For the first time in more than 15 years, this autumn, I won’t be heading back to school; and my wife, after 18 years of teaching, has also opted to take her career in a new direction. Since 2002, I’ve been involved in educational settings in a wide variety of capacities — working, volunteering, attending, or some combination of the 3 (in addition to the other jobs I’ve held — oy vey, that’s a lot of jobs). And, over the course of each school year, I learned a great deal about: education programming, the impact of a school’s culture and the teachers that define it, the way students react to various types of incentives, the importance of community support, the role of parents/guardians and caregivers, the good, bad & ugly that comes from a strong, weak, or negligent administration, and of course, the ways in which opportunities, or lack of opportunities, affects a student’s long-term trajectory; (not to mention all of the latest trends, fads, slang, and how to up my emoji game). As I reflect on what I’ve experienced/learned, I can only wonder, what if?
What if we allowed high school students to tell us how they define success, and then let them work towards that goal, given a set of loosely constructed parameters within which they would need to stay? How would that change their outlook on school, on their future, on society? How much of a difference could that make in their long-term involvement within their local community?
What if all communities had the ability to financially support their local schools? What would happen if we could make-up for the lack of state funding, which prevents those students most in need from getting the extra help that is required, to achieve some semblance of equity? What types of investments would we see in the schools where 70% of kids are experiencing poverty? What sort of programming might we find that could provide those opportunities that are taken for granted in more affluent communities? How would that positively affect the inter-generational programming that is already doing great work?
What if the funding of education was looked at in the same way that we look at funding our military – as a matter of national security? What if we decided that taxes were a net positive, when being used to promote the common good through public educational services? What if we deemed it to be in the public’s interest to ensure every student’s potential is realized?
What if all administrations (not just some) understood the importance of supporting staff by… supporting staff, and providing meaningful and ongoing professional development? How would that change the current paradigm? How might that change the efficacy of educators, as they prepare for a new challenge?
There are a lot more “What Ifs” we could consider (and I won’t even start on what’s happening in our education programs in America’s great universities), but until we have elected officials who are all-in, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to provide public schools with the necessary funds, it’s just an exercise in futility. Even those proposals that don’t have large price-tags attached are connected to funding by the series of human links that allow for the continued operation of schools. So until that day comes, we should focus on those practices that are most likely to contribute to a student’s success.
Looking back and assessing which practices had the greatest effect on the students, I recall three particular applications or ideas: 1) Personal Connections (being part of a community, which directly relates to class-sizes), 2) Meaningful Learning Practices (connecting what is learned to real-life and teaching the topic in a way that is engaging for the learner), and 3) Funding ($$$$$). The first and third items are true across all grade levels, to include post-secondary. The second practice is most relevant beginning around 8th or 9th grade (and also important in the younger grades), depending on the individual student. These 3 items, in no particular order, have done more to promote student growth (mental, psychological, and emotional), than any other combination of educational programming or curriculum. When students feel that they are part of a community, are given the opportunity to learn about subjects/fields that they find interesting, and the school/district has enough money to ensure kids have the necessary resources to experience what that learning can lead to (e.g. field trips, camps, or bringing outside professionals into the classroom), there is no limit to how far that student can go. And how far a student can go often aligns with how that student defines success.
When adults attempt to define success for the students, they rarely use specifics, and they rarely get it right. No one can tell me what success looks like in my life, aside from me. Why do we think we can tell students what success looks like for them? This goes against the very idea of having students do their best in order to achieve “their” goals. Let’s let them tell us where they want to go and then help them get there. For some it will be a 4 year college, for others a 2 year degree or year-long certificate program. Others will want to serve their country in the military or spend a year volunteering, before deciding what comes next in their life. Others will go directly into the world of work; and for these young people we need to have more pipeline programs that help them realize their dreams. Through a combination of on-the-job training (OJT) and one or two classes, 2 days a week, they can learn a trade while earning a living and feel successful as they see their efforts pay off. Additionally, the efficacy they are building can provide benefits that will extend to the other adventures they encounter throughout life. That skill, efficacy, isn’t something that will be tested for on a standardized test, but it will better prepare a person for what follows upon entering adulthood.
If we know anything about life, we know that it rarely goes according to plan. The best laid plans veer off course and we spend years recalculating and navigating for a new course. The future of work, and the rate at which technology is changing, virtually guarantees that the average worker will go back to school at least once (which means, changing plans), if not several times, to update skills or learn a brand new “career”. When one decides to switch careers, and goes back to school to learn a new set of skills, efficacy goes a long way in helping them persevere. So we owe it to the younger generations to make sure their efficacy levels are as high as possible before they reach adulthood. And considering the number of hours they spend in classrooms, school is the ideal place to work on this.
I’ve learned from a host of brilliant minds — entrepreneurs, educators, creatives — to include many teachers, students, staff, parents, community members, and people who have dedicated their lives to helping children. They all have/had different ideas of what success looks like, and they all understood the importance of believing in oneself, i.e. efficacy. When class and/or work settings were smaller, they had more time to build-up each student/employee and make them feel as if they were controlling their own learning. If we can provide more of this type of interaction in public schools, we can go a long way towards achieving successful outcomes as defined by the students.
By providing superficial goals and deeming students successful, upon completion of “mastering” said goals/skills, we’re setting kids up for disappointment. And furthermore, the failures that occur aren’t genuine, they’re pre-determined, based on a set of factors that has nothing to do with the child’s actual intelligence. Allowing them to take a more meaningful role in their future, failing and succeeding, provides the motivation needed to get the most they can out of their educational opportunities.
In 2010, I wrote a reflection on what it means to be “All In“, as it related to working in education. Eight years later, I feel no less passionate about the work of educating young people, I do however, feel that the system is set-up in a manner to prevent every student from getting the best possible education. That doesn’t mean that the overwhelming majority of the millions of people involved in education aren’t doing their best to provide opportunities, it means that State, Local, and Federal Governments aren’t providing the necessary funds to ensure every student gets the instruction, attention, and opportunity they deserve. Let’s work on providing more funding so as to facilitate the personal connections and meaningful learning practices that work so well when provided.
If you’re headed back to school this fall, best of luck!