Culture of Caring

I’ve had the great fortune over the last few days to engage in several conversations about ideal schools. One of the wonderful things about Educon is the serendipitous mingling that happens. Even though the sessions go through a proposal and approval process, and are meticulously planned by the facilitators, there’s always an element of unpredictability when they can go off EdCamp-like in any direction.

2615919055_db43a90d71[1]So the idea of what makes a great school came up quite a few times. We talked of the challenges of testing and common core and unfunded mandates and professional development. We discussed the need for next generation skills, life-long learning, authentic assessment, and a greater focus on inquiry. Some conversations were polite discussions. Others were lively debates. A few times, they devolved into mean-spirited attacks. We’re all passionate about our beliefs, and we all want the best for our children.

But every conversation came down to the same thing: education is about relationships.

It’s about relationships between students and parents. Students and schools. Principals and teachers. Students and students. Teachers and everyone. Every Science Leadership Academy student I’ve ever spoken to describes the school as a family. They feel like they’re an important part of the whole. When they’re not there, they’re missed. When they screw up, they let the community down. When they succeed, everyone celebrates.

The teachers and parents and administrators feel the same way. When I arrived and signed in at the conference, I couldn’t find my name tag on the registration table. I looked through the whole table. No name tag. The parent volunteer was very apologetic, and solved the problem quickly. I took a sharpie and wrote my name on a blank name tag. No big deal.

But that wasn’t good enough. A couple hours later, Diana saw me. “I know I printed a name tag for you.”

“I’m not worried about it.”

“You need a name tag.” She dropped everything, and grabbed her laptop. She had a few things to do. There were 500 people on their way to the school for a 3-day conference. She was a co-chair and had a thousand details to take care of. But right now, my name tag was at the top of the list. She printed. I felt fussed-over.  She got the paper cutter out to make sure the cut lines were straight. I chatted. She explained that it’s not about the name tag. “We screwed up. If you don’t have a name tag, there may be 50 other people who don’t have them.” There weren’t. She later found my name tag stuck to the bottom of one of the others. But she didn’t want to let me down. I was part of the community. She lives in a culture of caring. And it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t even work at the school anymore. She’s family. You can’t resign from that.

The culture of caring is what gets my daughter’s drama teacher involved when she’s slacking off in language arts. It’s what prompts a phone call or a text when a student has been out for a few days. It’s what gets teachers to show up at sporting events and school plays and (God help us) dances when there are lots of other things that they could be doing. And it’s what gets a couple hundred students to give up their weekends to come to school to help a bunch of teachers become better teachers.

In a culture of caring, you don’t need a lot of rules. Respect yourself. Respect the community. Respect the school as a place of learning.

In a culture of caring, teachers aren’t walking out of meetings because they’ve gone longer than the contractually-mandated time. And they don’t get called on the carpet for occasionally arriving a few minutes late on snowy mornings.

In a culture of caring, students aren’t working for grades, and teachers are more focused on relevance than test scores. They don’t want to let each other down. They don’t want to make the school look bad. And most of all, they trust one another to make decisions that will benefit each other. When a teacher says something is important, they emphasize it. And when it’s not important, they let it go.

In a culture of caring, principals trust teachers to do what they do best: teach kids. School boards trust administrators to manage the schools. Governments trust the schools to provide thorough, relevant, worthwhile education for our youth.

It took me a long time to learn how to teach, and I’m not even sure I ever quite got it right. But one of the things I learned early on was that you have to treat the students like people, and not like kids. If you offer a little respect, and treat people reasonably, they’ll usually reciprocate. And then we can get some good work done.

Photo credit: John Flanigan on Flickr.

A Common Purpose

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in a rapidly filling high school cafeteria in Philadelphia. As I look around, a see a few familiar faces, and even more familiar names. But for the most part, these are strangers.

They’re not part of my world. They’re from urban schools. Charter schools. Parochial schools. Private schools. They’re teachers. Integration specialists. School leaders. Professors. Students. They represent 40 states and five countries.  Zoe Strauss’s opening comment from the previous night’s panel discussion leaps to mind:

Chris, what the hell am I doing here?

The panel had included some pretty heavy hitters. Strauss, a photographer and artist, was joined by Dan Barcay, the lead software engineer for Google Earth. Alex Gilliam founded Public Workshop, an opportunity for teens to take an active role in shaping the designs of their communities. C. J. Taylor is a computer science professor in the GRASP Robotics Lab at U. Penn. Phoenix Wang founded Startl to help get new media learning projects into students’ hands. These people know a thing or two about innovation, and they were discussing how to sustain innovation in schools.

But this was no ordinary audience. The 500 people packed into the auditorium and adjoining overflow room aren’t observers of this process. They’re participants. The Twitter stream for this session was flying by faster than anyone could read it. If I had been on stage, I could have looked up to see a couple hundred people typing furiously on their mobile devices. But they weren’t being rude. They were engaged in the conversation. They were simultaneously listening to the panelists, asking questions, challenging statements, agreeing, disagreeing, and applying the conversation to their own situations. The panel provided a catalyst for a much larger discussion on innovation, and thanks to the magic of video streaming, the discussion transcended that little auditorium at the Franklin Institute and included educators from all over the world.

The high level of engagement set the stage for the weekend. This isn’t a conference where you sit through an hour of boring, bullet-laden Powerpoint slides. This isn’t an opportunity for experts to tell everyone how things should be done. This is a time for asking questions, for challenging assumptions, and for exploring new ideas and possibilities together. When Chris Lehmann took the podium in the cafeteria on Saturday morning, he described this assembly as a tribe. We are united by a common purpose. We seek to improve learning for our children. Like any tribe, there are differences of opinion. We really can’t even agree on what we mean by “improve” or “learning.” But this community of mutual respect in an environment that invites discourse allows everyone to participate in a conversation that benefits the whole. I feel humbled to be a part of that discussion. I know that I’ve taken away much more than I’ve contributed, and I feel apologetic for not keeping up my end of the discourse bargain.

Near the end of the conference, I sat in the library and reflected on the weekend. I tried to jot down a few notes on the take-aways. There was some validation of things I already believed. There were some contradictions as well. Mostly, though, there was a lack of clarity. We’re in uncharted waters. What is the purpose of education? What do we mean by learning? What is the role of the teacher in a world of information abundance? How do you convince people that schools must change? Is this a top-down revolution, a grass-roots revolution, or not a revolution at all? And how did we have a gathering of technology and social media experts and manage to not talk about the technology?

I’m looking forward to building on the new relationships I’ve made. I can’t wait to engage others in some of the discussions we’ve had. I need to do a lot more reflecting on some of the issues raised, and how they affect my particular school district. But above all, I’m proud to be part of the tribe.