During one of my very first visits to a school as a school improvement consultant, I met with a group of high school students. They didn’t know me and I had never met them. We had a great chat about their school. They were thrilled to tell me what they loved and just as excited about what had to change. I mostly remember Willie- he was a junior (11th grade) and loved to talk! Here is why years later, I still think about Willie…
He had a huge grin on his face when he described the teacher who let him lead the US History discussion about World War II. He loved that I was from Canada because he had studied our country in Geography. And he was so passionate about what needed to improve at the school. He carefully articulated that he wanted a good education because he knew it was his “ticket” out of generational poverty (he even used this term). His parents wanted it for him too. He described his home life as challenging but he knew that he was loved and that getting a good education would open the doors that his parents could not access. His parting statement to me as he left the room has stayed with me for years… “I hope we see you again in our school because I bet you can help us. Please let the teachers know that I want to learn.” As I left that day I knew I had experienced my first lesson on the road and here is why…
The most telling message from the students was the clarity with which they talked about the teachers in the school who wanted to build relationships and engage them in their learning. They loved being in these classes. They couldn’t contain their excitement, talking all at once and competing for my attention. They mostly described situations that they had hands-on experiences or had choice. One girl was really interested in aviation and described how she was struggling in Physics classes. The teacher took the time to talk to her and understood that she was “in to airplanes” so she helped her create opportunities to use her love of flying to understand physics. She bubbled over with energy and enthusiasm describing how she was able to interview an aircraft mechanic and remembered everything this professional said to her about the physics behind her work.
The students clearly did not mind being challenged and obviously loved the lessons that were relevant… they could see some connection to daily life. And, most importantly, they described the teachers and administrators who took the time to get to know them and have a relationship with them. They knew which ones stayed after school for extra help or events, organized clubs and activities and attended weekend games. And, as we were finishing the conversation, Willie asked me if I ever thought that teachers gave up on students. When I probed a bit, the students explained that sometime they felt that some of the teachers in the school didn’t really believe in them. That maybe they expected them to fail because of the situations they came from or just because of the school that they were in.
Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the teachers in that same school, they saw the students in a very different way than I did. I talked about how much I enjoyed my conversation with them and how fortunate that they were to have such great students to teach. One teacher was so surprised by my impression of the students that she asked me if I was sure that they were their students. The students that the teachers described were not interested in learning and misbehaved so much that they couldn’t teach them. They were bored and their parents sure didn’t care. described the school as a difficult one to work in and couldn’t see how they were going to get out of the cycle of poor student achievement. They knew that the state and district expected them to be better but they were at a loss for how this could happen with these students. And it was genuine concern and frustration. They really didn’t know what to do. It was obvious to me that they cared and truly believed that the students gave up on themselves.
With both the teachers and students, I sensed their desire to be successful. The teachers worked hard and wanted what was best for their students. And the students wanted to be their best. Obviously, there was a huge disconnect between what the students and the teachers believed about the school and each other. What is the old saying- perception is reality? This was the first time in my very long career that the gap between the adult and student understanding was so apparent to me. I knew that my work in Willie’s school would start here.
How do we build the bridge when what we perceive to be true becomes reality? Where do we start when mindset and the culture of the organization are creating disparity? In Willie’s school, like so many others, school improvement takes on a life of its own. Too many initiatives, too much focus on programs and so many rules are created that no one remembers why. Structural changes are put in place but not the cultural shift that has to happen. If you are reading this as a school or district leader, is it time to review/revise your practices that might be taking you away from the student? In Leading with Intention, https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html, you can find some helpful hints in chapter five to get your focus back on the student. Changing minds and practices, focusing on beliefs and values and recognizing schools as places that people come together in community to learn and work are part of the dynamics that create a more positive school culture. But, it doesn’t happen over night. I have learned this the hard way.
The good news is in Willie’s school the principal was all in with the energy and desire to create the changes necessary. The teachers accepted that a growth mindset was needed. The students embraced their own learning. It isn’t over and there have been many challenges… two steps forward and five steps back. Thanks for being here with me. If you have followed this blog for awhile, you might feel that you read this before. You did. It is one that I felt worth repeating. See you next Saturday.