As most School Leader readers know, after spending 53 years working in public education, I will be retiring, effective July 1, 2022.
This is as good an occasion as any to share some of my observations from decades of working as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, superintendent, board of education member, executive county superintendent, and NJSBA executive director.
Over the years, I have been lucky to meet some very smart educational experts. However, my most influential teachers haven’t been education researchers or political luminaries. They have been teachers; parents and guardians; and students.
Parents — and in this term, I include guardians and other family members in the circle of adults who care for a child — are their children’s best advocates. They are a valuable source of feedback and information on how a student best learns. Over the years, I discovered the importance of communicating early and often with parents, calling them when there were problems with a student and when there were achievements to celebrate. Parents are their children’s best cheerleaders and most constant teachers.
Parents are also a priceless resource for schools. Any teacher, principal or superintendent can attest to the value of a supportive parent-teacher organization in a school, the importance of parental involvement in a local education foundation or when trying to pass a referendum, and the need for parent chaperones on field trips.
Teachers are at the core of our educational delivery system. Nearly everyone has a great teacher in their personal history who influenced and encouraged them. Mine was a 5th grade teacher, Miss Sloan, who inspired me to spend my career in education.
The interaction between a teacher and a student is the most important activity that transpires in a school — more important than what goes on in the principal’s office or the superintendent’s office. I have learned, in 53 years, that good teachers make a school system good and mediocre teachers make a school system mediocre.
But it is children who are often our most important teachers. From children, I’ve learned the educational importance of the arts, extracurricular activities, sports, and the “extras,” that are not at all extra. In any school, there are students who attend every day because of play practice, band rehearsal, or a sports team. These extracurricular activities teach lessons such as persistence, work ethic, empathy, leadership, creativity, and a sense of civic duty. They are indispensable.
I also learned that schools should get children involved in decision-making on issues that affect them. I attended student council meetings when I was a superintendent, and I learned that kids always have outstanding ideas for student activities. I am always impressed by how thoughtful and innovative students can be.
Children will tell you what they need. I learned that there is hunger in communities where you would not expect it. I also learned that there are more children than you might think going through difficult times or traumas at home. Educators need to always look below the surface when a child is faltering.
Boards of education have much to learn from students, teachers and parents. Let us commit to always listening carefully to them — and learning from these important partners in education.