“Growing” children into capable, contributing adults

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As a long time educator and parent of 5 children, we have seen phases of how to approach “growing” children into capable, contributing adults come and go and then return for another cycle. These phases focus on terms and topics such as “growing children’s self-esteem”, delivering praise, determining behavioral consequences, becoming “helicopter parents”, etc. Just today, I saw an ASCD article about delivering praise and heard the term “helicopter parents” on a radio talk show. SO, I have revived an article I wrote in the 1990s which seems as apropos today as it was many years ago.

Self-esteem is the elusive factor that many researchers have identified as critical to young people becoming “high” or “low” risk members of society. Success, feeling good, doing well, or the dictionary definition “having a favorable impression of oneself” might lead us to believe that we only add to our self- esteem when things go well. Since we know that “high risk” kids are generally ones with low self- esteem, the key question becomes, how do we increase, add to, raise, or enhance self-esteem for children — or maybe, the question is: How do children develop their own self-esteem?

H. Stephen Glenn, an expert who has dedicated his work toward training and authoring books to “Develop Capable Young People” by helping adults become more capable in their skills for working with children defines CAPABLE as an essential piece of self-esteem. “People need to believe they are CAPABLE.” How does one develop this belief? Is it done for them or by them? Could it be that each of us develops our own self-esteem – our own perception of who we are and what we can do? Could it be that others can’t do that for us? Oh, we can get feedback from others but, each of us filters that feedback like water through a purifier. What goes in is not what comes out!

Research tells us that much of our sense of CAPABLE comes from knowing we can have difficult times and learn or grow from them; that life has bumps and we have the skills, stamina, courage, and whatever else we need to survive them. If we believe self-esteem develops in this way, could it be that the pressure adults (teachers and parents) take on to “ease the way” through life for kids is exactly the opposite of what should be done? Would it be better for children to learn that life is full of mistakes, little failures, disappointments and — that they are CAPABLE of dealing with them. Wouldn’t it be better for children to encounter smaller difficulties earlier and in smaller doses when support from adults is both available and accepted than to wait for larger ones to become life threatening?

Think about the straight A student who has everything going for him or her; class president, athletic hero, tremendous parent involvement – who gets a B or breaks up with a steady friend – and decides the world has come to an end. Have we taught children that the only time they can see themselves as CAPABLE is when the world is problem or disappointment free? As you think about what to do when situations in children’s lives require adults’ to get involved, you might want to ask yourself two questions: 1) Will s/he believe her/himself as CAPABLE as a result of what I do? 2) Will s/he truly be more CAPABLE? If the answer is “yes”, do it!

Children who experience the “real” world early in their development will develop the coping skills and attitudes that support them throughout their lives. Children who see themselves as CAPABLE are not the children who make decisions that will hurt them!

I wonder if this is not just as true for some of the adults in today’s world.

Helen Ryley

Creating the Right Setting for Self-Evaluation

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There is no magic formula to creating an environment in which self-evaluation can flourish, but there are some underlying principles that will help you to gain some personal clarity, establish a conducive setting and keep the school moving in the right direction at the right speed. It is essential to remember that people carry out self-evaluation and this is where you must initially focus your attention if you want the processes to work. Without the people aspect, you will simply have a production line that runs at a pre-set speed and churns out the same thing time after time – this is when self-evaluation becomes a meaningless activity and is essentially a burden on any school.

Create an inspiring vision for the school

Strategy is about big picture and about taking a long-term view that transcends day-to-day operational issues. It is very easy to get sucked into the detail and bogged down in the minutia of daily life in the school, but you must make sure that you filter what is most important and relevant. You can only do this if you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve — a representation of what your strategy will actually deliver.

  • Establish in a vision takes time but it is time well spent.
  • Imagine what the school’s future will be like.
  • The vision should be clear and simple.

Your vision should be an aspirational description of what the school will look like in the future. It should allow people to see a picture in their mind and imagine what the school will achieve and accomplish, as well as providing them with a clear direction to plan their future goals and actions. If you represent the vision purely in words, then it is left open to different interpretations of language and things will get lost in translation.

As principal, you may understand and appreciate the importance of having a clearly articulated vision, but what about your senior leaders … your middle leaders … your teachers … your governors? Think about bringing different these different stakeholders together for a session during which you collectively create a vision board that summarizes and represents your school’s vision, which can then be displayed and shared across the school.

What makes your school unique and different from the school down the road? Your vision needs to answer this question and should serve as a marketing tool to convince potential parents that this is the school community that their children need to be part of. Yet, producing a vision and engaging in self-evaluation and improvement are not unique to schools, so reading about approaches outside education can help you think in a different way and see things from a different perspective — look to other cultures, education systems and the world of business for inspiration.

Create the right environment for people to buy in

This may sound a little obvious, but you might be surprised by the number of times school leaders struggle with some of the things they are asked to do in the name of self-evaluation. One of the biggest barriers to successful self-evaluation is when people blindly take part in activities where they have little emotional investment. In other words, they are simply going through the motions. Although this may ensure that the processes run and that some form of evaluation activity actually takes place, it is neither a useful nor profitable approach and wastes precious time and energy.

  • So how do you create the right environment for people to buy-in to self-evaluation?
  • Basically, you have to live your values and lead by example.
  • The buck may stop with you, but you cannot do it alone!

Demonstrate integrity by following your own advice, being honest and treating others the way you wish to be treated. In the context of self-evaluation, this means challenging yourself about what you are asking other people to do and being sure that your motives are clear enough and they understand why this action is important. By focusing on the why rather than the what or how, you will increase buy-in and subsequently accelerate the pace and speed of the process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Share your gratitude. Schools can only realize their strategy by working in teams and it is important to build in opportunities for recognition and acknowledgment of this. The most effective schools distribute their self-evaluation across all parts of their community — remember the Ninja metaphor and the pitfalls it can create!

Engage all stakeholders with authenticity and purpose

The most important thing to remember is that everyone must be pulling in the same direction and share a sense of urgency to make things happen. As principal, you need to be explicit about everyone’s responsibilities and set clear expectations and boundaries. Each individual should be able to explain their key priority — the main focus in their area of responsibility at any given point in time — and then be able to articulate their contribution to both evaluation and improvement.

Have courage and take responsibility for getting things done

It is important to realise that, although exterior conditions do have an impact, it is your internal decisions that are far more important when it comes to the actions you take and the type of school you are striving to create. As principal, your job is simply to take charge of the school’s self-evaluation, which requires responsibility, courage and discipline. Now that you have ensured that everyone understands the contribution they are expected to make to self-evaluation, your job is to set key targets and milestones that will allow you, and your senior leaders, to take the pulse and manage the rhythm of school improvement.

Create unity and motivate your team to perform

The successful delivery of your school’s self-evaluation will depend and rely on the people who implement the process. It is very rare that schools do not have some appropriate processes in place, but it is much more likely that they do not have consistent behaviors among their people. As principal, you need to understand how to motivate the different individuals on your teams and ensure that everyone understands that successful teams deliver more than the sum of each individual’s effort. There will inevitably be times when it would be quicker for you to do things yourself but demonstrating respect and empathy in the workplace means showing others that their ideas and opinions are valued. If someone makes a suggestion it is important that their voice is heard and that you, and their colleagues, do not dismiss it too quickly. Team building is a learned skill and fundamental to that skill is the ability to identify the individual’s voice and ensure that voice is recognized by the wider group.

See obstacles as challenges and opportunities to grow

Having a strategy for school-led self-evaluation is important but having the capacity to be flexible and adaptable when circumstances change is just as important. There are inevitably times when the unexpected will occur and you are faced with giving up or pushing through — this is where resilience and perseverance come into play.

The speed at which your school will deliver its self-evaluation is as much about managing the challenges and obstacles that get in your way than aligning performance with targets and goals. If you have someone on your team that you know is skilled in an area you may be lacking, don’t be afraid to go and ask them for help — remember everyone has a special talent and skill looking for an opportunity to shine and add value.

Despite their hierarchical position in the school, principals are often left feeling vulnerable and isolated, especially when things are not going well. As principal, you need to accept that feedback is rarely intended to insult — even when it may appear blunt and negative. It is important to learn to take whatever truth there may be in the criticism and act to move forward rather than dwell on it.

  • Never give up!
  • We often underestimate the time and amount of effort a goal will take to achieve.
  • Instead of giving up or lowering the mark, give yourself more time and/or increase your efforts.

Schools are learning organizations and, as such, have developed highly effective systems for reflection, review and development that are applied to personalize students’ learning. It should therefore be a relatively easy and natural progression to extend this same philosophy to a school’s self-evaluation to ensure that it is truly personalized to the needs of the school.

Reflect — what is working well and what is not?

Review — what challenges and obstacles are we facing?

Develop — what can we do differently to make sure our self-evaluation remains fit for purpose?

Blend all the pieces to develop sustainable practices

We already know that self-evaluation is an ongoing process rather than a one-off or intermittent event, so how do we blend all the principles together to develop and implement a coherent strategy that creates sustainable self-evaluation practice in the school?

  • Don’t try to do it alone!
  • Keep it simple — prevent yourself and your school from over-complicating things to the point of paralysis and inaction.
  • Create a clear and compelling vision to engage all stakeholders and make sure they understand their contribution.
  • Break every action up into smaller pieces until each individual chunk seems like a manageable task (focus and plan for one priority).
  • Define and articulate the behaviors you expect from your people.
  • Recognize, acknowledge and celebrate success.
  • Navigate obstacles — adapt your approach — learn from your experience.

Once you have developed your strategy it will be much easier to embed effective self-evaluation into your school’s practice … the next challenge is to ensure it is sustainable. This hinges very much on maintaining the morale and well-being of the people who have to implement the practice. Finding the right balance or combination of work and play in your school can be a challenge, particularly when the stakes are high. However, it is important to step back and build in time for renewal and recognition to ensure that everyone is engaged and feels valued.

School improvement is hard work —students and families are demanding — governors expect results yesterday — regulators expect schools to implement initiatives overnight. Consequently, as the accountable school leader, you must take responsibility for setting and monitoring the direction and pace of the school’s self-evaluation by having a clearly defined strategy.

by Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright

The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

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I remember starting my first job as a systems engineer on an aerospace project. My new boss gave me an unusual assignment on my start day. He wanted me to tell him what “E = mC(squared)” and “You can’t push on a rope” meant.

As part of figuring out the answer he said to first ask anyone you want in the department for advice or insight. Of course, I thought he just wanted me to meet everyone on my own since I already knew the answer to both questions.

It turned out I was wrong on all parts.

Here’s what I told him when we met for lunch in the cafeteria on the third day of my first job.

“E = mC(squared)” While I got the scientific principle right the bigger purpose was to understand how this relates to the real world of product design given competing constraints on functionality, time, cost and manufacturability. The lesson: It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lose sight of the big picture.

“You can’t push on a rope.” I thought this one had to do with strength of materials, some kind of force diagram and one of Newton’s laws. But it turned out to be about human nature. The lesson: The most important part is that you can’t push the people involved to do what you want them to do despite overwhelming analysis or engineering evidence. You have to understand their needs first.

I learned later that Zig Zigler said it more eloquently, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

That’s a principle everyone needs to apply to get ahead regardless of their age or their job.

Here are a few other useful life principles I learned early on in my career.

In my first engineering design class the professor showed a picture of a bridge across some river that didn’t meet perfectly in the middle. There was a six-inch offset. The professor started by saying that in this course you’ll learn how to ensure this will never happen to you. Planning ahead was the big lesson. Thinking of the consequences of your actions was the more subtle point. Stephen Covey’s “Begin With the End in Mind” pretty much sums it up. While this stuff is easy to say, it’s hard to do whether you’re building a bridge or figuring out how to just get through the day.

Persistence overrides intellect. In most of my engineering classes the answers to the problems were given. My non-engineering friends thought this was too easy. I thought so too until I was given one very complex problem to figure out. It took me all night and a lot of trial and error to get the right answer.

There were a lot of lessons learned that night. The obvious one: Getting the answer right was secondary. Figuring out how to find the right solution was the purpose of having the answer given. A lot of smart people gave up too soon. That’s when I realized that persistence is far more important than intellect.

Some similar things happened a short time later as an intern and during my first full-time engineering job. I was assigned two very complex technical projects. In each case there was an initial 2-3 weeks of total confusion. It was clear I was going around in circles, over my head and an abject failure. After stumbling about, talking with people and thinking about the problem from a totally different perspective, the fog starting lifting. Soon a solution emerged. In both cases it took a few very uncomfortable weeks to go from nothing to a potential solution. Of course, getting the actual solution took a lot longer but that was the easy part. The lesson learned again: It’s okay to be confused but it you keep at you’ll figure out what to do.

I learned later that Winston Churchill said it much better, “Never ever give up. Never!”

But that wasn’t the big lesson in all this. By not giving up too soon you build confidence in yourself to take on any project as long as you can figure out a solution and create a vision of where you’re going. As a result I then started volunteering for projects and positions over my head and even asking for promotions in different departments. And I got them by selling the vision to others and getting them to see how this would personally benefit them. This got them to be allies not foes and they became proactively involved in ensuring we were all successful.

The real lesson is that true confidence is contagious. But you need to struggle a lot before you develop it in yourself. So look for some struggles to tackle. A lot of them. And never give up despite how easy it might be to do. I’m not sure, but maybe this is how leaders are developed, too.

The lowdown on STEM schools

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17309.jpgGiven the crying need for graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees, is a STEM school right for your child?

A high school student tosses a ball into the air and watches it fall. Then he films the falling ball and graphs the movement on his computer. Nearby, a soph

omore scrawls out equations with a blue marker, while a classmate looks over his shoulder and shakes her head. “I think that number should be negative.” They come to an agreement before the teacher stops by, nudging them to explain how they got it. This action-packed hour is a science class — “Scientific Inquiry — Physics,” to be exact.

This type of noisy, exuberant classroom exemplifies what Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) schools are about. Learning is collaborative and project-based; kids work closely together in a hands-on way to solve real-world problems. Learning problem-solving skills — and helping students develop into creative, critical thinkers — is at the core of any true STEM school. “Teachers are not just telling us,” says Jennifer Bailey, 17, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. “We use our own data and discovery to realize a concept.” While all schools teach math and science, good STEM schools focus deeply on these subjects in hopes of better preparing students for the high-demand tech jobs of the future.

Is a STEM school right for my child?

If your child has an innate interest in science or building things, a STEM school may be a natural choice. But administrators say these schools cater to all kinds of learners and that most students appreciate the hands-on nature of the curricula. Students who manage their time well may succeed in STEM programs that are self-paced and have kids working on independent projects.

Why you might consider a STEM high school

Over the past 10 years, jobs in STEM fields have grown three times as fast as jobs in non-STEM fields, according to the Department of Commerce, and STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM fields in the same time frame. But without an influx of graduates in these areas, the U.S. will not have enough workers to fill those jobs. STEM schools can help young people gain the skills necessary to succeed in these fields. Over the next decade alone, the U.S. must produce approximately 1 million more STEM-degree graduates than currently projected to meet the demands of the economy, according to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Recognizing this gap, educators have focused on getting more students hooked on math and science earlier in their school careers, which is why more STEM programs are being launched nationwide.

You’ll mainly find STEM high schools, but there are some middle schools with a STEM emphasis, too. Some STEM schools are open to all students, meaning there are no tests required; others are selective and consider a student’s academic record in admission decisions.

There are three primary types of STEM programs:

  • A STEM specialty school: The entire school’s focus is on STEM and every student participates in a curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • A STEM program within a larger school: Some schools create STEM academies within their schools that allow interested students to study STEM in more depth.
  • Residential STEM programs: For these intensive programs, students live on campus and attend a STEM school.

Programs may delve broadly into all STEM subjects or they may specialize in a particular area, such as computer technology. Vocational or CTE programs that prepare students for certain high-tech fields also fall within the spectrum of STEM schools.

What you might find in a STEM classroom

  • Students behaving as scientists: On a typical day, they may be recording observations, carrying out experiments, or conducting their own research. Learning is project-based and sometimes messy, but students learn by doing, not by rote memorization.
  • Connecting STEM learning to a career: To help students understand what kind of STEM jobs are available, schools may bring in tutors from local technology companies or organize internships at hospitals or research institutions.
  • Integrating with other subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math subjects are woven into other areas of the curriculum, with courses such as the “History of Science” or “Environmental History.”
  • Making use of technology: By taking quizzes on their laptops, entering data into spreadsheets, and creating graphs to illustrate the results of their experiments, students are using technology in their daily studies. STEM programs such as L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, TN, participate in one-to-one programs through which students are given their own individual computer (or iPad, in this case) for their work. Teachers may have web pages featuring necessary classroom materials, which may also allow students to work ahead if they want to or review a lesson if need be.
  • Noise: Classrooms are not quiet and are often arranged so that students can sit and work in groups. This encourages collaboration as students discuss their work and challenge each other’s ideas.

Questions to ask when considering a STEM school

  • Is this really a STEM school? With the recent national focus on creating more STEM graduates, “You see lots of places springing up calling themselves STEM schools, but they don’t necessarily have a clearly articulated explanation of what makes them STEM,” said Christopher Kolar, founding co-chair of the Committee for the Advancement of STEM Specialty Schools. Does the school offer a full STEM program beyond the science and mathematics offered in typical schools? A look at the course schedule may indicate whether the coursework is there to challenge students and prep them for higher-level college STEM courses. For instance, are pre-calculus, calculus, and AP calculus offered? Can students take a second year of physics or engineering? Consider the breadth and depth of the school’s STEM offerings.
  • Does it help prepare students for a STEM career? To be sure the school is properly preparing students for the jobs of the future, ask school administrators if they communicate with students’ potential employers. Businesses should be partners, bringing in resources, providing role models for students, and keeping staff up-to-date on new developments so the curriculum stays relevant.
  • Are students working with computers and other technology? Or are the new iPads sitting in a box in the corner because teachers have not been trained on how to incorporate them into lesson plans? Ask for examples of how laptops (or tablets) help with instruction and if the administration provides ongoing technology training for teachers. Likewise, does the school have the lab equipment necessary for students to do a broad range of experiments?
  • Do teachers have backgrounds in the subjects they are teaching? Science should be taught by teachers who are excited about and understand science. Also, do mentoring programs exist to encourage teachers to improve their STEM skills and knowledge?

What supporters say

If we want to have the scientists and engineers to solve future problems, STEM schools are important to the country’s future: finding sustainable energy sources, keeping water supplies clean, and discovering new technologies that help us compete in a global economy. Supporters say there is an urgent need to attract and educate more students in these fields and keep them engrossed throughout their elementary, high school, and college years. And from the student’s perspective, if they have the skills employers need, they will have an easier time finding a job upon graduation.

What critics say

By increasing the emphasis on science, math, technology, and engineering, some worry that students may lose out on other key skills. Electives like foreign languages and the arts help foster creativity and broaden students’ world view. Some STEM programs try to make up for this by offering arts programs after school; others say they recognize the need and incorporate as much arts education as they can into the school day.

Because girls historically have not shown the same interest in STEM fields as boys, critics say the schools need to do more to reach out to girls and get them excited about science by providing role models in female scientists or crushing traditional gender stereotypes in the classroom.

A final word of advice

Make sure you understand how fully the school has embraced a STEM curriculum. If you are expecting your child to be taking advanced physics courses and the school only offers one introductory course, both you and your child could be disappointed. Ask the school to see sample schedules. As always: visit any school you’re considering. Talk to teachers about the ways students use technology in class. Poke your head in the labs. Ask what professional development opportunities exist for teachers to stay on top of their game and whether the school has networked with local companies and research institutions.

Why Punishment Won’t Stop a Bully, Punitive discipline for bullies can be counterproductive

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By Alfie Kohn

Bullying at school has attracted an enormous amount of attention, spurring academic studies and popular books, regulations, and training sessions for educators. By now its status as a serious problem is widely acknowledged, as it should be. We can never go back to the days when bullying was regarded as a boys-will-be-boys rite of passage, something that victims were left to deal with (and suffer from) alone.

But as with other ills, both within and beyond our schools, some responses are much less constructive than others. The least thoughtful (or useful) strategy is to announce a “zero tolerance” stance on bullying. Either this phrase amounts to empty rhetoric—rather like responding to repeated instances of gun violence in our country by sending each cluster of victims our “thoughts and prayers”—or else it refers to a policy of harsh punishment for bullies.
The latter approach is worth our attention precisely because it comes so easily to us, complementing a punitive sensibility already well-established in our schools. Students who break the rules or otherwise displease us are subjected to suspension, expulsion, detention, enforced isolation (“time-out”), loss of opportunity to participate in enjoyable activities, and so on.

Making children suffer for what they’ve done is often defended on practical grounds, but I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support the claim that punishment makes schools safer or leads the children who have been punished to become more ethical or responsible. Indeed, punitive responses—even if they’re euphemistically called “consequences”—are often not merely ineffective but actively counterproductive. To cite only one in a long line of empirical investigations, an eight-year longitudinal study published in 2005 found that punitive discipline was subsequently associated with more antisocial behavior, less prosocial behavior, and increased levels of anxiety.
Interestingly, when many proponents of traditional discipline are presented with such evidence, they simply pivot to a very different defense, one that can’t be dislodged with evidence: They insist that if someone does something bad, something bad must be done to that person. He or she must be “held accountable”; a consequence must be imposed for moral reasons, even if there are no practical benefits.

But the effects of punishment do matter, and where bullying is concerned, they suggest a painful irony: Punishing kids who bully not only fails to address the source of the problem, but actually makes things worse. As educator and author Barbara Coloroso pointed out in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, punishment teaches the bully “to be more aggressive and hurtful. He will undoubtedly master the art of doing his bullying in ways that are sneaky or ‘under the radar’ of even the most observant and aware adults. More important,” she adds, “punishment degrades, humiliates, and dehumanizes the children who are its objects. (Sounds like bullying to me.)”
Decades’ worth of research shows that punishment—even when it doesn’t include physical force—promotes aggression. But studies conducted in the United States and in Sweden revealed another layer to that reality: Bullies in particular are more likely to have been raised by authoritarian parents who rely on punishment. Dan Olweus, a leading authority on the subject, conducted the latter study. He, like other critics of punishment, has offered suggestions for what can curb bullying. The key is to “restructure the social environment”—the entire school culture—rather than trying to target individual students by encouraging intervention by bystanders, offering advice to potential victims, or, worst of all, punishing bullies.
“Punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.”

It’s easy to assume that punitive discipline is an inevitable part of school life. That leaves us quibbling only about the details of implementation—for example, how severe the penalty should be for a given offense. Once we take a step back and consider whether punishment itself really makes sense, the status quo becomes very troubling indeed.Consider: A punishment is a response by someone with more power (say, an adult) to a prohibited action on the part of someone with less power (in this case, a child). Specifically, it consists of deliberately making the child suffer in some way. The intent may be to discourage the child from repeating the action, but the more common results of punishment are that the child (1) becomes angry and frustrated, (2) learns that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and (3) becomes more focused on self-interest and less likely to consider how his actions affect others. Punishment induces kids to ask, “What do they, the people with the power, want me to do, and what’s the consequence to me if I don’t do it?”
From this perspective, it quickly becomes clear that the problem with school policy isn’t just that punishing bullies inevitably backfires. Rather, punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.

Dig even deeper, though: Maybe it’s not just that punishment contributes to bullying. Maybe traditional discipline is a kind of bullying. That’s the unsettling implication of Coloroso’s parenthetical afterthought that I quoted above. Definitions of bullying tend to sound something like this: a hostile action—or a pattern of abuse, intimidation, or harassment over time—in which those who are smaller or weaker are victimized by those who are larger or stronger. That the larger, stronger people may have graduate degrees or can spin out elaborate rationalizations for their actions is really beside the point.

How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTA

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How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTAs
Parents with socioeconomic resources are more likely to exert influence on school officials.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

When Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, told parents in the fall of 2014 that it would allow students to use Chromebooks as a way to bridge the digital divide between low-income families and affluent families, there were mixed reactions. The plan was aimed at helping students become more adept at using technology, but the affluent parents, most of whom were white, were apprehensive about their children getting more screen time.

Alison Risso, then the president of the school’s PTA, said she was frustrated by the complaints those parents expressed at a meeting. “Everyone who could pay for that Chromebook with the money in their pockets was in the room,” Risso said. As Risso recalled, one parent said to her, “I don’t need my daughter to learn to make a PowerPoint.”

At Rolling Terrace, 68 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Sixty-three percent of its population is Hispanic, 15 percent is black, and another 15 percent is white. But the parents of that sliver of the student population that is white and affluent—most of whom were drawn to the school’s Spanish-immersion program—have outsize influence over what happens in the school

Risso explained to parents why it was important for the lower-income children to have access to the Chromebooks. Many of the school’s parents—mostly low-income people of color who didn’t attend the PTA meeting—were excited about the computers.

Despite the differences in priorities, the school’s parents are expected to make decisions as a community. That kind of unity rarely happens in gentrifying neighborhoods, however. When white, affluent parents come into a school that has a high percentage of less-affluent students of color, the more advantaged group tends to take over parent organizations and unintentionally marginalize the parent community that was already there. Ultimately, Rolling Terrace proceeded with its plan to use Chromebooks, but not all such issues are resolved in ways that give low-income parents a voice.

That’s unfortunate because parental engagement can greatly improve adolescents’ academic and emotional functioning, according to a 2014 study published in Child Development. A substantial body of research also indicates that parent involvement at home and school is an important factor in improving young children’s literacy and math skills. PTA membership was also associated with student achievement in a 2006 School Community Journal study authored by researchers at the University of West Florida.

Allyson Criner Brown, the associate director at the nonprofit Teaching for Change, said she has seen small groups of advantaged parents, many of them members of parent organizations, wield great influence on school policy. They often push for programs that would benefit their own children and not necessarily the kids of less means. When these parents don’t get what they want, they often make calls to someone higher up than the principal, such as the superintendent, to flex their muscle—something lower-income parents rarely do.

“[Affluent] parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think.”
The influence of the PTA depends a lot on the given school’s culture and in part on how big a role parents play in fundraising. It can be challenging for a busy principal to seek input from parent groups, especially when those organizations aren’t financially supporting a cash-strapped school.
“If the principal knows that the PTA is not a source for fundraising, depending on the principal they might not go to the PTA and ask parents if [a particular project] is a priority,” said Alexandra Freidus, doctoral candidate in urban education at New York University. In wealthy or socioeconomically diverse communities, on the other hand, “principals frequently count on parents to fill in budget gaps. Those parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think, to believe their opinions matters to the school, and they’re much more likely to be a dominant voice.” And while it’s true that kids of all backgrounds benefit from attending integrated schools, affluent and white parents tend to think they’re the ones bringing value to their school, according to research released earlier this year.

The imbalance of power has become especially clear in recent years as parents with means in gentrifying neighborhoods look for schools that will enrich their kids’ lives—schools with diverse student populations, for example, and supplemental-learning opportunities. Schools serving high numbers of poor children often offer Spanish-immersion or gifted-and-talented programs that attract affluent families, which often bring with them the ability to fundraise. (Although Spanish-immersion programs were initially meant to serve children who spoke Spanish at home and were still learning English, they have become increasingly popular across the country with non-Latino parents whose children speak primarily or only English at home, according to a 2015 dissertation for the City University of New York’s urban-education program.) But the ability can also mean wealthy families wield disproportionate influence on campus and in the PTA.

According to Freidus, the current body of research on parent engagement in gentrifying schools shows that schools tends to accommodate those parents’ interests and concerns. Freidus analyzed a decade of posts in a listserv for parents new to the school and neighborhood and discovered how quickly one unidentified Brooklyn school and its ostensible priorities evolved as the student population became whiter and more affluent. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch fell from 90 percent in the 2003-04 school year to 65 percent in the 2011-12 year. At the same time, the school spent much of its resources on the playground and other facilities rather than efforts to get classroom computers and support for the student prom.

Criner Brown said she has seen similar issues play out in Washington, D.C., schools. In some cases, according to Criner Brown, white and affluent parents begin advocating for their children before they even attend the school. “Yes, it is parent advocacy, but a more forceful and entitled version that is more of a demand than a request,” she said.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, an education advocate and former guidance dean at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Illinois, said PTAs rarely discuss race directly, instead using words that “refer to race while not referring to race” out of fear that they’d otherwise appear racist. When disadvantaged parents do try to speak up, they’re often dismissed by other parents or by administrators, Wickham Hurst said. Parents of color, she said, bring up concerns about testing and how to help students who are underperforming, but are sometimes brushed off. As one parent spoke, she recalled, a white PTO member who is considered an education expert by parents because she works in the district, sighed and rolled her eyes.

A mother of color also told Wickham Hurst that she and another nonwhite parent were dropping out of the PTO because their concerns were always left in the “parking lot” to be discussed another time—time that never came. “I’ve been cussed out many times in my career by a very frustrated parent who has never been listened to in school systems who would like to be heard but they never say it in the ‘right way,’” said Wickham Hurst, adding that black parents tell her they never hear from the school unless it’s about student discipline. Students of color are suspended at disproportionate rates, with some studies indicating teacher bias plays a role in determining discipline.

Alina Adams, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten, works with many parents of color who are trying to get their children into New York City-area elementary schools; she also helps parents adjust to the schools once they’re there. According to Adams, many parents of color express concern that they won’t be listened to at the school. “[Reluctance to speak up] gets magnified when it’s someone of a different race than you or different ethnicity or different economic background,” she said. “Maybe you don’t speak English so well and you feel intimidated by that. How do I challenge this person on this issue when I know that she’s a lawyer and I [just] have a high-school diploma?”

The data bears out some of Adams’s points about disadvantaged parents’ lack of involvement. Lower educational levels are a factor in their limited engagement, as is having a lower socioeconomic status and being an underrepresented minority, a 2013 study on Parental Readiness Empowerment Programs shows. Meanwhile, a 2014 paper that analyzed black parents at an urban middle school found that perceptions of racism and hostile parent-teacher interactions were significant barriers to their engagement at school.

“I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening.”
Meanwhile, Myra Rivera-Blanco, the fundraising co-chair of the Rolling Terrace PTA, said that Latino parents tend to ask different questions about family engagement because, culturally, they see school participation differently. “I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening,” she said. Many Latino parents believe they should trust the school to handle their child’s education appropriately and are less inclined to question teachers and administrators.

Rivera-Blanco is the main contact for many Latino families as one of few Latina members of the PTA; she also serves as the de facto translator at meetings. Rivera-Blanco said many of the school’s lower-income parents don’t have access to laptops and even cell phones, which makes communication especially difficult.

When schools are cash-strapped, the priorities of the members of the parent organization often become the priorities of the school as a whole. Rivera-Blanco says she sees this dynamic play out often at Rolling Terrace with the Spanish-immersion program, which is populated largely by students with means. For example, parents of kids in the program ensure that its teachers receive gift cards at the beginning of the year and during Teacher Appreciation Week to pay for supplies. “There are parents in our school that can’t put enough cents together to get a coat much less give their teacher their supply list,” Rivera-Blanco said. “That imbalance is huge. You can walk into a classroom and know which is a Spanish-immersion classroom and which one isn’t.”

The history of the PTA shows that these race and class dynamics have always been an issue. Christine A. Woyshner explores this context in her 2009 book The National PTA, Race, and Civic Engagement, 1897-1970, exploring how white affluent women who founded what is today known as the National PTA used their influence to achieve reforms. The “black PTA,” or the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, on the other hand, was more concerned with ensuring their schools had the basics.

school is diverse, the parents’ goals are usually too different. “It’s very hard in those situations to create an equitable school engagement and school governance model because ideally what you want in an integrated school is people are fighting together for all of their children,” Potter said. A model where all students are challenged and their particular talents are developed through similar approaches to gifted classes, otherwise known as a “schoolwide-enrichment model,” may be the best way to pursue true diversity, she said.

Parents, teachers, and administrators should state their goals clearly and work on fostering trust between low-income parents and parents of color, according to a 2013 paper from SEDL out of the Institutes for Research and the U.S. Department of Education. Schools could also increase communication through home visits, such as those made at William W. Henderson School.

As Potter said of Blackstone Valley Prep Academy, school administrators have to do more than hope families will get along. “They had to make sure that they were intentional about shared leadership,” Potter said.

Leaders and Moral Courage

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One of the most difficult things to do is to let go of the familiar, of the terrain you have crossed and mastered.  It is, for some, frightening to ask if habits and practices that have developed over time and served well are still the right answers for the present problems and purposes. Personally, some of these habits helped us learn and grow; some of them guided us through professional and personal hard moments. Professionally, all of us have habits and practices that contributed to our success at our jobs.  We even wonder if we are wasting time to reexamine those well-worn paths to success. But…these past few decades are unrelenting with daily challenges and unanticipated demands.

Two Right Options
The educator’s dilemma arises within the domain of what’s good enough. An “acceptable” number of students graduate, and an “acceptable” number of students go on to college or join the work force.  Where did that “acceptable” number come from and whose hand moves it when we glance away? We lead schools, institutions that exist at the core of our society; they are expected to both keep pace with change and hold true to tradition. We choose often between two right options, trying to find which one is the better one or which serves a higher good.

Finding Moral Courage
Enter the need for moral courage. Nearly every decision or action is accompanied by some degree of risk, however small.  Here, from Rushworth Kidder:

So it is with moral courage, where danger is endured for the sake of an overarching commitment to conscience, principles, or core values.  Here too, the key lies in properly assessing the “measure” of peril.  Underestimating the danger, and our moral courage will be written off as imprudence.  It will be seen as pointless self-sacrifice, doomed from the outset because we never understood the difficulties we would encounter.  But overestimate the danger by inflating mundane annoyances into fantasies of fright-and then riding bravely out against them in battles we’re sure to win-and the world will credit us with nothing more than bluster, bravura, and rant. (pp. 109-110)

In another book read a long time ago, with a title and author long forgotten, a compelling story about a well-liked Superintendent’s generosity reveals the real dangers that lurk for leaders.  It was Christmas Eve and the Superintendent, who lived in the district with his family, was getting ready to head home and decided to offer the custodian, who had been suffering hard times, the Christmas tree that had been decorating the office. Following the holiday, a Board member accused the Superintendent of stealing district property. Those in the district who had some disagreements with the Superintendent joined in the attack. It was on the front page of the local newspaper, was embarrassing to him and his family. Ultimately the accusations continued. He lost his ability to be effective as trust was eroded. He left the job and the people he loved working with and for.

From Where Do Our Dangers Emanate?
It is plain common sense that if the ways schools are organized and operate, if teaching and learning continue as they were in the century past, can we state with confidence that we are serving our students well?  A danger exists in ignoring the danger in remaining with habits and practices from years past. If following one’s heart to offer someone in need the opportunity give away a tree rather than discard it is a simple and quick decision before schools close for a week or more. Yet the fallout strongly impacts a well-intentioned leader’s life.  We wonder if the tree created a family memory for the custodian and that in the long run, that human exchange of a gift during the giving season enriched both men’s lives. But, who knows?

Know Yourself and Be Yourself
Leading in this century will always happen under the cloud of urgency. And, criticism is always just around the corner.  So as the days grow shorter and we light trees and our homes, families gather and we think about the important things in life. Our message is: Leaders, know yourself and be yourself.

Change is something we talk about so much it becomes an abstract, academic exercise. But, every decision and every change leavens possibilities, some we plan and others surprise us. The most important thing is that we can live with whatever arises because our hearts were clear and true to our calling.

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers

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