Yes, One Person Can Make School A Better Place

It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” 

Marcus Aurelius


I was struggling to come up with a strong piece to kick off the year, probably because I wanted it to be profound. It would be my first chance to express how I was feeling about the upcoming school year, to hopefully inspire others, and to focus my efforts. How could I bring my quest to make schools a better place for kids one step closer to reality this year? When I struggle with ideas I often ask my kids for their thoughts. Scott and I have used our car ride back to his mother’s to flush out some of the articles I am most proud of. He must be getting used to this routine. I asked him what I should write about and before I could finish my question, he crafted what he thought should be my opening line.

“September 4th is a date that has been circled on students’ calendars around the country, a day they have dreaded as soon as they took their last test in June.“

I told him I liked it, but I want to make people want to go back to school and be excited to learn. He rolled his eyes a bit and looked at me with pity.  His eyes saying, “You are out of touch old man; no one wants to go back to school no matter how many pollyanna articles you write.”

I wanted to hear what he thought despite the genuine criticism he offered visually rather than verbally. So I asked him what he would do to make school better?  Without pause, he said “later start.”

His answer was a good one and I told him the research backed it up, but that was a fight for another day. The goal of this article was to get people pumped for the upcoming school year. I pushed him some more for ideas; they were not coming as quickly as they usually do because, “my mind is shut off to school stuff and learning in the summer.”

I got on my soapbox and said if school was better maybe he would be inspired to learn on his own and summer could be a time to expand his knowledge in areas that his teacher turned him on to.

“How can we get there?” I asked.

“I guess more teachers who are like the best ones.”  

I felt like we were on to something, but he was struggling to articulate what qualities the best teachers share. I finally said, “pick your favorite teacher and tell me what it is you like.”  

He gave me a simple list of qualities we can all aspire to tomorrow:

  • They are nice
  • They make you feel like they know you as an person
  • They tell you what it is they want and why
  • They let us try new things so class isn’t boring
  • The actually listen to what we have to say
  • They are honest and fair

I kept pushing, but that was about all I was going to get from a High School Freshman at 9:00 am, but I felt it was enough to get me started.

I had so much swirling around in my head; I had learned from so many great educators this summer. I can feel things changing, and changing for the better in our field. I struggled and am still struggling with my desire to build on this momentum.  

How can I make things better?

How can I motivate others and give them hope?

Rick Wormeli

I had the opportunity to learn from and work with talented edustars the past three months. Jimmy Casas, Joe Dombrowski, Evan Robb, Bartuk Kafele, and, my first  educational hero, Rick Wormeli. Wormeli’s philosophy has helped to shape who I am as a leader today, and, like a fine wine, he seems to be getting better with age. Just thinking about my summer got me excited to write and share my experiences with readers. That resulted in a 4,500 word, bear of a story that was just too long.

Luckily, I took my wife’s advice when she said, “I love you and even I don’t want to read a story that long.”

What you are left with is a more succinct tale; what I am left with is a start on my next three or four articles.

Dr. Yong Zhao

August 30th was a day that I had the opportunity to learn from one more “educational great” before the kids came to us on September 4th.  My Superintendent has been talking about Yong Zhao for years. In her not-so-subtle way she has hinted that she would love for her entire staff to hear his message. This year we were able to make her desire to see one of the greatest educational minds of our time grace the stage of North Rockland High School a reality.

I have seen him speak several times and have read most of his work.  He is a brilliant researcher who thinks out of the box. His unique presentational style is part self deprecation, part brutal honesty, and all inspiration.  He zips around his ipad popping up different pictures, graphs, studies, and excerpts. The first time you see a presentation done this way you wonder how he is able to tie all of those random pictures together to paint such a compelling story. Yet, he is able to do it time and time again, allowing you to learn something new every time you hear him speak.  Based on the feedback I have been receiving, his message hit mark; it has people thinking and thinking differently. It has opened our eyes to things we may not have thought of before.

How do we make the ideas that Yong Zhao, Rick Wormeli, Jimmy Casas, Principal Kafele preach a reality?

I have been asked by numerous people since they saw Dr. Zhao speak “How can we make what he is saying happen in our schools?” I want to provide the answer. I want to give them a surefire path to making schools a better, more progressive place for kids. The problem is there is no one answer, there is no scripted program or practice. It is up to the individual.  It is up to every single person to do his/her part to make schools a little better, a little more welcoming, inviting, kind, innovative, different. It is up to each and everyone of us to not only embrace the strengths of our students, but to embrace our own strengths. Dr. Zhao explained that our diversity, different perspectives, different ways approaching problems is what made our country great and when we embrace our differences we can make our education system what it should be.  

We each should ask ourselves this question: ”What can I do today, tomorrow, and this year to make my school better because I was here?”

Malcolm Gladwell talks about that Tipping Point in his book of the same name. He describes it as the point where a small act of change can gain so much momentum that it leads to unstoppable progress that snowballs and builds until it becomes the new “way we do things.”  

We are at the Tipping Point in Education!

I can feel it, people I respect in the field can feel it, the good guys are getting a louder voice, the naysayers are being seen as the disease they truly are. How can the individual make a difference in the daunting task of changing our education system from a system that was designed to create factory workers who think like they are told to think into a system that cultivates free thinkers, problem solvers who question “The way things are done”?  

It is not by a grand gesture or a boxed program, rather each and every educator doing something to make their school, our field, a better place.  I do not have the answer, only you do. The good guys in education. What that means to you is not a question I can answer. What I can do is offer some thoughts that can get your juices flowing.

Make your school special at something

There is always someone behind greatness.  What can you lead that is special, unique that taps into your strengths and the strengths of  others? Do you want to build the best marching band in the state, have the most amazing charity event, start a robotics team, student business, student blog?  Do you want to use social media to transform your classroom?  Do you want to make a school garden, do you want to design an amazing logo that beautifies your school? It does not matter what it is, or what your title is. You can do something amazing that helps you, your students, and make your school stand out.

Make it a goal to make everyone’s day better

Some people are cranky, some people are negative, some people snap when they throw their back out.  What can you do to brighten their day? Nobody wants to be negative, nobody wants to be miserable, but some people just can’t help it.  When we realize it is not about us, when we “walk a mile in their shoes” we start to understand we can contribute to the problem or make it better.  A compliment, a smile, a cup of coffee are sometimes all it takes. When you leave at the end of each day ask yourself, “did I make a difference with the people I interacted with today?” “Did they have a better day or a worse day because I was around?”

Ask your kids what they need

Have honest and upfront conversations with your students. Tell them what it is you are trying to teach them, ask them how you can get there together.  Get ideas from them on how to do things differently. Be honest when you have a bad day or make a mistake. If kids know what is expected, if they have a say in how they can get there, the classroom becomes a more enjoyable and productive place. As Rebecca Coda and Rick Jetter state in their book Let Them Speak!

Switch it up

Try something new, try a different approach. It doesn’t mean you were doing it wrong in the past; it just means maybe today there is a better way.  What can you do differently? Challenge yourself to do something new. You may find that doing so will not only excite your students, it can also invigorate you!

Make a Kid’s Day Better

If you can make one child’s day better each and every day you step into your school, you will have accomplished something truly special.  Kids need us and it is often the ones who need us the most who are the most difficult to help. Be like the Starfish story; throw one back in today and everyday.

Do Not Accept Negativity

At our new teacher academy I asked the participants to share a memory from elementary school, good or bad.  One of our new teachers shared a story from her past. No one wanted to be friends with her when she moved to a new school. She later found out that a rumor was started about her, that she was a perennial “Wedgie Giver”. That was why no one wanted to be her friend. Our group laughed, as did I, until I saw the smile on her face trying to hide the pain as the memories of this hurtful event flooded back to her.

We took this as an opportunity to discuss the tone we expect in our schools and our classroom. Some kids and adults are awkward, some are annoying and some are weird, and some mean jokes are funny (just not to the person they are about). We decided as a group we would do our best to embrace our students and co-workers’ weird and to make it uncomfortable for those who choose to be mean, negative, or sarcastic. The Teacher digs a little deeper into this topic in this great piece, Muting the Naysayers.

There are so many special talents that each and everyone of us have.  Use your special talent to make your school a better place. You can make a difference and, before you know it, we will reach that tipping point and kids will be circling September 4th on their calendars because they can’t wait to go back to school.