I was recently a finalist for a superintendency in a nearby district, and while responding to questions that were posed to me by the middle school staff during my site visit, I shared a story with them about some students at my current school.
During the meeting with these educators, I told them that I was not an “MCAS driven” principal. MCAS is the state test for Massachusetts, and like many other states that have mandated, standardized tests, it’s primarily used for accountability purposes. My staff and I also use it to try and inform ourselves on where we can celebrate successes with students and where we can make improvements. Over the course of six years that I have been a principal in Lexington, very little has come from my office related to MCAS, other than the minimal reminders for parents and students to get a good night’s rest and eat a good breakfast, along with our annual report card that I am required to share with the public.
Aside from MCAS, I’ve been especially proud of the work my staff has done around RtI, providing intervention for many children in our school in the areas of reading, math and writing. They have worked diligently and collaborated with one another across grade levels and with departments to create and deliver Tier II interventions for students, and that has resulted in students being more successful and our school having fewer special education referrals. On some level, that has also helped our MCAS scores, although, I’ve not placed an emphasis on intervention helping with a state test, but rather, helping students be more successful with school.
Additionally, I have continued to be impressed with the work staff have been doing to address the social-emotional needs of children. As a school, we’ve committed to Responsive Classroom as the “umbrella” for our work in building classroom communities, along with PBIS, which we’ve used to help students be clear about our expectations. But those two things alone can not be the mainstay of our work. Teachers are using mindfulness activities with children, yoga, breathing techniques, and using opportunities where mistakes lead to greater learning. We’ve also done work with students around civic mindedness, having students help others in and around the school community.
Classroom instruction with our school counselor has also been a part of our work related to social-emotional learning, providing students with lessons, discussion, and opportunities to learn how to navigate friendships, solve problems, react to situations, and how to be upstanding school and community citizens.
So, by now you are asking, what does this all have to do with educating “whole children”?
As part of my interview process and after sharing that I was not an MCAS driven principal, I went on to share a story about two students who came to have lunch one day in my office. One of the students had her name drawn as part of our bi-weekly drawing where students get to have lunch with me and my assistant principal. On this one particular day, the fifth grade student brought a classmate who happened to be a student attending our school as a student in our ILP (Intensive Learning Program), a district wide program that serves children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. It also just so happened that this student had more limited communication than some other students in the program, and definitely more limited communication than the young girl’s non-disabled peers.
That was one of the best lunches I’ve had with students. She interacted with that student and treated him no differently than any of her other peers. She could have easily chosen to bring another classmate that had more ability to communicate with her, however, she chose to bring someone that may not otherwise have had the opportunity to be picked. She also genuinely chose someone that she would enjoy having lunch with.
As I shared this story with the middle school teachers, I explained to them that no test out there would publicly measure the levels of empathy and compassion this young lady showed by inviting her friend to lunch with her that day. MCAS, while showing what some children know academically, does not provide a picture of “the whole child”, which is where our moral responsibilities rest as we work to educate ALL children.
Do we want to create a society where people place a value on their relationships and interactions with others? Or do we want a society where our children grow into adults that are devoid of the ability to connect with others, show empathy, build relationships, and care for one another?
Our students deserve every opportunity to learn academics AND social skills that will prepare them for their future. So policy makers, yes, we will administer your tests, and non-educators, yes, we teach more than math, and writing and reading. And yes, we will partner with parents and families to create an atmosphere where students feel safe and feel that they can make mistakes and learn.
As we all should do, the next time you are reviewing data for your students and you are asking yourself how you will teach everything that needs to be taught, ask yourself the question, “What would our world be like if we did not educate whole children?”