Turning the Tide: Changing the Story of Your School

I asked some teachers who visited our school recently to describe theirs.

“Our scores are in the top 10% nationally.”

My heart sank.

As I subsequently learned, these were highly talented people who cared deeply about their students, yet this was the most vital aspect of their school story as conditioned by the system within which they work. The place in the league table can define you. Good test scores are a noble aspiration, a significant one, but this statistic told me nothing about the human ecology of their school, the piece that really matters. The story that should always come first.

So, I reworded my question, asking about the students, the teachers, the community. The culture.

They acknowledged that things felt somewhat traditional at their school and that connections to the “real world” were lacking. They wanted their students to feel more engaged, to encounter a real purpose in their learning. To experience a culture of joy and hope. They articulated what many of us aspire to. They wanted the tide to turn.

Referencing an insightful blog post by Drew Perkins recently, Scott McLeod observed that, “a culture of teaching and learning often produces great achievement but a culture of achievement rarely results in great teaching and learning.” I sensed in these visitors, as I do from many educators, that the results business is in danger of overtaking the core essence of learning. Of course, results matter and are important. We should not shy away from the importance of assessment and achievement, but we need to be very careful about how we define the latter. Our visiting teachers were as passionate about their work and their students as our teachers are, but they were accustomed to identifying their work in terms of their cultural bottom line: test results. Good results and happy students, teachers and parents can, and should, go hand in hand. But how do we strike the correct balance? What is the story we should feel most compelled to tell, the one that reveals joyful enthusiasm and passion for learners, not systems?

I like to ask parents what it is they want for their children, what it is they expect of a good education. A few, admittedly, speak about the importance of “good grades” and “good colleges” with steely determination, but the majority, unsurprisingly, tend to want their children to be: happy, healthy, ethical, able to continue learning, empowered to make a contribution to the world, capable of having positive relationships. One prospective parent remarked to me recently, “If I meet my daughter in 20 years, I want her to be proud of who she is, not what she is.” If we step back – and step back we should – the business of education is in danger of losing sight of such values.

Your school may be in the top 10% statistically, but is this what you value most about your school?

It’s time to move on from trite mission statements and measurement agendas. We need to define, from the learner perspective, what schools are really about and for. What is our authentic ambition for students beyond graduation?

How would you like to be able to describe your school?

Perkins, Drew. “How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools.” TeachThought. July 22, 2016.
McLeod, Scott. Twitter. April 9, 2018.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licensed under CC-BY-ND.