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To Teach the Whole Child, Honor the Whole Teacher

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Guest Post by Zac Chase

Common in professional development across the country is the contention that "all teachers are teachers of X." Predominantly, that X is marked by literacy or reading. Given the flow of grants and policy as of late, it's not hard to imagine a shift in which everyone is considered a teacher of science or math.

This is, in short, a subject-centered view of teaching.

Chapter Seven of A Year at Mission Hill points to a different direction: a child-centered view of teaching. The subjects or disciplines these teachers specialize in may be reflected in the names of their classes. But there aren't math teachers at Mission Hill; there are adults who teach children math. This is a subtle but significant distinction to keep in mind.

At my previous school in Philadelphia, Science Leadership Academy, our habit when introducing ourselves to guests or new colleagues was to introduce ourselves as such, to put the humanity of the work before the content of that work.

So ingrained was it in how we thought about ourselves that this explanation of our work became how we explained ourselves to people outside the world of education as well.

Imagine if this was true at every school?

Though only a few of the teachers interviewed for this episode of A Year at Mission Hill were presented as having the title of "Student Support," it's not difficult to see how that title would easily be taken up by each member of the faculty and staff within the school. As Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Richard Elmore points out, "language is culture."

Surely, then, there is something key to adults within education thinking about their titles as "Student Support" first, and "Teacher of X" second.

This way of thinking -- of putting as much of the student as possible (if not the whole student) first in the daily work of schools -- produces mindsets like that of Intern Leia Baylor who says, "Everyone has room to grow. They need some work, they need some help."

Also important, though only lightly touched on in this episode, is the understanding that teachers are whole people as well. While they are certainly more squarely positioned with the skills of compartmentalizing their rough mornings or stressful evenings, that compartmentalization has its human limits.

Teachers, as it turns out, are people too. They show up as their whole selves each day the walk into schools and classrooms. And as every teacher knows, working to support every child as completely as possible is a daunting task. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, "Among responsibilities that school leaders face, those that teachers and principals identify as most challenging result from conditions that originate beyond school doors."

This is not an argument against attempting to understand students fully and working to meet their myriad needs, but it is a reminder that meeting the full needs of children -- intellectual, social, emotional -- is impossible without a support system in place for all people, old and young.

At Mission Hill, the central ingredient of that support system is a collaborative culture in which the adults are able, day in and day out, to do what they got into the profession to do: work closely with young people to help them learn and grow. The value of this simple privilege -- missing in too many schools and classrooms across the country -- was confirmed by the researcher Linda Lumsden who examined teacher morale in 1998 and found that teachers become renewed by reopening "the case for teaching" and reminding themselves why they entered education in the first place.

Lumsden points to the "School Leader as Motivator," and writes that "people are more personally invested in their work with an organization when (1) they have a voice in what happens to them; and (2) their work has meaning and significance in contributing to a higher purpose or goal."

These are the central features on display throughout the year at Mission Hill. And they outline core design principles for the rest of us, as we search for the best ways to help schools remain committed to supporting the whole student -- and the whole teacher.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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