American Education Week: Creating Amazing Public Schools

Happy American Education Week. In honor of the week-long celebration, I was asked to focus my remarks this week on my “vision” for an amazing public school system. Oh my.

The last time I did that, I was accused of smoking something. Apparently there is a fine line between “vision” and “hallucination”. But I will repeat myself and tell you exactly what I want in my visionary, dreamy, hallucinogenic, utopian planet.

Aside from the obvious (that you would never have to go down to Staples and buy your own reams of paper because there wasn’t enough in the District budget for such exotic baubles), I would be in charge.

I’m pushy that way. In my system, classroom teachers would be in charge.

There would never be a Non-Teacher who would hand us a script to read to our students or give us a ridiculous goal (100% of your kids WILL be above average) or a ridiculous prize (and if they ARE then you get more pay) or a ridiculous punishment (and if you don’t achieve a statistical impossibility, which could only be accomplished by cheating, you get fired.)

I’m not talking about going back to some lost golden era when teachers were in charge. We’ve never been in charge. My vision is that we finally would be.

But that doesn’t mean we’d do it on our own. That’s impossible.

My vision is not about the impossible. It’s about opening up new possibilities.

Teachers understand the importance of parents. They understand and respect that a parent is the first teacher. In our world, we’d structure real time for collaboration with parents.

We’d design learning experiences that parents and grandparents and foster parents could follow through with at home, and they’d be fun and easy and not cost a family extra money they may not have, and parents would learn along with their children and teachers would learn along with parents and our students would understand that we were a real team.

We know that our school support professionals are essential team members. We’d coordinate with custodians and school secretaries and bus drivers what we were working on: Character development like being polite and helping others; instilling an expectation of college; responsibility and honesty and doing their homework. Most support staff live in the school community and know the kids and their families as neighbors.

We’d work with them to reinforce what we were teaching, even when they were out mowing the lawn or shopping in the grocery store. We’d work together to make the connection with school support staff a bonus for the kids.

We’d open our doors so that the neighborhood was welcome and they’d begin to understand that a public school belongs to them in a unique way. They are taxpayers, and whether or not they have a child in the school, they pay the salaries of the staff and the books and equipment and the water bill.

We would find ways to invite the public into their school building.

There would be community events and political debates and blood drives and senior citizen get-togethers and classes for parents to earn their high school diploma and fiestas and plays and concerts and book clubs, and that school would be a place that the neighborhood was proud of, and when they walked through the halls, they would see the essays and art and poetry of their neighborhood children hanging on the wall, and they would understand that because of their investment in someone else’s child – a whole and blessed child – the world would have a whole and blessed adult prepared to succeed in an increasingly complex, diverse and interdependent world.

In my world, there would be pride, but no arrogance. I’m a proud professional teacher, but I know that most of my best ideas came from the teachers who taught across the hall (thank you Susan and Mary and Shelly and Blaine and Kris and Allen and Jim).

In my vision, we end the isolation of Susan and Mary and Shelly and Blaine and Kris and Allen and Jim and we structure a system where we design what our school’s kids need together. We design our measurements. We analyze those measurements and then we plan our instruction or interventions around what matters. We collaborate and observe each other and learn from each other and help each grow and get better and better.

To get to the vision of my school, I’d have to put a few governors and legislators and members of Congress and maybe one or two presidents in time out. I would ask them to take a deep breath and stop their tantrums and to think (yes, actually think), but to think of who really is the best professional to be making decisions on instruction and reading programs and how to discipline a child or how to make out a child’s report card so that parents got a true, meaningful picture of the strengths and weakness and needs and talents of each child waaaay beyond some one-size-fits-all standardized test that misses the mark time and time again.

I’m not saying that teachers should not be held responsible for doing what good teachers are supposed to do. I’m saying that politicians have turned a good word like “accountability” into a bad word that now means “blame” (look it up). I’m saying that politicians too often have turned to bad, outdated business practices of 19th century factories to blame and shame and name – to “light a fire” under us to move the assembly line faster. To get a test score up. To make our “number”. In my world vision, politicians would stop being stupid.

They would listen to what brought us into this profoundly important profession.

They would listen to the passion of our mission – to open a child’s mind to its infinite possibilities. They would hold us responsible for doing our jobs well AND they would give us the authority to do our jobs well.

They would charge us to design a system – preschool to graduate school – that would reach towards our mission, the only goal worthy of a child. They would demand that we design and deliver and evaluate and intervene and measure and analyze what we measure, with the expectation that we were responsible for continually improving not only our world, but our universe.

I have actually lived in little parts of this world throughout my career. It’s not a hallucination. It’s real. For me, it’s been the drug that keeps me going:

The vision that the little miracles that happen to kids every day when a teacher is in truly in charge will become the purposeful structure; the expectation. Teachers have the moral responsibility to give their students what they need to succeed. My vision is for a system that gives us the authority to do just that.

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3 Responses to “American Education Week: Creating Amazing Public Schools”

  1. Joe DeMeis

    If you want to read a humorous accounting of a true to life school that embodied much of what you write about here check out, From Joe’s Desk: Making A School Smile.

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