Monthly Archives: April 2012

Responsive Leadership and Values in Practice

When I participated in a teacher training program a number of years ago, I was fortunate in being assigned to a magnet school on Manhatten’s Upper West Side- where I worked with two very different and very original teachers.  The two classes of grade four students were deemed gifted and housed within a regular neighbourhood school.  In reading recently about the rush of parents in New York to sign students up for  gifted programs I had the wonderful experience of recalling those days at the beginning of the Sarah Anderson School for the Gifted, when the school was still in its growth stage and when Principal and teachers maintained open doors.  I now live in Toronto, Canada,  and was pleased to note how this school, then occupying a few floors within the PS 9 building is today one of the most established programs for the Gifted and Talented in Manhattan.  Kudos to the Principal I worked with during that practicum period. 

– In one of the classes was a young fellow named Adam whose parents were NYC police offiers- the father had been killed in action, the mother, a single parent brought him daily to the school, entering the side doors as all parents of the magnet community did.  Young Adam was on the school’s cafeteria meal plan.  This meant that at lunch time he had to wait until the elementary classes were served- and would sit and watch the PS 9 students hungrily, while his classmates in the Sarah Anderson program ate their brought from home lunches- Adam was daily out of sync- and aware of it.  When I brought this observation to the Principle she acted immeadiately, arranging for Adam to be served upon entering the cafeteria and allowing him to eat with his classmates; a small gesture, but a strong one.  I as student, had access to the Principal, a Principal who valued input from her staff- even staff that was transient- the way a student is bound to be.  The concept of collaborative leadership had been applied directly- removing it from an ideal in a textbook to a living demonstration of care.  Not only Adam, but I too benefited from this example of responsive leadership. 

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simply wishing

“Too much too little too late- went a popular song” – I’m guessing it was a love song- I could look it up – but it isn’t important – what’s important is what those words do convey- the negative impact of too much- the ridiculousness of too little and the fact that once a negative situation is experienced even hearing “sorry” doesn’t matter- it IS too late.

Schools teach many lessons and for those of us who have been involved in education for years and have consciously remained learners- that is- learning together with students, learning on our own as researchers for better practice, and learning in a formal setting, do know that there is always a hidden curriculum; an agenda that is promoted by the actions and attitudes of the educators in a learning environment. Ideally, these actions ought to be singularly focused – to promote the health and welfare of the students. In reality many actions promote only one thing, an individual or an administrator within a complex.

I wish I had the answers- I wish I could write that as we go through life we will all meet intractable individuals whose focus on maintaining control is stronger than their focus on sharing a lesson.

I wish I could teach the whole world to recognize the difference between standing for something big and simply refusing to budge.

Sometimes I wonder if it would have made a difference if I had said “why did you think this would be helpful”- then I remember that I have asked-

“He Didn’t Knock”

The lines in the title for this post come from a 1995 movie Dangerous Minds. “He didn’t knock” repeats the character of LouAnne Johnson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNLZjVmcHh8 – wondering at the amazing disconnect between the principal at the school, and the students the teacher had come to know and care for. As mentioned, the movie came out in 1995- I wish I could write that things have changed, that such a scene in varying degrees couldn’t possibly continue to be played out in real schools today.

I know of a school where many of the teachers actually do “teach from the heart” and so can see their students as individuals – looking beyond type to real character. Such teachers are not unique, however they are at times hobbled by a system that would neglect the child in favour of a “rule” – I have said it before and I will say it again- people make mistakes- and children are people. And each child’s transgression ought to be viewed independently and in light of the whole environment in which an action took place. When I hear or see an administrator who is so bound up in punishment and whose attitude has demoralized staff I know that politics has taken over and the kids individually and collectively will suffer. When students attending a school function spontaneously chant the name of a former principal they are sending a strong message – when that same principal- who cannot punish everyone – decides to make a scapegoat out of one child in reaction, a child who wasn’t even involved in the chanting but who happened to be aware of the event- that principal oversteps the bounds of the job.

Teachers are continuously encouraged to be “life long learners”; to continue to learn and grow, and to take seriously their responsibility to the students in their charge. Do we really not expect as least this much from the administrator? To be able to demonstrate flexibility in relation to situations may stave anarchy; to be rigid and cruel is to practice behaviour associated with the term demagogue. Sadly, the “He didn’t knock” syndrome isn’t restricted to characters in film. LouAnne Johnson, whose text School is Not a Four Letter Word notes “too many rules can impede a child’s progress”; the wrong restrictions do damage. Principals needn’t demonstrate the overwhelming ignorance of “He didn’t knock” – such characters are modeling only one thing- power.

I have been on a soapbox today having recently met a “He didn’t knock” style principal. Have readers any advice how to awaken such a closed mind- the truly most dangerous kind?

Brand New Week-

I nearly wrote Brand New Earth, with this past week featuring so many activities around the theme of “Earth Day”  the focus on cleaning up, recycling and encouraging caring for the planet became contagious; all around I could see effort being made to get outside and engage with nature. 

I am always impressed by how quickly younger children will not only participate in the Earth Day programs at their school, but also how the students become advocates for greener living once they understand the purpose behind the suggested changes. 

-sending a global “thank you” to fellow educators for sharing great resources and posting a few links below:

 http://scan-werecriticaltothinking.blogspot.ca/2012/04/great-interactive-resources-for-earth.html

http://erblearn.org/parents/admission/isee   for parents considering private school come September

http://www.collegeconfidential.com/

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7393502n   interview with Sam Eshaghoff:Sam Eshaghoff is a teenage con. He took the SAT for other students, who paid big money for high scores. Now that he’s been caught, Sam has some test-taking advice, but consider the source.

Dealing with the “Real” World

 Some have a belief that school is not real- that real life begins only upon graduation- I wonder, in today’s age of fast pacing and career switching, how any could still suggest that the place students are expected to spend at least 12 years of their lives is not “real”.  A microcosm perhaps, but nevertheless, very real in the social-cultural, and physical-material sense.  And is school an audition? another idea that appears to be floating – No.  School is the way in which the majority of children are socialized and when the fit is right- children thrive- when wrong the blisters not only burst but chafe so deeply the right space might still feel too constricting.

   While homeschooling may provide an answer and is increasingly an option for those who have the time to devote to not only searching out places that will provide stimulation and feed the curiousity of the learners ( museums, art spaces, public performances, lunch time forums, construction sites,  people watching ..) for the majority a school- regardless if private or public, remains the full time space where one’s children attend to daily rituals of practice- practicing communication skills, practicing public participation, practicing organizational skills, practicing physical skills, practicing the give and take of learning- practicing.

   And it is the curriculum that determines what gets practiced.  April is when many parents begin to question the past year’s choice of schooling and wonder if new arrangements ought to be made for the following September.  Things I encourage parents to look for in a school when touring a new space go beyond the basics- not just the physical structure and the size of the rooms, but importantly the sounds one hears when walking the halls; are the sounds coming from the classrooms representative of students’ voices? Do the walls feature student work? Is there an energy even outside the grounds?  For elementary students, what appears to be happening during lunch time recess? For junior high school students, are the activities/clubs posted of the type your child may express interest in joining? In a Senior High students should be visible- activities are ongoing and classes more individualized- visit at more than one point during the day and notice how students move about…

School is the “real world” for students while they are moving through it; help them understand and appreciate how growth in any direction can require a new fitting, and believe in them when they are ready to practice something new.

Value the Student, not the mistake!

 Schools claim to be teaching “values needed to become a part of a democratic society” – “values” – to me, this is a “heavy word” suggestive of concepts like responsibility, integrity, openness to new people, new ideas, and a recognition that students may make mistakes. What lesson will a student learn when a punishment for an action is much greater than the crime? Is it wise to teach students that one slip is never allowed? I am not perfect, and when I tutor I may be “encouraging excellence in those I teach” but  – why do some school administrations persist in believing that draconian measures might teach students “values”? When a punishment is so much greater than a crime, will a student really learn anything more than that bullying is allowed as long as the school administration is the group doing the bullying? And then what? When they grow up and the school years are long behind them do they practice empathy- or operate from a “holier than thou plateau” – the latter message implicit from their observations of their own school years.

Teachers and administrators model behaviour. How a school administration deals with students on a one-one or group basis sends a message loud and clear to the entire population- some student families have more clout than other student families. Unfortunately that is almost the only message that is transmitted. When a teacher continuously picks-on and embarrasses a student in front of the group – this is bullying. When a Vice Principal behaves in one fashion with a parent present only to do an about face when only the child is present – this is bullying. When a child contributes hours of overtime to school groups and causes , when a child actively works for the benefit of the group, that student is modeling positive behaviour. And students can see it. As a private tutor I am one step removed from the formal institutions, and an ear for both parents and students. I have learned to trust the students’ evaluations of what they are hearing and seeing taking place in the space where they spend so many hours- their school.