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Monday, October 17, 2016

Characteristics of a Successful Modern Elementary School

I think the following ideas will improve elementary education:

Hybrid Roles
The hybrid role in education is a role where educators both lead and teach. It was a role fully in place when I started teaching, and is now coming back as a successful educational leadership role. For example, our reading specialist both teaches and leads. The fact that she's working side-by-side with classroom teachers builds trust and a sense of team. And the fact that she has time to specialize creates expertise and time to learn and promote program development. This is a valuable role that may be used in many ways to improve what we can do at elementary schools. I believe that the use of leadership teams could create a team-within-team distributive leadership culture where every or most educators play a leadership role on an authentic decision making team.

Instructional Teams
Rather than the old fashion one-teacher-one-classroom model, the use of instructional teams may serve to empower educators as they work together to teach large teams of students. We have this model in place at our grade-level and it fosters wonderful teaching. Greater support and investment of the model by the broader educational community would offer this model even more capacity. The model needs to be created with sensitivity to workable numbers, good synergy of age, experience, focus, and quality support. This model also needs to be built from the ground up and respond to the context of the school, grade-level, community, and subject level to be successful.

Collaborative Time
Our team has ideal collaborative time including common lunches, common planning time, a one-hour-once-a-week Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting, and a one-and-a-half hour targeted student service/inclusion meeting once a week. We also add our own time to create a terrific total of collaborative time.

Distributed Leadership
Rather than the old model where everyone reports to one, with a distributive model of leadership, teacher teams make many decisions and are accountable for workplace research, development, and new ideas. When used well, distributive leadership has the potential of matching educators to areas of school life that match their experience, passion, expertise, and even need. Rather than one administrator trying to do it all, these small teams of dedicated professionals are given the voice and choice to make authentic decisions that impact the learning environment. When this work is full-circle and honestly analyzed and developed, it is work that holds great potential for the learning/teaching environment. What's very important here is that the model of distributive leadership is one fully implanted, not one that serves in name only.

Learning/Teaching Community Lens and Approach
Too often students and families are left out of the important decisions that impact schools. With a Learning/Teaching Community lens and approach, students, families, citizens, educators, administrators, and all other staff members are considered vital members of the learning/teaching teams. Privacy is reserved for the most personal information, but in most cases, all information that impacts the teaching and learning is transparently shared with sufficient lead time and an openness to response, discussion, and debate. When all members of the learning community are included in information share, decision making, and discussion/debate, learning/teaching communities grow with respect, capacity, and success.

Reimagine the School Environment
Schools should be "homes away from homes" for students. When children arrive at school, they should meet an environment that is welcoming, comfortable, cheerful, bright, and conducive to optimal learning. Every learning/teaching community will meet this call in different ways given their context and culture, and this is just fine. The key here is that students have what they need to learn in optimal, comfortable, and modern ways.

Specialization and Integration
The old "one-size-fits-all" teaching models, structures, roles, and strategies are now outdated. Today it's a mix of student-centered personalization and collaboration that matters when it comes to teaching well. The depth of knowledge that's available today leads us to needing educators to specialize in order to teach well, yet the need for creative, collaborative, critical thinkers and problem solvers calls us to integrate subject areas and disciplines so that students are learning and interacting in ways that they'll be called to integrate and specialize in their futures. Again, in every context, this specialization and integration may look different, but what's important is that teaching/learning communities recognize the need for both specialization and integration, and put that need on the forefront of the work they do.

Equity. Justice, and Cultural Proficiency
Too often educational communities have been communities that privilege some and deny others. This can't continue. There needs to be fair, inclusive, transparent policies that serve all members of the learning/teaching community well. There cannot be cultures of favoritism, secret deals, and special attention. Instead when we work with equity, cultural proficiency, and the will to help every member of the teaching/learning community develop, learn, and succeed, we will all do better.

Fiscal Responsibility
It's critical that systems operate with fiscal responsibility, and with that responsibility comes a need to invest in the great potential education holds for dynamic, peaceful, and prosperous communities. When schools teach children well, communities suffer fewer economic, behavioral, and apathy issues. A well educated populous typically gets involved, problem solves, and works to create harmonious, vital communities. So it's important for communities to seek the funding needed to support quality teaching/learning communities, and at the same time it's important to look deeply at how that money is spent weeding systems of dollars that result in little improvement or positive sustainability, and adding dollars to support new programs and existing successful approaches. Audits of system strength should be an inclusive process that includes the voices of all stakeholders including students, families, educators, staff members, administrators, and citizens. Too often, too few are considered when evaluations and audits are done. Optimal audits and evaluations require modern day, inclusive, transparent, strategic process.

Natural Beauty
I believe that preserving, maintaining, and developing natural beauty in a teaching/learning environment elevates the potential of that community. Recent and past studies prove this to be true. Increasing natural light, creating wonderful playgrounds, adding gardens, and creating nature paths will enrich any learning environment. Too often this is seen as an afterthought, but you'll notice that the wealthiest schools in the country contribute substantial dollars to the beauty and sustainability of their environments.

Great Teaching/Learning Tools
The tools for teaching and learning continue to get better and better. Rather than obstruct the use of new tools such as great online learning apps, programs, and technology, teaching/learning communities need to continually revisit this issue to identify what tried-and-true-traditional teaching/learning tools will remain and the new tools will they try out and eventually adopt. It's critical that the teachers who work with students every day have ready, timely choice and voice in this regard. Too often the tools that teachers use are chosen by administrators and others who do not work often or at all with students and/or the expected standards or programs. This is a mismatch that results in lost dollars and potential.

Holistic Education
Our wealthiest schools and wealthiest individuals choose holistic education mainly over education that focuses on a few skills. We sometimes find that schools with less resources and family voice and choice, invest all their time and money into test-related teaching and learning rather than a holistic approach. Sometimes students in these schools meet the test scores desired in elementary school, but later you see that students in these systems often have scores that plummet when they reach high school. Instead, we need to provide a dynamic holistic education approach to all students beginning with the earliest levels of school until they graduate from high school. Teaching and learning that puts the student first is a successful path to optimal, long-term, successful teaching and learning.

Life-Long Learners
The goal of teaching well should be to encourage and teach the learning community to become life-long learners. There's too much information for anyone to know, but if we encourage one another to continue our learning and focus our study on important, targeted goals, we'll all do well in our service to our most important clients, the students.

What would you add to this list of optimal criteria for elementary school education today. What have I missed? The potential for teaching students well today is tremendous, but to reach this potential all stakeholders will have to speak up, advocate, and work together for what serves the children in your community best, and how that work will ultimately serve your entire community well with a peaceful, contributing, successful, and happy populous.