Summertime Questions About School Culture
Summertime offers a change of pace and a longer sunshiny day. For some lucky ones, it means a family vacation, shorter work hours and a different schedule at home. Many children are off to camp. In other homes where money is tight, children may find themselves on their own or under the care of an older sibling, with little to do. Some children will be feeling the lack of school meals as summer without them unfolds.
But, whether advantaged or disadvantaged, the lives of children are different in summertime. A school schedule isn't providing organization nor does it serve as a distraction. Illness, injury, relocation, divorce, incarceration, a job lost, an argument, death... any can play out in full force when children are not living in our care and there may be little help offered. But we can be sure, these things are happening right now in the lives of children and the children will return to us in a short eight weeks with whatever resolution they have found. Often we will see the result but never know the provocation.
For educators, the intensity of the demands of the school year contributes to a readiness to let go of the year past, take a deep breath, and begin preparing for the year to come. Even for the leaders who are at work over the summer, the shorter workdays and the interactions with fewer people contribute to a slower, calmer pace. There is a rhythm to the year, an intensity to the work, that has become a regular part of educators' lives. But while educators are refreshing and readying for the year to come, students may be having a different experience.
In order for children to be ready to learn, their minds must be clear, their hearts not aching, their bellies full, their foundation solid. And even if a school or district serves a wealthy community, there are, sadly, still students who fail to meet these requirements. So while the summer offers educators a respite from the intensity and pace of the other ten months, an opportunity to make a difference remains. More than schedules, due dates, reports, and meetings, leaders have an opportunity to improve the way students' social-emotional (and for some, health and physical) needs can be better met. In the end, these unmet needs are as responsible for achievement gaps and failures as faulty curriculum and assessment, or poor teaching.
The end of the school year was focused on assessment of students and teachers. For students, a number indicated in what group they may belong and whether they can move ahead. For teachers, a category that frames them as successful in their work or lacking in significant ways. Now what? If the summer is not used as a chance to gain perspective from these results, it is an opportunity lost, truly. Why? Because we all know very well that once the year begins, momentum gains and responding to each day's demands is where time is spent.
No Magic Solutions
Even if the adults do not know why a student is failing to do well, or is frequently absent, or exhibits challenging behavior, adults do know who those students are. Their lives are not compartmentalized. They don't know how to "check it at the door". We cannot jump into a plan until we know what is happening with the child. Surely there are support services available, guidance, social services, for some, special education services. But honestly, the day in schools for these students requires interactions with students and teachers, the added stressors of the learning process and for many, the stressors of failing to succeed. Without diminishing the importance of support services, these students are best served when the level of awareness, kindness, and capacity to encourage and include these students within the daily operation of the school through each faculty and staff member results in a far more hopeful chance for success.
With a hope-filled goal of raising graduation rates, and the relentless efforts of educators to have students succeed, we may have hit a wall. Support services, tutoring, extra time, extended courses, mentoring, all contribute. But at the end of the day, each interaction students have with each adult in the building, whether learning in class, or asking a question in an office will make a difference for students' ability to be whole and present in their participation as learners and as contributing members of the school community.
There are no magic solutions. But there is no question that when an environment embraces kindness, openness, inclusion, compassion, empathy, understanding, and patience, there is little doubt that each member of the community, adult and child alike, helps its members through those factors that interrupt their ability to do their best. So while summer planning may be focused on scores and evaluations for the purpose of improved student achievement, do not allow the focus to be only on teachers' learning more about their craft, or extra supports for students. Think about how the culture of the entire organization can make a difference in how the students and adults can flourish. This is an essential leadership responsibility. Here are a few questions to hold.
How can we insure that:
- every child is considered in decisions made?
- someone really knows every child?
- careful listening is a facet of each communication?
- care is taken to remain aware of biases as they creep into our work?
- respect is demonstrated by all and to all?
- students are engaged in the school community as well as in their own learning?
Beginning to think about even one of these questions this summer will have an impact. It will call your attention to decisions, interactions, messages intended and those sent but not intended. Holding all six questions and engaging a dialogue about them among your colleagues, may lay the foundation for a different way of opening the next school year. It isn't too early to begin thinking about those next first days.
Consider also reading:
Peter Dewitt's recent post "5 Ways to Foster a Positive School Climate"