Priorities in Schools: How to Make Effective Change Tomorrow

What is most essential for us to teach our students in schools today?  

Some may say how to read, others how to be creative thinkers, or mathematicians, responsible people, maybe scientists. The list goes on and on. While these skills are important, are they the most important proficiencies we should be developing in our children?  

If you ask most parents what they want for their children when they are adults the answer you get most often is happy, followed by “good people.” I know as a Father of three that is all I want for my kids.  You want to be a teacher, an athlete, a lawyer, gay, straight, have kids of your own or not.  None of that really matters to me all that much (except I do want to be a grandparent someday). What  I really want for my kids is for them to be happy, healthy, and good people.  

I would like to think that this is what most parents want for their offspring, yet how much of our school day is dedicated to cultivating these type of skills?  We require students to follow a prescribed schooling experience, offer little time to pursue their passions, make them jump through hoops as a means to get into “the right” college so they can have a successful career.  The education system prioritizes tests, grades and standardization. We force students, parents, and teachers to play this game because of a fear of losing.  

We want “the right” college, we want them to have a great job, we want success–the current definition of success–but at what cost? Are we measuring success the wrong way? Would you consider your child, student, loved one successful if he/she were a money making machine with a prestigious career? How about if the cost of that perceived success was health, happiness, connections with others, or being a good person?  

It is challenging to think about priorities differently.  This is the way we have done things for so long.  We all work with in system that doesn’t always embrace change.  Change in education happens at a snail’s pace, but that doesn’t mean we can’t, as Dr. Katie Martin describes in her enlightening book Learner Centered Innovation: “re-frame” the problem.  

If changing an antiquated system seems like an insurmountable task, can individual educators set different priorities to change the paradigm?  Can the passionate and caring educators who truly want what’s best for kids make some adjustments that can help to develop happy, healthy, adults who are not only good people, but are successful in whatever their passions may be?  I believe we can!

Some steps we can take tomorrow:


I have personally experienced the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. I have also been lucky enough to see it put into practice in classrooms.  Research supports mindfulness as a means to reduce discipline issues, increase achievement, enhance focus, and, yes, make children happier.  When Mrs. T, a teacher who fosters a mindful learning environment in her classroom, was recently asked about her thoughts on the benefits for her and her students she could not contain her tears of joy.  She explained that after a long break she and her students genuinely could not wait to return to their “safe and thoughtful” environment. It can be as simple as taking a few breaks each day to have your students breathe, check in with their emotions, or focus on a 5 minute guided meditation exercise.  The benefits can help students, not only in your class, but for years to come as they develop strategies and habits that they can utilize throughout their lives.  What do you have to lose other than a couple of minutes a day?

Gratitude Journals

Amy Morin, LCSW published  7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude in Psychology Today, which provides a compelling case for practicing gratitude on a daily basis. There is a plethora of research that supports the benefits of expressing gratitude. In fact, studies out of the Universities of Utah and Kentucky found that practicing gratitude on a regular basis significantly increases the immune systems.  From The Beatles to The Weekend, many artists have written songs about gratitude. Maybe it is time we embraces this practice in our schools by dedicating a few minutes a day. Students, teachers, and staff can write daily in a gratitude journal.

The school can suggest a “gratitude” topic that could be used to guide the authors.  Some topics to consider:

  • Foods
  • Things in Nature
  • Books
  • People
  • TV Shows
  • Teachers
  • Things people have done for me
  • Animals
  • Subject

Different Conversations- “Take a Talk Break”

We speak to students and colleagues everyday, but how much do we actually know about them?  We are social beings; we need each other; we make each other better.  It is time to prioritize who we are as people, who are students are as people.  It’s ok to take time to talk to kids about topics other than school.  

A great strategy that I witnessed a teacher utilizing was to periodically take a “talk break.” When she sensed the class was losing focus or burning out, she would call for a talk break. Students would find their partner through a rotating system she had put in place. They would then talk about anything they wanted to talk about.  The only rules were that the conversations had to be respectful, you had to be an active listener until it was your turn to share, and you could not talk about a school subject. The teacher spent time instructing students on how to effectively have these type of conversations. By the time I witnessed this in action they were a well-oiled machine.

The teacher, who also participated, said that this was not only her favorite part of the day, but  something her students loved as well. Interestingly enough, this strategy saved time by reducing distractions, discipline issues, and created a more cohesive class which felt like a little family. The unintended consequence was that students were learning how to speak and listen (ELA Standard) in an authentic way.


Humans need to play, to have fun, to discover and tinker. That goes for kids and adults alike. Why is it that we have given students less and less time to play, to discover, to use their imagination, and to solve problems among themselves? I suspect it is has to do with our country’s obsession with test scores and standardization.  

We feel we just don’t have time to “waste” on play.  Unfortunately, it is having the opposite effect.  Yong Zhao, one of our generation’s educational geniuses, feels the United States obsession with PISA scores and keeping up with the China’s of the world has robbed us of what has made our country great. We are the problem solvers, the free thinkers, the  innovators, the unique. We are not the standard.  It is ok to make time for play, for exploration in your class. It is ok for us adults to play as well.  Life is short; we can’t waste it taking ourselves too seriously.

Teach What Is Important

Our Social Studies Coordinator asked his department to consider the five most important concepts or skills for students to take away from the courses they teach and by the time they graduate. This was an enlightening experience for the department. It helped them wipe away all the fog and focus on what is really important in their classes.

If we did this in our schools we could teach with much more depth, much more meaning, and much more relevance. Why do we need to have a million and one freakin standards that are confusing and impossible to cover adequately, even for the most skilled and dedicated teachers? It is asking too much of our teachers, of our students.  It is hurting the field.  We need to simplify what it is that we want our students to learn. Start tomorrow by asking yourself what is really essential for my students to understand when they leave my class.

Restorative Practices  

In his book Better Than Carrots and Sticks Dominique Smith offers a compelling argument for utilizing a different approach when students make mistakes. He suggests restorative circles, honest conversations, and repairing relationships.  The strategies he offers are more effective than traditional discipline procedures. When educators teach the behaviors they expect, forgive mistakes, and don’t take student transgressions personally, the long term effects on the classroom, the school, and ultimately the child far outlast the benefits of a suspension, which we know really doesn’t solve the issue at hand.  Consider a different approach when one of your students makes a mistake and remember we all have made mistakes and unfortunately will all make many more.


The best schools, the best teachers, the best administrators, celebrate the accomplishments of their school family. It doesn’t matter if it is the custodian whose daughter was named the valedictorian, the child who served at a soup kitchen over the weekend, or the teacher who saved a life by administering the Heimlich, it is important to celebrate.  We often celebrate athletic and academic accomplishments, but there is so much more to life and so much more to be proud of. Take the time to celebrate the success of the students and fellow staff members, the big ones, the small ones, and all those in between. It can be a card, an announcement on the PA, or just a word of acknowledgement.  Starting tomorrow, make it your business to find out and celebrate the success of those you work with and those you educate.  

Ask For Forgiveness

If you do not cover the entire curriculum, you will not be fired.  If you dare to be different, you will not be out of a job. You are a superhero, you are an educator!

It is time to be strong, to stand up and do what you know is right for your students, even if it is off script, even if you have central office administrators like me telling you to do things a certain way. Do what you know is right by your kids and don’t ask for permission.  

My mother always told me it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. It turned out to be some of the best advice I have ever received. You got into the profession because you want to make a difference, you want to positively impact lives, to mold young minds….start doing it today.  We have to “re-frame the problem”. We have to stop waiting for the system to change; we have to establish our priorities and make changes, small or big, tomorrow.  Do what you know is right, what is a priority and to hell with the rules. I offered some suggestions on what that could look like, but I certainly do not have all the answers.

You do.

Start looking at things a little differently and have the courage to stand for what you know is right. When you do, our students will not only be successful, but they will be healthy, happy, and kind.