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As Teachers, Our Work Is Just Beginning

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Guest post by Kathy Clunis D'Andrea

I find myself in an interesting place. As I watch the final episode of A Year at Mission Hill, the 10-part video series about my school, I realize we are nowhere near done in our work. In a lot of ways, our journey is just beginning. That's why this series has been such a gift to our community; it has allowed us to think more deeply about our work both as a school and with the wider world.

Over the last six months, I have had the great fortune of meeting many people who have seen the videos and shared their stories with me. They are stories of hope, excitement, optimism, and surprise. Many people are surprised that a public school like Mission Hill exists. Their surprise surprised me.

I thought I knew a lot about the national climate of education. The truth is I knew what I had read. But this year I was able to hear stories from other teachers in the field, and what I discovered was how many of us feel undervalued and untrusted.

For me, the essence of success as a teacher is trust. I am trusted by my community to teach the children in my class. I trust the teachers in my school to teach their students well. I am valued as an intelligent professional capable of making good decisions. As Debbie Meier says in Chapter 10, democracy depends on the respect we have for the judgment of ordinary people. This is the reason I teach in a democratic school. Respect is key. It means we value what everyone brings even if his or her opinion is different from ours.

Our ability to truly value each other is the key to changing schools for the better. As Ashoka founder Bill Drayton says, everyone has the ability to make change happen in this world. How, then, do we create a nation of changemakers?

At Mission Hill, we've found that the best way to help children value themselves, their voices, and each other is by allowing them to be a part of the decision making process. Democratic schools help students, families, and teachers feel important, active, and present in learning.

What gets in the way of more schools being structured similarly? What is causing teachers to feel they don't have the time to teach in the ways they know are the best ways for students to learn? The answer is testing, plain and simple. Teachers are spending more time giving standardized tests and less time giving the sorts of assessments that they find most valuable to really learning about what their students need and what they as teachers need to do in response.

These types of assessments can include observation, questioning and discussion. What they require, however, is a certain amount of trust, and a belief that the teacher is capable of assessing her students effectively. They also require time. Time to observe. Time to have conversations. And time to have meaningful discourse with students.

Where is the evidence that our children are learning? At Mission Hill, we believe the best evidence comes when students publicly present and defend their work through exhibitions. This year, all of my four-, five-, and six year-olds reflected on their learning over the year. They wrote multiple drafts and then shared their reflections with their families.

These events happen throughout the school, starting with the three year-olds and going right up to the eighth grade portfolios. When I hear the fifth graders share their recollections of their time at Mission Hill, I am always moved. A former kindergarten student of mine, now a high school senior, recently came to visit. "Kathy!" she said. "We were learning about Ancient Greece and I was answering all the teacher's questions." She went on to say, "The teacher asked me how I knew all this stuff and I told her I learned it in Kindergarten." When children are a part of their learning they create lasting, meaningful memories.

Thinking about all I have learned this year, I feel more driven than ever to help teachers and students everywhere feel as empowered as we do at Mission Hill. As one of my colleagues recently said, "Every school should have a Chapter 10."

Kathy Clunis D'Andrea teaches four, five, and six year-olds at the Mission Hill School and is an adjunct professor at The University of Massachusetts.

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