problem quickly. I took a sharpie and wrote my name on a blank name tag. No big deal.
But that wasn’t good enough. A couple hours later, Diana saw me. “I know I printed a name tag for you.”
“I’m not worried about it.”
“You need a name tag.” She dropped everything, and grabbed her laptop. She had a few things to do. There were 500 people on their way to the school for a 3-day conference. She was a co-chair and had a thousand details to take care of. But right now, my name tag was at the top of the list. She printed. I felt fussed-over. She got the paper cutter out to make sure the cut lines were straight. I chatted. She explained that it’s not about the name tag. “We screwed up. If you don’t have a name tag, there may be 50 other people who don’t have them.” There weren’t. She later found my name tag stuck to the bottom of one of the others. But she didn’t want to let me down. I was part of the community. She lives in a culture of caring. And it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t even work at the school anymore. She’s family. You can’t resign from that.
The culture of caring is what gets my daughter’s drama teacher involved when she’s slacking off in language arts. It’s what prompts a phone call or a text when a student has been out for a few days. It’s what gets teachers to show up at sporting events and school plays and (God help us) dances when there are lots of other things that they could be doing. And it’s what gets a couple hundred students to give up their weekends to come to school to help a bunch of teachers become better teachers.
In a culture of caring, you don’t need a lot of rules. Respect yourself. Respect the community. Respect the school as a place of learning.
In a culture of caring, teachers aren’t walking out of meetings because they’ve gone longer than the contractually-mandated time. And they don’t get called on the carpet for occasionally arriving a few minutes late on snowy mornings.
In a culture of caring, students aren’t working for grades, and teachers are more focused on relevance than test scores. They don’t want to let each other down. They don’t want to make the school look bad. And most of all, they trust one another to make decisions that will benefit each other. When a teacher says something is important, they emphasize it. And when it’s not important, they let it go.
In a culture of caring, principals trust teachers to do what they do best: teach kids. School boards trust administrators to manage the schools. Governments trust the schools to provide thorough, relevant, worthwhile education for our youth.
It took me a long time to learn how to teach, and I’m not even sure I ever quite got it right. But one of the things I learned early on was that you have to treat the students like people, and not like kids. If you offer a little respect, and treat people reasonably, they’ll usually reciprocate. And then we can get some good work done.
Photo credit: John Flanigan on Flickr.