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How Does the Public Learn About Our Schools?

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child reading w grandma.jpg

Bitter cold is preventing some schools from reopening after the winter holiday break. Even the Deep South is shivering this week.  Snow storms continue to pummel others where snowfall measurements seem incomprehensible. Whether returning to school this week or not, vast numbers of Americans traveled somewhere during these past few weeks. Families of multiple generations met to enjoy dinners and exchange gifts. We were among those and we realized that in each of those where young people where there were conversations about school.

The conversations were not generated for public relations purposes. They were grandparents asking about aspirations and successes. They were children showing off a bit as they read stories. There were videos shown of plays and concerts and games. There were questions about the future of work and of college. There was laughter and there was pride. There might also have been an observation of too about how much time the children were on the technology in their hands and was that good or not.

For whatever reason, however, we discovered another kind of conversation this break. Maybe because our travels this year involved what seemed like a lot of public places...airports, restaurants, hotels and hospitals. It dawned on us, like a morning sunrise, that people form their perspectives of schools and education every day and in seemingly odd places. Here are a few....

After a few days of eating breakfast at the same time in a hotel restaurant, a little five year old became friends with us. He would leave his family and meander over to our table to show us the model cars he had chosen for the day's play but he was filled with questions as well. His parents and grandparents, who were having a "staycation", would stop by occasionally to ask if he was a bother. We were enjoying the distraction he provided. In one of our interactions about the number of cars he had, he announced to us that his school no longer was teaching math. Further investigation on our part, and a follow up with his parents, confirmed that for 5 and 6 year olds at his school the thing called "math" was not included in the curriculum. He knew about counting, adding and subtracting but said math would come later.

We heard a second family also discussing math. A young grandmother was waiting in a lobby with two preteens, a young girl and her best friend. They had been asked about favorite subjects and were lively in their answers, sharing about themselves and each other. Neither of them chose math as a favorite subject but one of them did say that though she wasn't doing well, she liked it. Grandma jumped in and offered advice. "Math only gets harder as you get into high school, so if you aren't doing well now, you'd better think about that." We weren't sure if it was meant to be a message of encouragement or not but the girls moved on. They shared a story about fights in school the week before vacation. The story was that a group of boys decided they could force the principal to close school early by having hallway fights every day. We never heard if the desired result was obtained but we did overhear a bit too much about the fights, their seriousness and the principal's role.

This made us recall a conversation we'd had with two high schoolers who had been traveling with their mom in Arizona. We shared a desert jeep tour with them. The brother and sister were interested in our work as educators and bloggers and authors. As you can tell, we welcome engagement with students of all ages, and these were no different except for one thing. They were being inquisitive and reflective, exploring how our writing about STEM matched their experience of it in school. It was the best because we learned from them as we hope they did from us. And, not surprisingly, they had advice for us about blogging.

We have written previously about the messages we send from schools and the ways in which school leaders welcome input and feedback. But, the holiday conversations and harkening back to Arizona, we realized, anew, something we always knew. You know it also. For all the conscious effort and good intention we put into establishing a communication system with the community, there will always be the other way they learn about us. The children, our students, are the storytellers. The stories may be accurate or not, they may be the ones we'd want told or not but either way, they are given credibility by those who hear them. Our classrooms and hallways and teams and clubs are filled with little "ambassadors in training". They carry messages about us to those who love them and to strangers. They receive back messages about how important our work and learning is to the rest of their lives. These are stories we can't control but leaders can influence those stories. We just need to begin listening in unlikely places. And, maybe, we need to give a little more attention to students' understanding of our decisions and our language.

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 fujidreams courtesy of Pixabay 

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