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Educating the 'Whole Child' Requires Courageous Leaders

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We are known proponents of school change. Not willy-nilly change for change's sake but a forward movement that holds dear the values and the purpose of public education in a democratic society of the 21st century. Preservation of tradition does not necessarily limit the capacity for progress. They can coexist. Each school district is a unique community with its own expectations and values about education and what is important in school programs and activities.

Leading Change Has Its Perils

The relationships a leader develops are dependent upon who they are, where they serve, the values of that specific community, the expectations of that particular board of education, and needs of the district and its children. That said, leading change is not for the faint of heart. It can be a sensitive and tricky endeavor. The greater the change the more peril for the leader along the way. Ask those who have tried to lead school or district mergers or those who have become embroiled in attempts to lengthen school days or years.   

For years, the phrase 'whole child' has been part of the educator's vocabulary. Books and conferences address more than just curriculum. They also discuss the child and child emotional and physical well-being.  As Mike Kuczala, a recent guest blogger put it, 'state management' is key. He doesn't mean one of the 50 states.

Maybe you're asking yourself "what is state management"? It is managing the brain/body emotional states of learners. Not something we've normally been exposed to in our educational experiences as a learner, teacher or leader.  Why is it so important to the teachers you lead? Because in my humble opinion it is at the core of the teaching and learning process. 

Mindfulness, mindset, social/emotional awareness, learning styles and methods that take all of this into consideration are flooding our inboxes, our mailboxes and professional literature. That is a good thing. The crux of the question we hold about school change is: with all the information we can now access to support the way we work with children, why are schools so slow to incorporate them? Yes, our plates are already overflowing. Yes, our resources are limited. Yes, how much else can we ask? What if not all of this is the work of education? Where are the other mental health and community partners who can also take the lead? But, what can we bring to this emerging need of children and of learning environments? We can bring focus and courage.

Leadership Focus

It is easy to say children are at the heart of every decision. It is an entirely different matter if someone were to actually hold us accountable to that standard. Especially, if it means what is best for children will be at the core of each decision. Then, the bar rises and our jobs get harder. Budgets do prevail and limit capacity sometimes. The force of  'we've always done it that way' is a compelling argument for some. Stephen Covey always reminded us that the urgent will distract from the important. We do not believe that any leader turns away from the children when decision are made. Yet, we also know that there are some decisions where looking into their eyes is harder than others.

Here's an example... the topic of later start times for the older students. We wonder why, with the research available, more schools have not embraced it. It will be disruptive to families and their before and after school routines. It will also require transportation redesign. And, maybe the patterns of teachers' lives will be disrupted. It can become a hot potato, but that doesn't suggest it isn't worthy of a serious investigation. Attendance, engagement, and effective learning are all known contributors to student success. Focusing on attendance with efforts to improve it and changing teaching methods to move students from disengaged and not doing well to achievement are good things.

We wonder whether working harder would be best accompanied by working smarter. Might all that effort going into attendance and engagement be more successful if the research into later start times was considered as a part of the problem and a potential part of the solution?  If, in fact, the focus is on what is good for children is central, then a serious resolve to embark on the journey into the possibilities of making it happen is an important job for the leader. 

Research is available. The Rand Corporation did a study about the economics of this change.

Numerous studies have shown that later school start times are associated with positive student outcomes, including improvements in academic performance, mental and physical health, and public safety. While the benefits are well-documented in the literature, there is opposition against delaying school times across the U.S. A major argument is the claim that delaying school start times will result in significant additional costs due to changes in transportation, such as rescheduling bus routes.

The Brookings Institute published a study by David Figlio, Dean of the School of Education and Policy at orthwestern University about later start times and academic achievement in which he cites many studies that clearly point to the affect later start times have on stuent achievement.

Of course, building and working with groups that contribute to the collaboration needed for building a coalition of support is essential. But the leader's focus on uncovering those aspects of the school's operation and organization that are contributing to the difficulties many students face is key.

Leadership Courage

Student achievement cannot be a football picked up and dropped again. The well-being of the students cannot either. This takes courage to not be persuaded away by the politics and challenges of the moment. The courage to keep priorities straight with the students' well-being' central isn't easy when the oppositional winds get strong. Unpacking with others, the factors that contribute to student achievement, and coming to consensus on what is best for all students, and agreeing on safety and well-being as important precursors to student achievement takes leadership courage.

Shifting a belief system about anything: curriculum, length of time spent in each subject, whether STEM or STEAM or an IB program, or a work release program, or to remove a bell system, all involve an element of courage. So will the study and potential change of any long held operational practice.

We believe school leaders and their teachers do want what is best for students. And we do believe that hard work goes into accomplishing that. We also believe that the system and its people are exhausted from working hard, from changing within, and not attending the very structure of our business. Student achievement and educating the 'whole child' can be seen in actions schools take. For that, school leaders must have courage to lead away from hesitations. The lack of true knowledge and the effort it takes to develop a community of support may become deterrents. Focus and courage, each in its coordinated way, can help relieve the exhausted system while helping students find more success than they are now.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email. 

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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