Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Good Year Has Begun

I'm tired after the first day of a new school year, and I really don't have a lot to say. I must have walked around the building twenty times, stopping in to ask teachers if everything was going well, talking to students and helping them find their classes, and just taking it all in. As I talked with teachers, I tried to keep the conversation light. I tried to offer compliments when possible. I tried to build the teachers up, help them to believe that they were and are capable of doing incredible work. I think this stems from a belief that I hold about how to get the best work out of people: you have to help people to believe in themselves. When a person believes in himself, he is willing to take a risk. He is willing to put in the extra time. He is willing to hear a critical review. He is willing to become more. Perhaps it is because he trusts that he isn't going to be attacked. No one is going to yell at him. He is safe.

In public schools, we talk a lot about providing a safe environment, and we immediately think about Columbine and kids bringing weapons to school. We think about some guy gone crazy walking in and shooting up the place. Those are certainly threats that we have to take seriously, but I think there is something much more important regarding having a safe environment. Students and teachers and everyone in the school have to believe that it is okay to take risks, to take chances. It is okay to be wrong, as long as you're trying. It's not okay, certainly, to be wrong and remain wrong, but it is definitely okay to make a mistake. The problem is that most schools are places where people don't feel safe enough to risk being wrong. Certainly their peers will make fun of them, but that's because the teacher holds the mistake up to display it and to embarrass the student--I don't know why.

There are ways to look at student mistakes without causing embarrassment. I used to retype passages from student essays onto an overhead transparency so that I could talk about the mistakes without the student's name being on the paper. I also made sure that the student whose mistakes I was using was not in the class. Relevancy was not an issue. A good portion of the students in all of my classes were making the same mistakes. It was relevant.

The president of our school board spoke to the teachers and administrators and classified staff on the day before students arrived and said that we were engaged in profoundly important work. He was right. And because it is important work, everyone involved in the work needs to feel that they are in a place where it is safe to take a chance and to risk being wrong, hoping that they might just be right. And what they will learn is that learning is a journey of discovery that takes them to places they couldn't imagine.

Such rambling....