Monday, March 7, 2011

What do we want education to be?

Public school teachers, schools, and budgets are in the bull's eye right now, the target of unreasonable wrath. Let's shift the discussion.

Tell me, what problems do you imagine today's children will face when they grow up? What kinds of things will they need to figure out? To solve?

Think about this for a moment.

Now consider, as communities, parents, teachers,
What do we want to nurture in our children? What skills will they need?

I've asked these questions at a variety of workshops and classes with educators. The adults quickly brainstorm:

The ability to see many sides of issue
Kindness and compassion
An awareness of outside world
Respect for everyone
A fresh outlook
Considering something from multiple directions

These skills come from a diversity of learning experiences – curriculum that is not “scripted," pre-packaged, identical in every classroom. These skills are nurtured by teachers who are fascinated by each child individually, and who go home at night, unable to stop thinking about the children in their class. Teaching requires daily reflection, daily accounting, daily flexibility – What went right today? Why didn’t that work? What might I try? Teachers are skilled at looking for signs of struggle and helping a child work through these; they are skilled at recognizing the different and important achievements of each of their students.

Such teachers are encouraged by their communities and leaders.

I am so thankful for the leadership of Joanne Busalacchi, a.k.a. "Ms. B," Principal of New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, where my children went to school in the 1990s. She respected and involved teachers, parents, and community in her school. This was a Title One school, with some 85% poverty level. Ms. B embraced the economic and cultural diversity of her school, recognized it as a gift, and celebrated it. I have no doubt that she went home every day, awash in reflection, thinking - What didn't work today? What might I try tomorrow? Consider these snapshots -

- Ms. B at the front door of the school, saying hello to each child by name, as they arrived for school each morning;
- Ms. B taking her staff around the community on a school bus, to meet the children during the summer;
- Ms. B singling out parents and community members with "more" (whether it be time, talent, or money) and asking them to do more for the school.

There were so many signs of the community coming together as one -

- parents visiting and volunteering at the school throughout the day, in a variety of ways,
- local police officers eating lunch with the students in the cafeteria,
- mobile Health Clinics and mobile Public Libraries parked out front at the school, for families and community;
- a vibrant Parent-Child Center in one of the classrooms for those of us with children too young to be enrolled, filled with play activities and parenting advice;

- PTA meetings that met not just at 7pm “white-collar” time but Saturday mornings and unusual times mid-week;
- all community meetings translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages; and
- a variety of special nights every month, for children and their families, to celebrate learning - math game nights, international nights, Young Author nights.

Ms. B treated her public school like it was the heart of the community - and it was.

She was a staunch advocate for children. She rallied the staff to come together as one, to be respectful. A former parent remembers hearing Ms. B assert to her staff, "There is entirely too much yelling around here. We will not yell at children. Let's talk about this." Her staff was inspired and motivated - one teacher told me that Ms. B never told the staff how to do something, she “moved them towards the light,” and gave them both independence and responsibility. She did the same thing with parents. And this positivism, flexibility, and determination trickled down to the children.

This is exactly what we say we want for our children: for them to have independence, flexibility, responsibility, perseverance, determination.

It seems to me, we cultivate these skills in our children by being this way in our adult daily lives - in the way we interact with each other, in the way we solve today's problems. We must model this. Just as Ms. B and her staff modeled it.

Public school teachers and schools are in the bull's eye right now, the target of unreasonable wrath. Let's shift the discussion.

Teachers, parents, community, leaders – we have such an important role in making a bright future possible for our children. There is no one way. Those of us in the trenches – because we have children in school, or because we are teaching in schools, or because we are visiting schools - we need to speak up and repeat, repeat, repeat:

We are building our future.
Public education is the foundation of our country, the cornerstone of what will come.
We want our schools to continue to be filled with energized, knowledgeable, dedicated, caring, and respected professionals.
Our children deserve no less.

How can we ensure that Ms. B's kind of excellence is the norm of our public schools?
How can we ensure that teachers have the flexibility and autonomy to think about the needs and gifts of the individual child?
How can we ensure that families, even in the toughest circumstances, are welcomed, supported, and elevated by their child's school?

Let’s change the way we talk about teachers and public education.
Let’s envision together.
What do we want education to be?

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