Volume VIII Issue IV
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Celebrating What’s Right About Our Schools
Far too frequently, news stories paint a negative picture of public education. Schools are often reduced to an annual test score, typically in math and language arts. In other news reports, international rankings place U.S. students in the “middle of the pack” when compared to students in other countries. Words like “failing,” “fall short,” “miss targets,” or “not meeting standards” are used to summarize the hard work of teachers and administrators, and the overall achievement of our students. A recent Washington Post article reported that, according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “more than three-quarters of the nation’s public schools could soon be labeled failing under the federal NCLB Act.” This emphasis on schools not accomplishing targeted goals falls far short of representing what’s happening in schools and classrooms across the country.
George Lucas, filmmaker and head of Edutopia, an educational foundation, has said, “It’s time to have a conversation about what’s right in our schools, what’s working. And as we debate what to do to fix the problems, let’s remember that there are successes in education every day we can emulate.” Other writers have concluded that our obsession with test scores and accountability has overshadowed the work that goes on in our schools every day. Thanks to Mr. Lucas and others of like opinion, I have concluded that it is time to shine the light on the incredible work our teachers are doing on a day-by-day and even hour-by-hour basis in our schools. The evidence is all there if we simply take the time to seek it out. When visiting schools, I regularly encounter energetic and purposeful professionals who are resolute in performing their jobs at the highest levels of competence.
Based on journal readings, blogs and personal observations, I have collected anecdotal and statistical data as evidence of the accomplishments of our schools. It’s truly time for us to pat ourselves on the back, hold our heads up, and be proud of the difference we are making in the lives of millions of children and their families.
Schools are so much more than an annual test score.
Among the professionals who work with our children, there exists a deep and caring attitude about individual children that far transcends teaching and learning. Although we accept educating our young people as the primary goal, we are also the watchdogs for the overall well-being of our students. As we explore more deeply the daily lives of teachers, administrators and students, we often find that the dedication to the “whole child” is the typical mission of the school. Against some seemingly insurmountable odds and formidable challenges, school personnel are involved in the lives of families to provide support systems and survival resources that far exceed the information that is reported in our newspapers or online news sources. We are not reluctant to take on tasks outside of teaching and learning because we entered the field of education wanting to make a difference for young people, and that often means extending ourselves outside the walls of our classrooms.
We accept and educate all children.
We are not selective; we reject no child. As I thought about the mission of our schools, I was reminded of the words that Emma Lazarus wrote in 1903 which hang on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. Over 100 years later, the words still resonate with public educators as we accept the “tired’,” the “poor,” the “homeless” and those “yearning to be free.” Diversity is not simply a “buzz word,” but a descriptor of more and more of our schools; implicit in its meaning is that all children must be able to reach their potential. For many of our children our schools are a place of comfort, a safe haven, and a place of hope. We enter the field of education knowing that some of our greatest achievements will be to change forever the lives of children and their families through the educational support we provide. This does not appear on the international rankings of schools throughout the world.
Despite the fact that school success is often measured by standardized test scores, teachers go far beyond test preparation as they teach their required curricula.
According to Ann Cook, co-director of the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City, teachers are “usually talking about helping kids understand complex ideas, weigh evidence, evaluate sources, and – in subjects like writing, history and science – develop a point of view.” Today’s teachers feel the pressure to reach the standardized testing goal set before them, but they go beyond the memorization of facts. They are wise enough to know that if we intend to compete on a global scale, students have to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Teachers understand that in the real world beyond our schools, employees will not be paid to sit in a cubicle and blacken in ovals on a test grid.
More and more schools are taking a much more proactive approach to student learning rather than intervening after their students are unsuccessful.
Teachers spend more time working smarter up front instead of reacting to a series of crises which may occur. They are looking at their students as individual learners rather than as a classroom of students. Additionally, teachers are viewing data as information that occurs on a regular basis and not just on an annual achievement test. The practice of using data to make instructional decisions is commonplace, and thus, students’ needs are being more readily met. Educators do not have to plan “educational autopsies” after the statewide achievement tests results arrive back at the school because they are working with data every day.
Our communities have trust and confidence in their schools.
According to the 42nd annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools in 2010, “the grades Americans assign to schools in their community have remained relatively stable over the past 35 years, tending slightly upward. This year, almost half of Americans give the schools in their communities an ‘A’ or a ‘B.’ Moreover, 77% of American parents rate the school their oldest child attends either at the ‘A’ or ‘B’ level.” This kind of statistical reporting often goes overlooked or is buried deep in our local publications. Surveys have also found that parents are less interested in a school’s test scores and more interested in their children’s happiness and safety in school.
We know so much more about teaching and learning than ever before.
One Georgia school district recently won a million dollar grant for the belief system they have implemented, and, as a result, the success they have realized. Among the many forward-looking practices they have put into place are the following:
- Establishing a more challenging curriculum that transcends the state requirements
- Implementing a curriculum that is more relevant to the lives of their students
- Allowing equal access to all school programs and not imposing barriers that would keep interested and motivated students from partaking in the curriculum offerings
- Ensuring that all stakeholders including School Board members, district leaders, and school-based personnel are working together on the district’s vision
This district is representative of many school divisions across the nation that have delved deeply into an analysis of their practices and put into place approaches that will focus on creating truly positive learning environments where all students can thrive.
A teacher’s work is never done.
Hopefully, the old public perception that a teacher’s day is over at three o’clock and that a teacher has three months off in the summer is a thing of the past. But perhaps this misconception still lingers in the minds of non-educators or those who feel that teaching is a “cushy” occupation. As all practitioners know, the responsibilities of teachers are not bound by any clock or calendar. As professionals, teachers understand that they must bring their “best game” to their classrooms every day. They spend hours planning lessons that must capture and maintain student attention; these plans must be completed after the students are dismissed for the day and often require dedication that goes long into the night. Furthermore, teachers must return phone calls and emails, grade papers and post grades, collaborate with their peers, attend parent conferences, respond to individual student needs, as well as attend and supervise after school events. Summer months may require attendance at workshops, course enrollment, planning for the future with other teachers, working with administrators to plan for the next school year, and keeping updated on the latest curriculum developments. Good teaching requires dedication and as professionals, teachers do what it takes to get the job done well.
More than ever before, today’s educators collaborate and share best practices with each other, and provide support to one another when it is needed.
This sense of commitment has been captured in the words of a banner that hangs in the main office of a middle school that I visited, and exemplifies the beliefs, attitudes, and optimism of so many of today’s educators. The banner reads:
As you enter this place of work, please choose to make today a great day. Your students, colleagues, team members, and you yourself will be thankful. Find ways to play. We can be serious about our work without being serious about ourselves. Stay focused in order to be present when your students and team members most need you. And should you feel your energy lapsing, try this surefire remedy: Find someone who needs a helping hand, a word of support, a good ear – and make their day.
Now it’s your turn.
In this newsletter, I have attempted to capture and describe the work that professional educators do that often goes unpublished or may be overlooked. My itemization is far from complete in describing all of the exceptional things that are going well in our schools and deserve to be emphasized much more than they are. It is my hope that readers will take some time to engage in conversations and add to the ideas highlighted here. Whether it is in full faculty gatherings, team or grade level meetings, or simply informal conversations among peers, take the time to talk about what’s working in your school, acknowledge and congratulate one another, and plan purposeful celebrations. You deserve it.
Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Celebrating What’s Right About Our Schools” Just for the ASKing! April 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.
Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons
“These questions can be used to promote thinking about teaching and learning during the planning process, while teaching, and again when reflecting on the impact of the lesson either alone or with a mentor or supervisor.”