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Volume VII Issue VI

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What I Know for Sure

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

A regular column in Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine is entitled “What I Know for Sure.” In it, Oprah shares her beliefs, discoveries, and insights on a variety of topics. This led to my thinking about my personal belief system related to education. I started jotting down a list of the things I have come to believe about teaching and learning. I decided to limit my list to ten items. I encourage readers to take a moment to reflect on your own beliefs or attitudes about your role as an educator and share your thinking with colleagues. This exercise should lead to some very interesting conversations.


  • All children can learn.
    Many children catch on quickly to new content and they can demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a facile manner. Some students take longer to learn but eventually achieve their goals. Other students, however, struggle to master the content our curriculum offers. There are many possible causes for this lack of achievement; the better we can identify the cause of underachievement, the better we can plan our interventions. I discovered that, with the right support systems, these struggling students are capable learners; in fact, they are often quite resilient in their efforts to survive inside and outside of school. Strong evidence for my belief comes from the many interactions I have had with students after they have completed their formal education. Over and over, I have seen capable, diligent, and happy individuals who have discovered their niche, made a comfortable life for themselves, and become productive citizens. 


  • Change is hardbut very achievable.
    The world around us is in a constant state of flux with change emerging seemingly on a daily basis. With some change, it is apparent that the innovation will be an improvement over its predecessor. The field of education, however, is a people business filled with unpredictability and challenges. We often face change with a certain degree of skepticism. Change, simply for the sake of change, is not productive and, in some cases, results in confusion and setbacks. But we cannot view all change with doubt and distrust. I would be truly saddened to revert back to the teaching methodology I followed as a novice in the late sixties. The trick, I believe, is to keep an open mind, weigh the pros and cons of new ways of thinking, add new practices to our repertoires which seem promising, and always, but always remember that student learning is the goal!


  • Good teachers have a positive impact on learning.
    It may appear that I am stating the obvious. However, my experience as well as incontrovertible evidence has taught me that it is one of education’s indisputable facts. One of my great joys as an administrator was seeing first hand the success achieved by many superb teachers with whom I have worked. These individuals achieve results regardless of the type of students they are teaching. As well, they implement curriculum changes with relative ease, generate immense goodwill as they work with parents, students, and colleagues, and they have a seemingly innate ability to teach each and every student. One key ingredient in good teachers is their willingness to devote time to their personal learning; their gifts may take time to evolve but once they reach their stride, their impact on student learning is both measurable in terms of standardized test data, and immeasurable in terms of the impact on student lives.


  • Great teachers don’t just teachthey inspire.
    Many teachers successfully teach their content, and their children learn and score well on standardized tests. These teachers are coveted by principals and have solid reputations in their communities. There is yet another category of teachers who transform their classrooms into places where students not only achieve academically but where they are inspired by their teachers to reach higher, think more deeply, and broaden their world view. These educators possess the “wow” factor and their classrooms are places where students go each day with greater enthusiasm almost bordering on fanaticism. What is especially noteworthy about great teachers is that they achieve success with all students. They are the living embodiment of a sign I saw which read, “Inspiration is contagious.  Once inspired you are capable of anything.”


  • It all starts with attitude.
    I recently read this statement on the back of a t-shirt. It brought to mind one of my most important beliefs about our role as educators. There are many things in the profession over which we have little or no control. We cannot force our students to open their minds to learning; we also cannot regulate what goes on in the homes of our students. Furthermore, we cannot manipulate all the variables impacting the lives of our students including poverty, peer pressure, lack of proper nutrition, or shifting societal mores. We can, nonetheless, decide how we will face each day, how we will make every attempt to influence the minds of the youngsters we see, and how we will work with and interact with our peers. Our children are watching our actions and listening to our words. They can tell if we view our jobs as futile or if we firmly believe that success is achievable and our students are achievers. In short, we can control the attitude we bring to work each day.


  • No one has THE answer but persistence pays off.
    There is no panacea for all of education’s problems. So often educators seek programs that will provide groundbreaking approaches which will enable us to reach our achievement goals. In truth, many wholesale programs do not work for all children. Instead we should combine ideas that have proven to be successful in the past, reject practices that were not a good use of our time and which had little or no pay off, and persist in our quest to add new ways of thinking to our practice. I am both amazed at and inspired by teachers who share their successes with their peers in a most humble manner. Many of their successes came after a series of trial and error attempts to determine just the right strategy that would lead to that “a-ha” moment with individuals or groups of students.


  • There is never enough time.
    It has been written that the American education system has far too many standards in every curriculum area that make it impossible to teach all of them with the proper amount of depth. Realistically, we know that certain standards will be short-shifted or eliminated altogether. As we struggle to teach our required standards, we often face frustrations and heartburn as we try to find time to “get it all done.” Hence, efforts to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students are neglected or downgraded despite our sincere desire to reach everyone we teach. Never having enough time is the universal cry of every educator. The real experts in our profession are the individuals who have learned to budget just the right amount of time to address the essential concepts and content they are required to teach, and who reach the outcomes required by district and state mandates. Likewise, they have maintained their sanity because they have discovered that there simply will never be enough time.


  • Technology will not slow down.
    In my work with school districts across the country, I have seen the use of technology in schools increase significantly. In some classrooms, it has almost become second nature as it is flawlessly integrated into classroom practice. Forward thinking school leaders have set aside funds or secured grants to keep on the cutting edge of technology that will impact learning in a positive way. In some districts, the leaders have wisely begun by providing hardware and training for school board members who then can fully understand the impact technology can have on student learning, and thus allocate funds to ensure that students have access to the technology they will need once they face the world beyond the classroom. Despite the drastic budget cuts to education that are occurring across the country, it is still important for leaders to keep abreast of technological innovations that will allow students to be educated in an environment that is synonymous with their understanding of the technology they use and see every day. The budget crisis will eventually abate. We should be prepared.


  • Bus drivers deserve a special place in heaven.
    Imagine as a teacher having to do you job facing away from your students at all times while simultaneously using your peripheral vision to keep track of stimuli coming from all different directions. There is no lesson or learning activity in progress as children are left to decide how to use (or abuse) their unstructured time. Often at a noise level that that is loud, the driver has to maintain order, enforce safety rules and operate a huge piece of machinery that most of us could not begin to handle or maneuver. Talk about multi-tasking… it is a daunting way to spend your day. Bus drivers are one example of the support staff who deserve our undying support and allegiance because without them, we could not teach our students. The title I have given this belief may sound comical. It does, however, represent my conviction that we should go out of our way to personally thank the individuals that make it possible for our schools to function.


  • We are all on the same team.
    Isolation can potentially be one of education’s greatest ills. Whether it is the shy student who may feel self-conscious or friendless; or the teacher who works alone, communicates very little with her peers and feels she is the only person who is struggling; or the administrator who is overwhelmed by the insurmountable number of problems he must address all the time and asking himself if this is the right job for him. The antidote to these beleaguered feelings is not complicated or unachievable. Schools represent the perfect environment for all its participants to feel that they are unified by a common purpose and shared goals. Classrooms should be alive with student interactions as students work in pairs or small groups to master content. When teachers structure learning so that students feel included rather than excluded, feelings of solitude become minimized. As well, counselors and administrators should watch for students who may feel disenfranchised and seek ways to make these students feel noticed, cared for and appreciated. Considerable research has found that teacher collaboration is not only the key to improved student achievement but serves as the vehicle to promote job-embedded staff development. When teachers interact with one another on a regular basis, they begin to appreciate one another’s contributions to the work they are expected to do. As school leaders, administrators must put in place mechanisms which promote the common belief that everyone in the school is part of unified effort. Likewise, the wise leader comes to understand that the responsibility for moving the school in the right direction is not one which should be shouldered by the administration alone but one which should involve all its constituents. Call it what you will – a partnership, a coalition, a support system. Whatever term you might use, greater success is much more likely to occur when the people involved feel that they are part of a team with a collective purpose. 


As professionals, each of us should take the time to stop and ask ourselves: What are my beliefs, discoveries, and insights about education that guide the way I engage in my practice? Think about the question, jot down your ideas, share them with a colleague, and let the conversations begin!

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. “What I Know for Sure” Just for the ASKing! June 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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