Tom Whitby, educator and Edchat founder, once said that students believe that education is “drill, kill and bubble fill.” Many people still believe that education is about students sitting back listening to the teacher tell them everything they will ever need to know in life. There are times, especially in the younger grades, when that is necessary, but it has to be balanced with letting students find their own way as well. Educators shouldn’t always shield students from the failure that may teach them valuable lessons.
If you ever watched “Bringing Down the House” with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, you probably remember Queen Latifah’s line when she said, “Oh. You’re one of those hard learners.” I was one of those hard learners when I was young, and although it was painful at the time, it helped prepare me for hardships that I now face as a school leader. Some of my ideas fail, and they fail miserably, but that only helps me better understand what I need to do in the future.
As we go through our day-to-day lives as educators, I often wonder whether students are getting the opportunity to share, or even develop, their own opinions. Why do I need to always shield students from the failures that taught me so much? Maybe there are some hard learners who need those moments to shape their own opinions about life. At some point they should be able to break away from the opinions of their parents but also those of their teachers. There is a delicate balance between educating and enabling.
Do we “Like” different?
Recently, I posted an entry from my Education Week blog called “Do Schools Encourage Diversity or Stifle It?” to my Facebook page. Most times I have friends who “Like” my blog or they even feel compelled to write a comment about why they “Like” the blog entry. However, one friend from high school, who I haven’t seen since high school, posted an alternative view.
He wrote: “I thought schools were for education? Seems like a lot of drama. It’s not a talent show or an old episode of the TV show “Fame” (just aged myself). Academia’s concern should be reading, writing and arithmetic. Anything beyond this is not the job of schools and not why we pay taxes.” Clearly the conversation continued and it led to a better understanding for the both of us, but it made me wonder if we always listen to the other side of a debate. Do we listen to other people’s opinions?
Presidential debates are important to watch because it gives us an idea, as voters, of what each candidate believes and stands for. If you watch the commentary after the debates — and there is always commentary — the newscasters focus on who “won” the debate. Perhaps I’m just weak, and I’m clearly never running for president, but I feel that debates should also be about gaining a better understanding of the other side.
As educators, we are often on the inside looking out when the topic of education comes up. Parents, and even students to some respect, are on the outside looking in, and that needs to change. If we truly want to work with our communities, the debates we engage in cannot be about winning and making sure others understand our answers. Those debates need to be about listening to what our stakeholders believe as well. Students don’t need to share their teacher’s opinions; they need to create their own. If we always ignore their input and walk away believing our opinions are the only ones that matter, we may find that our audience is gone the next time we need them.
How does this involve students?
We are at risk, more than ever before, of focusing solely on testing. The stakes are high, and many educators are in fear for their jobs. They worry about having their scores appear in the Daily News or the Los Angeles Times like colleagues from the recent past. We are at risk of making Tom Whitby’s quotation of drill, kill and bubble fill come true. The only way to change this is to offer our students something different so when they leave us they truly believed we listened.
In the classroom as teachers or the school building as principals, it should not always be about our opinions. We need to listen more than we speak. We need to engage in debates and listen to the needs of our students. We need to encourage students to create their own opinions so they do not always feel as though they are on the outside looking in.
Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at PeterMDewitt.com. Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.