In a world filled with uncertainty, one thing is clear—the field of education is in the midst of a massive transformation. As in all such economic and social transitions, we experience our situation incoherently. We often feel overwhelmed and a bit disoriented. We look back in time fondly and look forward with anxiety. Will this period of change end soon or have we entered a state of “permanent white water”?
What will the years immediately ahead hold for our field? Changing demographics, financial constraints and greater influence of technology appear to be sure bets. More externally imposed change and greater competition from private and charter schools are also likely. In New York, the Regents Reform Agenda—APPR, CCLS and DDI—will have modified the landscape.
We will adapt. Districts will become more efficient, share services with one another and, in some cases, reorganize. Schools will be drawn into closer relationship with parents, communities, business and higher education. Teacher leadership, professional development and emphasis on instruction will all increase.
Successful adjustment to the current environment ensures the preservation of organizations and the careers of their members. When I ask leaders about the vision they have for their schools, they often respond that it is to remove their buildings from state accountability lists or to improve high school graduation rates. They are adapting, but is this enough?
During this time of great change, this question has been on my mind, and possibly on yours. What is it that we are supposed to be doing and how closely does it resemble what we are currently doing? Often, and certainly this year, we have been too busy doing to think about such matters but three events this past month provided me with moments of clarity about our collective purpose as educators.
On a warm early evening recently, I decided to exercise by walking through the fields adjacent to the area middle and high schools. The place was teeming with activity. A high school track meet and a tennis match were still underway. Loud cheers and pleas came from soccer moms and dads watching a spirited community game. Wherever there was an open patch of ground, parent-coaches were conducting practices in baseball, soccer and lacrosse for boys and girls of all ages. I smiled as I walked; I had supported my children in the same ways on the same fields a generation earlier.
Early in May, the Scholars Recognition program, which CASDA has sponsored for the past 27 years, once again recognized the achievement of top scholars from the high schools in our 11 county region. What makes the program truly unique is that each recognized student was asked to identify the teacher who had been the most influential in his or her life and to explain why. As you might guess, the students credited their teachers with much more than helping them to get good grades on state tests.
As a proud University at Albany alumnus, I was pleased to attend a family member’s graduation from the Rockefeller Graduate School of Public Affairs recently. As I watched the ceremony, I was struck by the genuine affection which these young adults held for the professors seated on the stage who had pushed them, demanding their very best over a long multi-year period. Instead of relief that the experience had come to a successful conclusion and the pain would now stop, these students expressed gratitude for the teachers who had developed them.
These experiences, which we each have daily, point to educators’ true purpose—to assist all young people in their efforts to realize their own unique potential. The state’s current emphasis on literacy and numeracy is but one aspect of this larger goal, necessary but not sufficient. Our immediate problem is that we often confuse this “means” with the broader “end” and narrow our vision, declaring victory when test scores reach an acceptable level.
Over the years, as I have asked parents what they expect of their schools, they answer that, though they want educators to develop their children’s literacy and math skills, they also want much more. Teach our children to be good people and to be considerate of others, they say. Provide them with experiences which will nurture their curiosity, develop their talents and appreciate life. Help them to believe in themselves, to develop resilience and to become lifelong learners.
Obviously, all of these important goals cannot be attained through direct instruction nor are they all easily assessed. High expectations coupled with high support to reach them are essential. Role modeling and coaching are crucial. Music, art, drama, sports and a wide array of extracurricular and co-curricular experiences are the laboratories where talent as well as soft skills and healthy attitudes are developed. Educators in daily contact with students and their parents know this which accounts for their resistance to state efforts to narrow our educational focus.
As we continue to be buffeted about by the change all around us, let’s be sure not to lose sight of why we chose our profession. For most of us, it was to make a difference in the lives of children, to help them to reach their potential. Isn’t this why we are still moved when we watch old movies like Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Remember the Titans and Freedom Writers?