A few months ago as part of a leadership course, I was invited to list some people that have inspired or motivated me in my own work. Next to their names I jotted down some notes to explain why these people appeared on my list. They were on my list for all manner of reasons but underlying everything was the fact that I knew what these people cared about.
Teaching is a caring profession and I have worked with many caring people. Interestingly enough though, at times, a few people on my list gave the impression that they couldn’t care less.
This post is inspired by a friend’s writing about the least perfect PYP exhibition he had been involved in and why he was delighted with it compared to his experiences of other, more polished, exhibitions in which students were ‘controlled, manipulated (and) managed … by a group of well-meaning educators who wanted the students to be seen in the best light.’ My friend’s point was that when teachers take control, students may lose ownership of their successes and shortcomings and might be denied the opportunity to truly celebrate what they did well and to learn from or improve on what they did not do so well.
Every Monday morning, we have a student-led assembly. All students and teachers attend and an invitation is also extended to parents. Last Monday, it was the turn of our fifth grade students to lead. Together with their teacher, the students had compiled a very well thought out program that reflected what they had been focusing on in class – opinion writing, fractions and the importance of respect. The students introduced themselves, shared their work, invited teachers to share notices and recognize students, and generally ran everything as their teacher watched them in the audience.
As Principal, I always have a few notices to share and students to recognize so I tend to sit near the corner of the stage. Everything was going smoothly until the students prepared themselves to sing a song about respect. The music would not play despite a lot of button pressing by one of the students. Their teacher remained unmoved and without adult intervention, the ten students on stage sang the song without music.
After an item on fractions, the students again readied themselves to sing. This time they were to sing John Lennon’s Imagine. Again the music would not play. After smiling and shifting in my seat through the first song, I snuck down to ask the student’s teacher to see if she could help to get the music going. She calmly said something along the lines of ‘the kids can sort it.’ They could not get the music going but they did sort it. To their great credit, the students sang Imagine without music in front of all of their peers, their teachers, and their parents. As a fifth grade student, without exaggeration, this would be my worst nightmare. It was obvious that they would have rather had the music to accompany their sketchy lyrics and shaky voices but they boxed on and earned everyone’s respectful applause.
Character development in children is something that I care deeply about. The main purpose of student-led assemblies at our school is to provide opportunities for students to develop and display character and leadership. The musical glitch enabled the students to show their resilience, perseverance and positivity. Leadership was provided by a student who took it upon himself to organize the others and encourage them to start singing. In terms of character development and leadership, this assembly was a resounding success.
After the assembly, I caught up with the students’ teacher and she said the music, along with everything else for their assembly, was the students’ responsibility. I agreed that this responsibility was entirely appropriate and in keeping with providing opportunities for students to develop character. So why did I essentially ask this teacher to bail out her students?
Like everyone in our community, I care about our students. I want them to be happy and successful. I also care about the reputation of our teachers and our school. I also care about my own reputation as a school leader. For these reasons, I wanted these students to present themselves in the best possible light.
Matters of reputation, success and happiness are certainly worth caring about but the main purpose of our student-led assemblies is character development. And in providing meaningful character development and leadership opportunities for our students, reputation, success, and happiness sometimes need to be risked.
By asking the teacher to intervene, I was prioritizing short term reputation, success, and happiness over the long term character development of those students. I was also sending a message to our teachers not to take risks for fear of student failure. This message is contrary to my beliefs that failure is a necessary part of of learning and a teacher’s job is to challenge students rather than to make things easy for them.
By not intervening, the teacher was prioritizing the long term character development of her students over reputation (including hers) and short term student success and happiness. This was a conscious decision on her part and it took courage to make it. Her actions (or inaction) showed that she cared enough about what she believed in to not care about any potential fall-out from acting accordingly.
Teachers should not be afraid to do what they believe is right for their students. In his book, What if everything you knew about education is wrong? David Didau suggests that if we want to improve education, we need to focus less on pedagogical preferences and more on describing those educational beliefs and values so important to us that we would never compromise them.
A shared understanding of the common educational beliefs and values within a school is important and to facilitate this, school leaders must inquire into the beliefs of those that they serve and clearly articulate their own. This shared understanding will provide educators with the confidence to act in accordance with these beliefs and values safe in the knowledge that their actions, regardless of outcomes, will be presumed to be purposeful and positive in intention.
Educators should not need to care about what might go wrong in doing what they believe is right. Those educators on my list do not seem to. I am sure they do care about matters of reputation, success, and happiness but what inspires and motivates me is their unwillingness to compromise their educational beliefs and values to appease others. They care enough not to care.