Giving the Greatest Gifts

This is one of the toughest times of the year for our high school staff. They are trying hard to finish up the final unit of the semester, preparing final exams as well as trying to catch up on the mountains grading. There is so much to do it can be downright overwhelming! Throw on top of all that the fact that all of the students are anticipating being away from school for two weeks and the effect of the Christmas rush and I believe that the faculty can feel as though it’s burden is unbearable. I, like all of the other staff, get immersed in my job and what I consider important and sometimes miss opportunities to help where help is needed. As Director of Paris High School I am very focused on our new building, data and PSAE results, school safety issues, staff evaluation, our interest based academy agenda, staff development, budget development and problem solving what seems like a million day to day questions from students, staff and parents. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to integrate technology into instruction, how to motivate students and how involve the community in improving our program. I am always looking toward the future and trying to learn new things.

…..But it never fails, a situation will occur or a conversation will happen that causes me to take a step back and consider what is really important. Several years ago, around Christmas time, a student came into the office and asked for withdrawal papers and informed me she was going to drop and get a job. As always, whether it is me or the assistant principal, we try to take the time to discuss this decision with the student and try to reason them into considering all options rather than dropping out. At first the student did not want to discuss her decision with me. Her mind was made up. She was of the age that she did not have to have parental consent and she seemed determined to carry out a plan that did not include finishing high school. I knew this student fairly well because I had been her elementary principal and had developed a rapport with her to where we would talk to one another when we saw each other and tease each other about our favorite sports teams. On this day, however, she was not in any mood to talk to me and refused to tell me the reasoning that had led her to this decision. I knew this student had developed a good professional relationship with a teacher on staff, and as a last ditch effort I called this teacher in to talk with the student. What unfolded, as I witnessed it, was a remarkable conversation between a teacher who cared for her students and a student who both liked a respected her teacher. I could tell that their relationship had become one in which the teacher had a vested interest in the student and that the student felt cared for in her presence. I will not divulge the content of their conversation, but suffice it to say, the student remained enrolled, graduated, and went on to a two year technical school. Last I heard, she was married raising a child and gainfully employed in a good job!

Sometimes you will never know the affect you have had in the way that you deal with your students. Sometimes, just giving your time and caring is the greatest gift you can give. Even though this time of year can be very tough for us, it can be even tougher for our students for various reasons. Our staff does a great job of doing what is important….and that is keeping students our number one priority!

Photo courtesy of HaniAlYousif’s photostream of Flickr

Article reaction: Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge–TIME

Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge–TIME Wednesday, November 26, 2008

(This blog follows reading the above article)

For some time now I have been talking and blogging about changing what we do in schools. I have wondered aloud about what do we need to do make Paris High School a better place for our students to be prepared to take on their dreams and the challenges of adulthood. I have always believed that the number one factor in education is a quality teacher. One who genuinely cares for his or her students, believes they all can achieve, and is willing to challenge them on a daily basis. Good teachers engage their students, make them believe in what they are doing, and inspire them to reach upwards to meet their goals. They use a variety of methods to make their subject and skill sets come alive. Some are mastering new technologies and the social networks that their students naturally gravitate towards to make their classroom come alive. Some use a project based approach to have learners experience subject matter while learning and practicing real world and work usable skills. However they do it, they have a student centered approach, not a subject centered one. A good teacher can take the days events, the things students care about the most, and turn them into teachable moments while still covering the content standards.

So, you may ask, what does that have to do with the article? After digesting what it is that Michelle Rhee is trying to do, and thinking about her premises and actions, I have found that I agree with her on several points. As does Chancellor Rhee, I believe that it takes highly talented, effective teachers who care about people to make education work. I also agree with the premise that it does not make sense to pay all teachers that have the same education and experience the same salary. I also agree that giving tenure, which gives very strong job protection, to teachers after two years (in Illinois four) is not practical. (Read more about tenure here) If you are almost guaranteed a job and a raise that is equal to everyone else, where is the motivation to be better? Don’t get me wrong, there are some fine teachers that work well in this system, but it is because they are fine teachers despite the system, not because of the one we have in place. I also believe that education sometimes focuses on a feel good approach. That at times principals accept less than outstanding educators and their practices because the battles they face from staff, parents and other groups. We in education do focus on factors we do not control and lay the blame where it is safe, be that parenting, lack of resources, unfunded mandates…..etc, instead of tackling the problems we can solve and manipulating the factors we do control.

Education did not just become broken in the last decade, if fact, I would argue that the education system has not changed. Society has changed. The skills needed for the post-industrial-information based economy are different. We expect more out of our schools. Gone are the days when a good paying, relatively stable career can be had with a high school education. Today’s careers require a commitment to lifetime learning and constant retooling on the employee’s part. Our school system was put together when information was relatively static compared to today. The system that rewarded teachers with tenure after a few years assumed that a teacher could stay up to date with a little effort and that students could survive with a basic education that did not involve any post secondary studies. Today all students need to have the college preparatory skill set and the ability to consistently keep learning and growing to stay competitive in today’s job market. Our 20th Century, assembly line based school model is outdated. The world has flattened and we can no longer assume that our children will be competitive because we offer universal education. The rest of the world has caught up. We must change the system to match the times.

Where I disagree with Chancellor Rhee, or at least the way she is portrayed in the article, is that it will take a more humanist approach to changing the system. Yes, the good teachers need to be rewarded and the people that would be good at something else need to be persuaded to leave the teaching profession, but to simply refuse to talk, act rudely, and otherwise alienate the very professionals you need to work with is bound to undermine her efforts. I think there are very few teachers anywhere that wake up in the morning a decide I am going to do as little as I possibly can to help kids today. School districts need to do more to help teachers be excellent in their classrooms. Less time needs to be spent on how to do well on tests (no thanks to NCLB!) and preparing teachers to prepare students to take achievement tests. What job requires achievement test skills anyway? We need to give teachers more time to improve and work with new methodologies and technologies. They need to be given support in integrating 21st Century technology and methodologies into their curriculum. Every district needs to have curriculum/technology integration specialist that designs staff development, models excellent teaching, and observes classroom activities and provides feedback to teachers. Those teachers that fail to make improvements with proper support do need to be removed from the profession, but those teachers that are making their classrooms engaging and are challenging their students must be valued and allowed to have input in the improvement process. If they are rewarded and treated like valued professionals, teachers will work with districts to improve teaching. I believe that if properly supported and given input into process, teachers will work to police their own and help root out those teachers that bring the profession bad publicity. If education is really one of the most important pillars that holds up our American system, then we need to treat it as such. Education needs to be 240 day a year job! Teachers need more time with students and they need more time for proper professional development. We are no longer an agrarian society….we are not even a industrial society….we are post industrial and our schools must catch up now!

Chancellor Rhee is working on the right factors. Teaching must be excellent. Every student must have an excellent teacher. The system that employs tenure and a salary schedule that gives job protection and guaranteed pay rates despite performance is no longer capable of giving our children what they need. There are thousands of ways to do education right, and only one way to do it wrong. Doing it wrong is putting anything but our children as the top priority. The system we have now does not always do that.

Building and Cultivating a Positive Learning Environment

Relationships and expectations are the foundation of a school that will prepare students for higher education and/or careers. Strong relationships with other students and staff cannot exist without a culture of trust and respect. We as a staff can build the level of trust in our building by affording the students a level of respect by which we acknowledge them not as subordinates, but as fellow learners. Our mentoring program (A BIG THANKS TO OUR MENTORING TEAM!) is being designed and implemented to help both students and teachers build positive, respectful relationships. It is the aim of this endeavor to build strong relationships between teachers and students for the purpose of guiding students, building motivation for learning, and exposing our students to information which will guide them in their daily decisions as well as long term planning. This environment is not something that a principal can mandate. It must be cultivated by the entire staff. We must remember we are here to teach students and not subjects.