Thursday, March 29, 2012

What is the focus of school?

When I initially made a decision earlier in the school year to limit the amount of time that students were going to miss school for a program because I believe that it was more important for the students to be in the classroom, quite a bit of criticism was directed my way. And quite honestly, no one from outside the building agreed with me, and not everyone on the inside thought I had made a good decision. I am talking about the matinee of the musical in which I decided that taking what amounted to a nearly a full day off of school for those students involved in the play, as well as about three hours for everyone else, did not make much sense when it comes to priorities. My justification was that those in the cast had already had a “run through” in front of their parents earlier in the week to work out the kinks, and that there were three performances over the weekend with plenty of seats available. In some respects I questioned whether it made economic sense to “give away” the musical to high school kids who could be paying customers. And people argued that something like this might be the only cultural experience that some of our kids ever get, which I countered with “most will still see five or six plays and musicals” over the course of their school career with my original proposal, which was a lot more than I saw growing up. But alas, a compromise was worked out and while I did not like the amount of school some kids missed to put on these performances, there are a lot worse reasons that students miss a day.

But this points to the bigger issue that I was focused on – what is the focus of school? In other conversations about other things educational, people (me included) have said, “They want us (school) to do everything.” We have a captured audience of people that most of us are very interested in: children from pre-K through age 18. When someone or some entity wants something done for or done to kids, “tell the school to do it!” After all, that’s where the kids are. When laws are passed about child workers and the Department of Labor has to enforce them, they push their responsibility off on school principals to assure that proper forms are completed when a child under 16 goes to work. When the government makes the decision that students need to be formally taught how to drive, one would think that would fall on the Department of Transportation. Nooooooooooo! That becomes the responsibility of the schools. Not only that, we have to certify that students meet requirements for a school permit on a form that has Department of Transportation right on the top of it! When the oil industry wants kids to know about the multiple uses of petroleum, they send materials to teachers asking them to teach that content to kids, as do the pork producers, corn growers, conservationists, and many, many others. Dental checks, eye checks, and the list go on and on and on. And the funny thing – none of that is included in the Iowa Core or the Common Core!

Public education has been the whipping boy for the past ten to fifteen years. The critics loudly run down what goes on in our schools, misusing all sorts of data to push their various agendas. But those are all big picture issues. Closer to home people have developed their own lists of important things that they want to see happen at school. The matinee is one of those things. When you do the math, if we did not have any interruptions in our school day, we have 135 hours at most to teach a student math, or English, or any other subject. That is just a bit more than three regular workweeks for someone in the labor force. Three weeks! Now, take away six or seven hours for the time taken away for the shortened schedules due to early releases and late starts for whatever the reason. Do you see where I am going with this? It may seem no big deal for the kids to miss a couple of classes to watch the matinee, or to miss because they have to leave early for the track meet, or because they are going on the band trip, or physical therapy, or orthodontist appointments, or to go and read to 3rd graders, or to do a service project, and on and on.

We have to have time to focus on our purpose, which is to teach students the curriculum that will align with the Iowa Core. That is the purpose of school. And, our top priority must be those essential standards that are included in the core. There has to be shift in the mindset, as I know that for many, music, athletics, and some of the other programs hold a higher priority. The reality is that it can’t. We are not accountable to our political leaders and our taxpayers for football success or all-staters. We are accountable for the academic performance of our students. Therefore, I have a moral obligation to protect class time. It is what we are here for.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Is The Secret To Success Failure?

In the past few months I have spent a bit of time reading about success and failure, specifically as it relates to young people. One of the articles that I read makes a very strong case that young people today must be given the chance to fail in order for them to experience true success. The article appeared in the New York Times and basically made the case that the generation of young people that we have raised in the last ten to fifteen years lack many of the necessary skills and character traits needed to be successful in life because as they were growing up, they rarely or never had the chance to fail. Some of you may say, “Huh?” I say, “Validation!”

As I have grown as an educator and gone through experience after experience with students, teachers, musicians, athletes, parents, coaches, and many others, I have become very observant. And one of the things that I have seen a lot is kids doing some amazing things. I have also seen kids do some things that are really not very amazing, yet those closet to them are pretty doggone impressed. And, I have seen kids get credit for doing something pretty amazing when it reality, they didn’t do much at all to deserve it.

The key factor in this premise is the adults that work with the child, most specifically the parents and teachers, in the case of what I see most of the time. Helicopter parents are the worst things that have happened to young people in the past fifty years, and we have a lot of them. Some of them hover just a little bit, but are still destructive. Others rescue their kids constantly and have basically created a handicapped child. When children always get what they want and do not experience “no,” or whenever something “bad” happens to them and a parent comes swooping in to make the feel better or fix the problem, we have a child that does not know how to solve a problem on their own. I once asked a pretty successful wrestler during his 9th grade year when he was struggling with Algebra “what is the toughest thing you have ever had to do in your life?” He pondered this question a little bit and then answer, “I don’t think I have ever had to do anything very tough.” And the truth was, he hadn’t! He had the worse case of helicopter parents I had ever dealt with and he did not know how to handle adversity. You see, true success, and a feeling of success are internal and come from a sense of accomplishment. We have to stop taking that opportunity away from our kids.

Most of you have heard the story of how many times Abraham Lincoln failed at various steps in his life prior to becoming President. The character traits of persistence and resiliency were never in question, and he continued in his quest to reach his goals. Why would our kids be any different? I have wondered if one of the best things we could do at school would be to somehow throw up a “wall of failure” and guarantee that every student will suffer some kind of significant set back so that they can pick themselves up and learn from it, problem solving and moving forward. The challenges that our kids are going to face beyond high school have a lot higher stakes and better that they face some adversity now while they are surrounded by a very supportive group of people than when they are out on their own. There is a reason that we have an insane number of 30 year-olds still living off Mom and Dad. They don’t know how to succeed when it is left up to them!

To “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again” is perhaps the most important of the 21st century skills that we need to teach our young people. Do we have your permission?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Is Going On?

One morning in December I was reading the Des Moines Register as I do every day, and on two consecutive pages I saw the following headlines: Census: 1 in 2 people poor or low income followed by Survey: 1 in 4 U.S. women violence victims. Quite honestly, I was taken aback by both of those headlines, and as I read through the articles, it was difficult to be anything but discouraged. As an educator, when I read things like this the first question that I generally ask is “What could we have done differently?” But in recent years, I have quit assuming blame on behalf of the public school system. These two problems cannot be blamed on the public school systems; rather the finger needs to be pointed at a number of different entities out there. But then again, why blame? What needs to happen is that we recognize the problems and do something about them.

Rising living costs has decimated the middle class. America was built by the efforts of the middle class, which has been the key to the economic greatness this country has achieved. However, earnings have dropped so much that many of them have fallen into the low-income bracket, some now being classified as living in poverty. More discouraging is that experts say that continued cuts by the federal government in some of the “safety net” programs would result in even more people barely able to scrape by. A lot of people are out of work and in some cities, 1 in 4 people need emergency food assistance. And we wonder why kids from these families are struggling in school!

As a father of a teenage girl, the statistic of 1 in 4 women being violently attacked by their boyfriend or husband is one of those things that give you a sick feeling in your stomach. There have been times over the years that I have been a principal when a counselor or teacher will come to me concerned about the welfare of a female student who it being abused by a boyfriend. Yes, it happens, and it happens in our community. Of course battered girlfriends are no different than battered wives; they are in fear and struggle to know what to do. They feel a strong sense of shame, as well as hopelessness. Quite honestly, it sickens me. I have always wondered how a man can strike or in some other way physically assault a female under any circumstance. That does not happen in civil society, yet it happens in our country at every level of society.

Now I go back to my role as an educator. What can schools do to improve these two aspects of American life? First of all, whenever a young person comes to us and provides credible evidence that they are being abuse, whether by a family member, boyfriend, or anyone else, we report it to the proper authorities. Our “bar of proof” is very low. While we have been trained, we are not the experts. But we do assume the responsibility with which we have been entrusted and we turn it over to those people that are the experts. We counsel and support, and at times we will sit in with a student when they wish to have one of those tough conversations with a parent or someone else. So often the target of abuse feels alone and perhaps the most important thing we do is show support. We are also looking for ways to be proactive, to provide educational opportunities to talk to students about respecting one another, treating each other with dignity if for no other reason than they are human beings.

The poverty issue is very real in our school right now. The number of students qualifying for free and/or reduced lunch continues to increase. There are some positive signs as we hear that more jobs are coming to our area soon. However, that will not satisfy all of the problems. For those kids and families that are truly struggling and looking for that hand up, we are very conscious of ways that we can help out a bit. I have been amazed by the generosity of some of our staff members who will dig into their pockets to help out a deserving student. And, there are other supports available that we can direct a child and a family to. The bottom line is that it is not hopeless and if people are persistent, they can find a way.

I guess that these conditions may be part of our new reality. But like so many challenges that we confront, these can certainly be managed and dealt with. At North Fayette we care about our kids and we will work hard to lessen the burdens that they face so that they can focus on the reason that they are hear – to learn.