“Schools should be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be.”
I saw this quote somewhere and wrote it down in a safe place. So safe that I just ran across it again years later. A quick Google search did not immediately reveal the source of the quote, so for now it remains anonymous. I know it is from some book I’ve read, and I’m so very thankful that I ran across it again. So let’s look at this a little bit and try to understand what it means to be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring place.
I write from my current vantage point, which is High School Principal, but my thoughts can always be altered to come from the elementary or middle school levels as well. I have had stints as principal at all three levels, and so my thoughts sometimes blend and always begin with students first.
I wonder what would happen if our meetings with staff and faculty began with this question: “What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?” What kinds of responses would we get? I bet they would look like they had been ripped from the Anytown USA School District Mission page. You would see things like: Ensuring that our students are lifelong learners, and Providing all students with a challenging curriculum and Helping students become productive citizens. And these responses are just fine. There is nothing wrong with these answers, and no one would say we don’t want those qualities in our own children.
But what does that look like?
How is our school the richest?
How is our school the most soul-inspiring?
How is our school the most mind-inspiring?
How do we know?
Where is our proof?
When I can walk into a high school classroom and find students coloring a map of the world… is that my proof?
When I walk into a high school classroom and see kids frantically scribbling notes from a lecture… is that my proof?
When I walk into a high school classroom and notice kids with their heads down at the back of the room… is that my proof?
When I walk into a classroom that is being subbed by a guest teacher and kids are mindlessly watching a movie… is that my proof?
Certainly there are, without question, MANY classrooms that look and feel exactly the opposite from my examples above. I can go out on any given day and do random walkthroughs and find examples of stellar teaching and learning that is rich and absolutely soul- and mind-inspiring. Make no mistake. What I am wondering is, “what about the rest?” What about the rest of the kids, the rest of the classes kids are sitting in, perhaps bored, or completing mindless tasks, or… just not learning.
One could easily say well, yes, but let’s make sure we are putting blame where blame is due. Let’s make sure we are properly holding kids accountable. After all, it can’t simply be the quality of the teaching, or the content of a lesson, that is causing kids to be bored and/or “not learn,” can it?
Really. Can it?
I would urge you to think about the typical high school student’s day. Look at the typical high school student’s eight-period schedule with a lunch installed in the middle of the day, a study hall if she’s lucky, and the rest of the day taken up by back-to-back classes of 45 minutes each, with bells interrupting each period. If she is a high-level student, she is probably taking Honors and/or Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which even compounds the issue further.
That one study hall is probably being used to watch Netflix in an attempt to de-stress from the day, hang out with friends, or maybe catch up on some homework that didn’t quite get finished. The issue with a straight, back-to-back eight-period day is that the learning which might be taking place cannot even begin to compare, say, to the learning that takes place out of school – the things I really want to be learning. I know for myself, that when I’m learning something and I’m really deep into it, I am not going to stop and switch gears after 45 minutes.
I know I brought up a sticky point, here. I implied that the only time someone ever really learns anything is outside of school. But that is only one half of the story. I have learned many great things during my time in school; granted, they were only cursory glimpses into things (like Greek Mythology or 20th Century English Literature or Creative Writing), and I am highly thankful and may not have ever learned of this content had I not attended these classes. But where did I really, deeply learn about this subject matter? Certainly not during a 45 minute class period, where just when I was starting to get into it, the bell rings and I’ve got to switch gears and try to pay attention in algebra. I hate algebra. I’m no good at algebra.
There is another point that needs some clarification here, which my loathing of algebra calls to mind: the power of the teacher. There can be no replacement for a highly energetic, passionate, caring, patient teacher. Even though I hated algebra; despite my intense anxiety and sudden stomach aches an hour before I had to be in that algebra class, my high school algebra teacher was caring and she was patient and she clearly LOVED the content, and THAT made all the difference in the world for me. To this day I don’t love algebra, but I am somewhat good at it, and I never fell asleep in her class because I didn’t want to disappoint or offend her.
Still, our current system is not working for everyone.
Something needs to be done. For the sake of everyone.
Where do we start? I would say that a good place would be with the question:
What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?