Monday, November 16, 2015

The ONLY Way to Do School Right

Let me be clear: there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. It does not exist. I’ve been reminded of this three specific times in the past few weeks, and I think it’s worth discussion.

Not long ago I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about some of the unique cultural aspects of our school. She commented that some of these aspects seemed puzzling, even strange. I replied that strange may not be the right adjective but perhaps they simply were different, even unique. I went on to explain that every time I visit another school, I discover things that seem different, unique or even strange. The more contact I have with other schools, the more I believe this to be true.

Just this past week, a principal and an exec-level leader from a school in another state visited my campus. As school leaders do when they get together, the three of us talked shop. We compared notes on everything from schedules to hiring and firing to admissions testing to curriculum. We shared things that had worked for us and things that hadn’t. We asked probing questions, offered opinions and shared insights into the business of doing school. At the end of the afternoon, we each took away from the conversation some new ideas about things we could try on our own campuses. However, at the end of the conversation, we each were reminded that our campuses, our students, our faculties, our leadership and our circumstances varied in numerous ways.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas State University with college guidance directors from Texas to learn more about the university. Over the two full days I spent with the counselors from schools around the state - and some truly outstanding schools, at that - I once again was struck by the notion that we can do school in myriad ways yet still have a similar outcome: well-prepared, successful kids. As a group we talked specifically about schedules, course offerings, extracurriculars, grades, transcripts, curriculum alignment, college placement, testing and more. There hardly were two schools represented in the group that approached any of these things in the same way. Nevertheless, we all send well-prepared kids into the world each year.

I will be the first to argue that there are non-negotiables in education, things every school should do or emphasize, things every teacher should incorporate into classrooms, things every principal should promote and expect. I also will be the first to argue that there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. Even when we all are driven by the notion of “what’s best for kids,” we have to approach this notion from different perspectives. We have to keep in mind the varied backgrounds and futures of our stakeholders. We have to consider everything from geography to demographics to socio-economic standing to facilities to school mission to available financial resources when considering the right way to do school for our kids.

While educators can find great ideas and inspiration from collaborating with and learning from others - and in fact should do so on a regular basis - educators must remember that what works for some may not work as well or in the same way for others. The way we schedule the day or generate transcripts or teach grammar at my school may not be ideal for your school. The way you incorporate technology or organize extracurriculars or manage gradebooks at your school may not be ideal for my school. The fact that the ways of doing school varies so much, however, does not mean your way or my way or someone else’s is right or wrong. Just because something we do is right for us does not mean it is the only way to do school right. Education is not as simple as that. We can think in terms of good, better and best, instead of right and wrong, but even those descriptors tend to be relative.

The cautionary lesson to be learned about doing school right is this: when you encounter someone who insists there’s only one way to do school, that everything must be standardized, stop and think for a moment. “The only way to do school right” can’t exist because schools vary as much as the stakeholders they serve. One size absolutely cannot and does not fit all in education. The challenge is to remember how liberating and invigorating education can be when the shackles of standardization and one-size-fits-all are broken. There’s no such thing as “the only way to do school right.”

Note for the grammar police: I am perfectly aware (as evidenced by my proper use of the adverb perfectly) that I have used an adjective as an adverb in the phrase  “the only way to do school right.” Let’s face it. “The only way to do school correctly” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Give me some latitude here. Just saying.

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