As noted, Michael Thompson and this book are major influences on my project.
Michael has long been an inspiration– there is no better counselor about children’s social/emotional lives. Michael, (and I call him that because I did get to know him well as a member of his small group at a week-long conference in 2000), blends a vivid memory of his own childhood with an acute perception of the trials and struggles of growing up and an astounding degree of compassion and sensitivity. His works, particularly Best Friend, Worst Enemies, are for this school-leader the bible about children and their development.
In The Pressured Child (2004), he tackles the elusive subject of what makes a student successful in school. To best understand their experience in school, Michael “felt the need to shadow students” across the course of a school day. As quoted in the blog heading, and in what is something of a motto for this blog project, he writes at the end of his introduction: “A critical part of our job as educators and parents is to understand a child’s daily experience in school… Let’s go back to school.”
Michael writes he is there to shadow one student, but to learn from all. As a child psychologist, his focus is a bit different from that of this educational administrator: he is primarily concerned with observing the students: their affect, attitude, and strategies.
School, as Michael sees it, is difficult for all students– every bit as harsh as life, deeply flawed places, a high stakes game, challenging places, an Appalachian Trail like hike of endurance, blisters, perseverence, and exhaustion. Don’t you dare condescend or patronize a high school student– or envy them their playful, free from responsibility existence. It is grueling having others set your schedule, having to be at the mercy of teachers (not all of whom you respect), and making your way through the alternatingly demanding and boring routines. “No one has an easy time of it in school. “
[Myself, I don’t know. My first reaction is Not-me! I loved high school– well, on deeper reflection, let’s say I got to a point somewhere in the spring of my 11th grade (nearly 3/4 of my way through it, I suppose I should acknowledge) where I felt very confident, very connected, very engaged, and very stimulated by the life of my school. In that spring, and for most of my senior year, I wanted to be at school all the time; I was entirely enthralled with my studies, my friends, and my student activities.
But even then, even at the height of my high school experience, Thompsonian experiences still existed, in plenty. My Math teacher in both 11th and 12th grades, the same one, was a horror, and at times senior year I was in almost open defiance of her petty demands of me; I was at a bit of a loss for what was expected in my 12th grade honors philosophy class; I had a series of melodramas in relationships with old friends and new girlfriends. And I haven’t begun to grapple with the difficulties of my 9th and 10th grade years. Thompson is right, and it is important to note: even for students who do, genuinely, like school, and are good at school, school is not exclusively an “easy time of it.” (And, this mini self-lesson also teaches us to be suspect of our first blush nostalgia– it is easy to say to ourselves or our kids “I LOVED high school” and be in enormous denial about so much of it.)]
But as much as he is focussed on the kids themselves, at times his insights on children and adoloscents have, of course, important implications regarding the goodness of schools.
Ultimately, the hallmarks of Thompsonian good schools can be reduced to two:
People and Purpose.
People: A good school is a genuine community, a social environment where kids are connected to each other in genuine ways, AND, that kids and teachers have an ongoing, “meaningful, reciprical relationship.” This is something that kids “crave,” they seek out, and they constantly monitor. The critical concept of trust stands in for this meaningful relationship: “the sense of trust between teachers and students turns out to be an excellent measure of the quality of the days experience… the drama of trsuting or not trusting the teachers and the school plays out in the lives of children throughout their years in school. The teachers they trust they describe as ‘nice,’ ‘fair,’ ‘funny,’ ‘strict but good,’ or even just ‘okay.'” Children, Michael writes in summation, are “always searching for a relationship with an adult that is challenging and supportive for them. It’s also crucial that it’s clear that the relationship means something to the frown-up too… Every child is looking for a teacher who finds her special.”
Speaking for myself now, I am sure manyof us remember our school years with the greatest enthusiasm for those teachers with whom we shared a genuine relationship. Teachers, or coaches, or sometimes administrators or staff: in any case, those adults who we really connected with. My seventh grade Social Studies with whom I enjoyed the Current Events Club; my tenth grade Spanish teacher whom I often bicycled to school alongside; my studiedly eccentric US History teacher who challenged my to think harder and get past my superficial and trivial historical understanding; the school registrar (later college counselor) with whom I bonded with over our shared passion for liberal politics.
Purpose: At a good school, students enjoy a meaningful curriculum and an authentic education. “Children want to feel successful,” they are “always searching for feelings of mastery,” and more than that, “they want to feel useful.” It is “our job to provide them with meaningful experiences of mastery.” Good schools avoid the trap of putting students through the “many years of enforced uselessness brought about by our extended educational process.”
There has to be purpose explicit and engaging for good schooling: “If a high school teacher does not have an answer for the question [why do we need to learn this], other than some boring response such as ‘it’s required,’ or ‘it’s on the APs,’ or ‘you’ll need it in college,’ then she has failed the test of wisdom.” Children, like everyone (!), needs to feel a “growing sense of power…: physical strength, social competence, intellectual mastery, and personal efficacy.” When this happens, all too rarely, for students, “the student is incredibly excited, and she will try to reproduce that feeling again and again.”
(An interesting aside from Michael reveals his disdain for substitute teachers: as well meaning as they may be, they are not in a position either of genuine relationship or of, most times, meaningful lesson-giving. “A majority of classes led by substitutes are a waste of the students’ time.” He comes pretty close to suggesting what I know is the preference or default practice at some independent high schools– providing a free period may be a better use of the time of these young adults than a substitute teacher’s lesson.)
A few last words about Michael’s practice of student shadowing: Michael’s reporting is more critical than is my intent– he is very much focussed on revealing how challenging school is for kids, and my intent is to observe and share best practices in action. Michael doesn’t ever communicate, to this reader anyway, any hard or fixed “rules” of shadowing: he chats with students, he talks to teachers, he follows up on questions with later inquiries. And, he finds shadowing hard– he gets restless, he get frustrated, he gets tired. All of which he reports to us, the reader, so we can experience the feeling of student-hood.