WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.

Great Expectations

3 R’s of a Positive Classroom Culture

Creating a positive classroom culture goes beyond classroom management.  Even the word “management” implies handling or controlling.  However, as teachers, our job is not merely to manage our students while they are in our classrooms but to prepare them to leave our classrooms ready for the next challenge.  If we only manage our students, we do them a disservice.  Our classroom culture should be one that equips our students for life-long learning and success.

It’s always a great moment on the first day of school each year when I announce to my sixth graders that there are no rules in our sixth grade classroom.  The boys’ eyes widen, and they begin to cheer.  The girls look somewhat terrified, and their face belies their belief that I am, indeed, the craziest teacher they have ever had.

It’s true, I tell them.  Our classroom will have no rules.

Rather, we will operate by three guiding principles – three “Great Expectations”
that apply to us all.  Everything we do (and how we do it!) will be filtered through these three principles: Respect, Responsibility, Restraint.

Respect

As teachers, we tend to see disrespect when it is directed toward authority, particularly our authority.  However, it is vital that we help our students learn respect not only for authority, but also for truth, others, property, boundaries, human life, beauty, goodness, and everything that God holds as worthy of respect.

Responsibility

Responsibility is the hallmark of maturity.  Responsibility comes from a proper understanding of our place in God’s world and an ability to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.  At an age-appropriate level, we need to foster responsibility in our students.

Restraint

This elusive quality naturally flows out of respect and responsibility.  Too often, however, we teachers correct lack of restraint but ignore the underlying lack of respect and responsibility.  As students begin to internalize a proper respect for their place in the world, they will begin to exhibit self-restraint, not mere conformity to a list of rules on the classroom wall.

“Great expectations can lead to great opportunities as we seek to instill in our students principles that will equip them to find their identity in Christ, esteem others higher than themselves, and fulfill the purposes God has for them.

What “Great Expectations” do you have for your students?

Should Class Participation be Judged by Verbal Exchanges?

This is the last in a series of posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first four truths.

Truth #5: “Class participation is all about talking in class discussions and group activities. All kids must learn to share their ideas verbally, and ensure that their voices get heard.”

At the end of my first semester of teaching, I gave an East-Asian student in my class a low score for class participation. In every way possible, this kid was a model student: she worked very hard, she did all her homework, her essays were fantastic, and she was always polite and well-behaved. Yet, she was quiet and reserved in class discussions. As a result, I gave her an ‘insufficient’ for class participation.

She came to see me later with tears in her eyes. I said, ‘But you don’t speak up in our class discussions.’ She looked at me confused. She then explained to me that in her old school, class participation involved being prepared for class and listening very carefully to what the teacher said. Class participation involved listening, not talking.

In Singapore, and across East Asia, kids are taught to listen, and listening seems to be valued more than talking. I still expect my students to speak up and share their ideas in class discussions, but now I do things differently: I explain what I mean by participation more specifically, and I also value listening a whole lot more. Our kids need to learn to listen to each other and to adults. And when we assume that participation is all about talking, we devalue listening unfairly.

Two criteria for judging class participation

In these paragraphs, perhaps more important than the specific issue of criteria for judging class participation, are these two elements: (1) the importance of listening, and (2) the importance of understanding the perspectives of others.

The importance of listening

One of my favorite books about relationships is Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the relationship principles Mr. Covey teaches is “Seek to understand, then to be understood.” This principle emphasizes the importance of listening–listening before speaking and listening with the intent to genuinely understand.  Every teacher knows how badly most of our students lack this skill. Too often we lack this skill ourselves. I have been on a multi-year quest to improve my listening skills, too often with inadequate success. But what a worthwhile effort it is, for ourselves and for our students.

The importance of understanding the perspectives of others

This is the point of Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, than to be understood” principle. A teacher’s success must be built on relationships with students and parents. Positive relationships require that we learn to see from another’s perspective. The key to learning to see from another’s perspective is listening. Ask questions, and listen. An effective tool for improving your listening skills is to “say back” in a paraphrased form the statements made by others. This is most effective when it is done verbally, but often when I find my thoughts racing ahead in a conversation I begin internally to practice this, and I listen better by doing so.

I expect that Maya Thiagarajan is a very effective teacher, and not so much because she developed a better rubric for class participation, but because she practices listening to understand her students.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore