Each June, as the school year wraps up, I like to take a minute to look back on what went well and what I could improve on, and then I set goals for coming year. But as our little school ends its 19th year and looks forward to year 20, I find myself looking further back than just the past year. Instead, I’ve been reflecting on the past two decades at a school I gave birth to and nurtured like my third child.
When our school was very young – in a half-painted rented house (we couldn’t afford paint for the whole thing, so we painted the front half) and its eleven students, it felt like my newborn baby. It took up all of my attention, gave me sleepless nights, and was very needy. I was in control of everything that happened, from the mopping of the floors and keeping bank books to teaching classes and tutoring after school. I nursed that baby through difficult times and I probably became a little over-protective, as new mothers tend to do.
But with time, my child grew and I had to learn to let go, to give it some independence. Now, I realize that I’m in the “grandma” position. Our school has grown up and it has children of its own: my grandchildren are the teachers that have grown into leaders and innovators, and the projects those teachers and their students create. Like a proud grandma, I get to join classes for inspiring, fun moments and take pictures to document everything that’s going on. I get to coo over final projects and the personal growth of students. Like an old granny, I find myself giving advice to young teachers and to students who ask for it. And finally, I get to hand students their diplomas as they graduate, and cry a little as I let them go.
What I’ve learned:
Cutting the umbilical cord
Over the past years, I’ve slowly learned to give up control. I’ve realized that teachers and students do better work when they own their projects, make the important decisions, and are free to learn from their mistakes. My main role is to support them in any way I can and to cheer them on from the sidelines. I take pictures and glow with pride at their successes, and I meet with them to point out the positives when they feel they’ve failed.
I used to think that giving up control was a one-time thing – “There, I gave up control. Done!” But no, giving up control is an endless continuum that constantly goes deeper. It’s a slow process of empowering others, allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions and giving them the tools for success. My job is not only to give control to teachers but to help them give control to their students, by allowing students to choose their learning targets, to design the projects that will help them learn, to self-assess, and to develop critical thinking and leadership skills. These are not one-time events. They take planning and dedication on the part of teachers. My job is to model the giving up of control and to consistently support it.
Goals for 2017 – 2018
Oh, shoot, I thought they could read my mind! Yeah, this is an ongoing weakness of mine. I’m a bit hyperactive when it comes to doing research, making connections, and coming up with new ideas. But I often forget to involve others in my thinking process. Whether it’s parents, teachers, coaches, or students, I need to focus on listening more and finding a way to share the ideas that we come up with in the school. We used to produce a newsletter that went out every two weeks, but over time, we realized that parents simply don’t have time to read as much anymore.We need to find a new and improved way to communicate. For this upcoming school year, one of our focuses will be finding a way to share ideas through pictures and short messages. We’re hosting monthly Community Coffee meetings with parents so they can share ideas and concerns with us. We’re also meeting monthly with our student government leaders to hear from them – they’re masters at coming up with solutions to the problems they see, and we need to take advantage of that.
From working with orphanages to doing exchanges with students at the deaf school, our students have been involved in many different projects to help others. But usually, these projects are done as add-ons to the curriculum. More and more, teachers are interested in adding a social or community improvement component to the projects students do in school. We’ll be looking into the myriad different ways that we can do this, hopefully continuing to connect with others around the world as we do so.
Leaders of their own learning
Another focus next year will be to continue empowering students to take charge of their education. After working with learning targets this year, a few teachers had students create portfolios to showcase the learning they did. It was amazing to see them present their work – they were able to see their own growth throughout the year and took such pride in the improvements they made. From our small start with learning targets to the final step of self-assessment through portfolios, we’ve found that students are motivated to learn when they are put in the driver’s seat. Next year, more of our teachers want to get on board with student self-assessment and the creation of portfolios.
I’m excited to see how much we can grow this coming year and I’m happy to hand over the reigns, stand back on the sidelines, and cheer my child on.