Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Problem" Students?

I am sometimes questioned and challenged about how I deal with “problem” students. In fact, at times, I am criticized for siding too much with students. It is a fair criticism that deserves an explanation on my part.

To be sure, I firmly believe that when students make mistakes, they must be held accountable for those mistakes. In the real world, we must all eventually face the consequences of our actions. Thus, it is only fitting that in schools, we prepare students for the real world by holding them accountable for their mistakes, albeit within the confines of the school’s policies and procedures.

That said, I believe that punishment is not enough. When students make mistakes, we must guide them to fix those mistakes. For example, when a student intentionally breaks a window, it makes sense to have that student pay for the window’s repair. Not only does that hold the student accountable, but it teaches him or her the value of remedying one’s mistakes. In law this is called restitution. In laymen’s terms, it’s called responsibility.

Furthermore, when a student makes a mistake, we must genuinely care for that student and help him or her learn from his or her mistake. When coaching public speakers and debaters, I always tell my students that they will learn more from losing than from winning. Losing forces you to reckon with what you could have done better, for you can only improve when you know what needs improvement. Losing also gives you the drive to do better next time. That’s why I tell them this paradox, “You have to lose if you want to win.”

I fear that we can sometimes be so judgmental and vindictive that we forget to help student grow from the experience of making mistakes. As I mentioned above, punishment is never enough. True concern and care for our students must drive us to help them remedy their mistakes, as well as learn and grow from them. In my mind, to do any less is just bad teaching.

Over the many years that I have been teaching, nothing has been more rewarding than seeing a “problem” student turn his or her life around, and knowing that I helped him or her at least a little bit. Besides, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “problem” student. Rather, there are only people with problems who sometimes make mistakes—and those people are all of us.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What IS Wrong with Our Education System?

Albert Einstein once said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than the problem.” That may be the case with our education system.

Ever since the historic Nation at Risk was published in 1983, everyone from business leaders, politicians, and the media has debated about “what’s wrong” with our schools. Despite all that debate, however, no one can agree on what exactly is wrong with our schools. As I have said before, the business community blames our schools for not churning out a skilled workforce; politicians blame our schools for low test scores and lackluster student performance; and, at least nationally, media pundits and cultural warriors blame schools for the breakdown of society and traditional family values.

Much of this confusion over what exactly is wrong with our schools stems from confusing expectations of schools. Business leaders expect schools to produce a workforce. Political leaders expect schools to produce students that are smarter than other students. And many media voices from the right and the left expect schools to produce morally upright, culturally literate citizens.

These divergent expectations don’t necessarily lead to the same result. For example, to succeed in business one need not score that well on standardized tests and one need not know Shakespeare. Conversely, someone who scores perfectly on the SAT and can quote Shakespeare from memory may not be the best candidate for a corporate job.

Some might argue that we can and should fulfill all of the above expectations by producing well-rounded students. I actually agree with that liberal arts approach. And in the best of all words, that would be great. But, in the real world, budget and time constraints limit us from doing all of the above. That said, it then becomes a matter of prioritizing our goals and expectations.

But we haven’t done that. Instead, all of these conflicting expectations have only confused teachers and students. Any teacher can tell you that if expectations are not made clear to students, you doom them to failure. After all, how can you tell if you’ve achieved your goals, if you don’t know what those goals are in the first place? As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you end up going nowhere.”

I, for one, don’t want our students to go nowhere.

So, I believe the first step towards going somewhere is to engage all stakeholders—parents, students, teachers, business leaders, politicians, and the media—in an open and honest discussion about what we want from our schools. That kind of discussion is going to require mutual respect, a willingness to work together, and a focus on the most important part of the education equation: our children.

Ultimately, it means developing and casting a shared vision for our education system, which I must warn you is going to be very, very hard work. But, the work will be worth it, for nothing less than the future of our islands is at stake.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We Are Student Centered

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which oversees accreditation for virtually all schools in the Marianas, has a pretty cool nick name for its acronym, WASC: We Are Student Centered. That is a great way to think about education.

But what does it mean to be student-centered?

First, I think it means to focus not on teaching but on student learning. It doesn’t matter how great one’s lecture is if the students just don’t get it. A focus on learning shifts the attention away from how much the teacher knows to how much the student learns.

Second, being student-centered means respecting the goals and expectations of each student. Sometimes teachers assume that a student’s goals are the same as that of the school or of other students. However, students have different expectations of school and different goals in life. Educators must pay attention to those goals and expectations and incorporate them into their instructional design. Research has shown that making learning relevant to students is one of the most effective ways to improve their motivation and drive to learn.

Third, being student-centered means accommodating the different needs of different students. Students have different learning styles and personalities, all of which should be acknowledged and harnessed in the classroom. In education circles, the multiple-intelligences saying goes, “It’s not how smart are you, but how are you smart?” By building on one learning style that is strong, you can enhance a student’s other learning styles. Respecting the diverse, unique needs of students requires that we differentiate our instruction.

Fourth and last, being student-centered means truly caring for each and every student. I know this can be very hard in our day and age when students don’t respect teachers like they did in the “good old days”. (However, I often wonder how good were the good old days.) While students should definitely respect their teachers, we educators must remember: respect that is earned is better than respect that is commanded or demanded. We can earn the respect of our students by respecting them in the first place and by genuinely caring for them. Perhaps, when we care for them, they will begin to care for themselves and their learning.

As Maya Angelou so aptly put it, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And what better feeling to plant in students than the love for learning, for that love will take them farther than any lesson I could ever teach in a day or even a year.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Promises Compromised

At the recent education forums sponsored by the Association of Commonwealth Teachers, one particular question has been posed at every forum: “The common perception of teachers is that politicians are supportive of education while running for office, and then neglect PSS once in office. What do you think has caused this perception, and how will you address these concerns?”

To me, the answer to the first half of the question is easy: It’s not a perception. It’s the truth. The real question, then, is how and why does that happen? Why do elected officials make promises, only to break them once in office?

Let me just say this: I don’t believe it’s because politicians are evil. I sincerely believe that most politicians start out with good intentions and are, for the most part, concerned about the public good.

However, along the way, promises are compromised as politicians struggle with the reality of politics. Unfortunately, that reality isn’t necessarily about the public good. That reality is riddled with special interests, opposing parties, the complexity of issues, and the plain difficulty of getting a group of opinionated people to agree on anything. In that reality, it’s easy to lose sight of your promises and convictions.

To make matters worse, many politicians become convinced that in order to accomplish anything in politics, one must game the system by manipulating people, brokering deals, and orchestrating all sorts of schemes. In short, well-meaning politicians come to believe that they need power to make things happen. Then, it’s only a matter of time before the pursuit of power overpowers good intentions.

So, you either get lost in the mix or lost in power. Either way, you compromise your promises, which leads to the more important question: How do we keep this from happening?

That, my fellow citizens, is the trillion dollar question that has puzzled political theorists for thousands of years. While I don’t think we’ll find the answer in the weeks before the election, we can at least remain vigilant and remind leaders, once elected, of the promises they made.

Of course, it would be just as good if politicians promised less and delivered more. But would such candidates get elected? There’s another good question for another time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Personal Vision Statement of Education

Every student can, should, and will learn
to lead meaningful, purpose-driven lives
as competitive yet humane participants in the emerging global marketplace
who ultimately work to make their world a better place.

To these ends,

All students will become better analytical and critical thinkers
who have a culturally sensitive global understanding of their world.
All students will become well-rounded individuals who are developed
spiritually, morally, socially, mentally, emotionally, creatively, and physically.
All students will become sympathetic and empathetic servants to others in need.

All teachers will become professionally proficient, passionate educators
who enthusiastically help students reach the highest academic standards.
All teachers will proactively cultivate learning among their students by
engaging the diverse learning styles of all their students.
All teachers will manifest a sincere and concrete care for each and every student.

All administrators and staff will secure a safe and welcoming school environment
that is conducive to learning.
All administrators and staff will provide resources and opportunities
for learning and professional growth.
All administrators and staff will respect teachers as professionals
and give them the support they need to do their jobs.

I will ardently listen, communicate, and promote dialogue to the best of my ability.
I will humbly assist, elicit assistance, and promote collaboration to the best of my ability.
I will passionately lead, empower, and promote synergy to the best of my ability.

All I will do is all that I can to help students, teachers, administrators, and staff succeed.
That is all that I can, should, and will do.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Adios Sister Remedios

Sister Remedios Castro and her fellow MMB sisters from Saipan.
She was never elected to public office. She never made a penny of profit. And she never penned a condemning word about anyone. Still, she has probably had more positive influence and done more good for our islands than any politician, business person, or critic. Sister Remedios Castro has thus left us with a moving legacy of humility, charity, and love. It is a legacy that brings vivid life to the words of Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; [s]he can never tell where [her] influence stops.”

And even though she has passed on, we can still learn much from this great teacher. Her example teaches us that it is better to serve than to be served; that the greatest rewards in life come not from material possessions; and that kind, supporting words help people grow more than harsh admonishments.

And whenever I find my ministry as a teacher and principal too much to bear, I remember the patient love of Sister Remedios and I struggle on. That is the lesson that I continue to learn from her.

Sister Remedios will be missed dearly by many, including myself, but I sincerely hope that her spirit will live on in our hearts and in the way we treat each other. For if we are to be worthy of her legacy, then we must learn to live the life of love that she lived every day of her life.

Adios Teacher.