At dinner one evening, when my daughter, Lizzie, was in first grade, she said: “You know how some teachers just let you play? Well, I want to know stuff, and that’s why I like Ms. Lexton; she teaches us stuff.”
Cheryl Lexton was a brand new teacher out of Teacher’s College in NYC when she walked in the door of my school and asked the receptionist if there were any teaching jobs. The receptionist called me, and I invited her into my office. When Cheryl said she had gotten an A+ in her student teaching, I hired her.
No mistakes here! The kids all loved her; the parents, too. My daughter was a lucky beneficiary.
What did Cheryl Lexton do right? Two things:
1) She taught them stuff, and 2) she taught as if her students wanted to learn—something Lizzie took for granted.
Cheryl led rather than managed. What’s the difference between a leader and a manager? A leader supports her followers on a mission they own thus bringing out leadership in them. In a leadership organization everyone is pursuing goals that serve themselves and the organization at the same time.
How do you know a leader when you see one? Ask the followers five questions:
1) Does she care about your abilities and help you find ways of employing them?
2) Are you on a mission that is challenging and worth your full investment?
3) Are you expected to communicate, collaborate, create and contribute?
4) Around here do people speak up, listen and try out new behavior?
5) Do you feel valued and valuable?
For my whole career there has been a ridiculous argument in our profession about the best way to teach. Boiled down it is: Do you teach them stuff, or do you let them play? This is the ivory tower version of a silly fight in a sandbox. Should we let them play with manipulatives to learn mathematical concepts or should we instruct them that 8 x 7 = 56?
This is fundamentally an ivory-tower fight. When teachers are confronted with the responsibility of preparing their students for the next level of academics, they learn that teaching involves both instruction and play, regardless of which school of thought their theories came from. Teachers know stuff that students are coming to them to learn, AND students need to be decision-makers in the process. Play is just another word for internally motivated decision making.
A crime is committed when experts from one ivory tower or another attempt to impose their ideology on a school and hold the teachers accountable for following an ideology rather than for meeting the needs of the students. No Child Left Behind was one of the worst manifestations of this, because a group of politicians picked one ideology and tried to impose it on all schools, using money as both a stick and a carrot. Predictably, it produced poor results, and millions of students and their teachers are still suffering from it.
Each of us has a theoretical point of view. But if we hold ourselves accountable for the full education of each child in our care, theories become secondary. The challenge of getting ALL our students to learn and to love learning at the same time, forces us to assess our theories daily.
My hypothesis after 40 years is: treat students as if they have a brain. If you want to teach them how to write, treat them as if they are authors. If you want to teach them arithmetic, treat them as if they are mathematicians. They will not only learn to think mathematically; they will—wonder of wonders—also learn how to divide fractions. For best results, engage the whole brain.
Schools that are successful are successful because the professionals engage in the infinitely complex challenge of sending kids home every day knowing more and wanting to come back to learn more. Is the teacher held accountable for following the curriculum or for using the curriculum as a vehicle for bringing out the best in your child?
Do your children look forward to school? Would they rather be at school than home? If not, talk to the teacher, talk to the principal, form coalitions of parents and teachers and hold schools accountable for teaching kids stuff in such a way that they continue to love learning. Nothing less deserves the title of education. The rest is mere schooling and deserves the disrespect of students.