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A Year at Mission Hill: Beginning the Year

The second of ten expert takeaway posts from Principal Michelle Hughes on the school documentary series sweeping the web.

By Michelle Hughes

Michelle Rosenfeld Hughes was born in 1960 to two public school teachers, grew up in New York City, and attended public schools. She spent the first twelve years of her teaching career as a progressive public middle school teacher in Red Hook, New York. In her twelfth year of teaching, No Child Left Behind policies took hold and, after struggling to find ways to continue real teaching and learning, like many, she found it impossible to remain teaching in the system. She left public education to begin the middle school program at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, NY, in 2001 and assumed the headship in 2010. High Meadow is an independent not-for-profit progressive school serving 165 children from Nursery to 8th grade. In addition to her work in schools, Michelle is a writer of fiction and essays on education. She received her BA in Visual Arts from SUNY New Paltz and her MA in Elementary and Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.

February 15, 2013

Editor's Note: Here is Michelle Hughes with her commentary on Chapter 2 of "A Year at Mission Hill"!  Keep up with the highlights of the series in this super cool Prezi!  And here's her takeaway post on Chapter 1 as well.

Who is responsible for the design of the school? How does that design support the development of the whole child? How does the school design reflect democratic processes and aims?

In schools like Mission Hill, an extraordinary thing is taking place: At every level of the educational hierarchy, from district to school leader, school leader to teacher, and teacher to student, there is trust.  This trust has been earned through hard work and positive learning outcomes, and this has in turn gained the school community support and the ability to shape its own destiny.  In such an environment a range of activities take place that are atypical for our times:

The principal has sovereignty over the school’s ethos and mission, and this is her rubric for everything from budget allocations, to the teachers she hires, how she shapes ongoing staff development and supervision, the ways in which staff work together to make decisions, the schedule, and the collective aspirations for the future.  It would be more convenient if she worked in a system that shared the school’s ethos, but she accepts and is thankful that the system tolerates that this school operates with an independent mission.

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The teachers are engaged in decision-making and collaborate to design a progressive school that supports the essential tenet of nurturing future participants in democracy.  What does this mean?  To do this, the ways in which the staff work and learn together will mirror the ways in which their students will work and learn together.  The classrooms will be laboratories for teachers and students to gather the essential skills for problem-solving, research, collaboration, and communication across the curriculum, to support the notion that active participants in democracy must be critical thinkers capable of discerning and using valuable information to make choices, be innovative, and meet the challenges each age faces. Opportunities for self-expression through discussion, writing, presentation, and the arts will be ample to support the notion that active participants in democracy must be champions of ideas and ideals as well as for those without a voice.   And the social and emotional being of teachers and students is seen and recognized, supported and understood in an inclusive learning community so that each may be safe to learn and collaborate, build positive social skills, and ultimately form healthy relationships, families, and communities.

This teaching and learning environment serves four essential human needs: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, and Belonging.  Many social scientists and psychologists such as Daniel Goleman, William Glasser, and Daniel Pink, to name a few, have written extensively and persuasively about how ownership over one’s work is the most effective motivator for us to engage in the work we do. In an environment in which all members are engaged in co-creating work and learning, in which all members are potential teachers and learners, and in which each feels an ownership over the process and outcomes of this endeavor, there is the greatest opportunity to establish an enduring culture in the school that can be passed from teacher to teacher and child to child...

Here's her takeway post on Chapter 3.