You can feel it within minutes of entering a school: the demeanor of the students, the bearing of the teachers, the care for the physical plant, the artifacts of discovery, learning, curiosity, community, expression and intellection that adorn the walls of the place. It is palpable. This is a place where young people and teachers learn.
Contrast this with a “heads down” institution where children propel themselves from room to room with wires emerging from both ears or in loud conversation about issues that express their disdain for where they are and their longing for where they would be if they were not compelled to be in school.
This “feeling” has no metric. It cannot be quantified in a “school report card.” It is cultural and derives its success from exemplary school leadership. It needs a corollary culture in the home to succeed consistently. With only one such culture in the life of a child, the child can succeed, but they have a harder time of it.
This learning culture is not driven by high property taxes, escalating school budgets, federal or state legislation, national testing, or teacher’s unions. It is a modeled behavior set by leadership in the school and emulated by a critical mass of the teaching body, all of whom are accountable for the culture and propagate it by their own example, their commitment to a community of learning, their respect for one another and for their students.
It is the same in the home. Children bring to school their parents’ attitudes towards learning. If no one reads and discusses what they read, if the family never convenes over a shared meal to discuss a film, a book, a concert, or a local or world event, or no one ever just hops up to look up a word in the dictionary, the meaning of which no one knew, there is no culture of learning, curiosity or exploration in the home and the entire burden is left to the school.
Like it or not, our children will generally be who we are, not who we tell them to be. If we barcalounge, watching some inanity on TV and tell our child to go do their homework, the message is at best confusing and at worst hypocritical.
There are several ways to create and sustain a learning culture in our schools, only one works consistently. It is the exemplary one. “Be as I am and do, not as I say.” Good culture is set and modeled by those in authority. There is a shared respect for inquiry and learning. The teacher holds open the option to learn from the student. The classroom culture is enlivened by a shared passion for exploration and discovery.
As so often happens, a principal exerts authority by rules, regulations, punishments or blandishments. In fact, such rules are critical to a functional home or school, but they must provide behavioral boundaries for a lively culture of learning. As standalones, they do little for the school and rarely survive the child’s natural inclination to separate from the parent or institution and become an adult. Whereas an imbued passion for learning and a respect for intellectual and artistic discovery do survive maturity and can, in fact, grow into a life-long love of learning.
What is the action step? Ensure that our educational leaders are teachers and learners themselves and exemplify a love of learning, not just a politic knowledge of what the system requires to retain a job.
The relentless escalation of cost has little to do with excellence. As parents, we must be the source of educational excellence in our own selves, our homes and in our choice of principals and teachers to personally model and sustain a learning culture in our schools.