I began my career twenty five years ago as a museum educator working for a regional historic preservation organization in the Hudson Valley. In this capacity I traveled the Hudson Valley bringing programs to schools, training teachers, and working with students. I did not know at the time that I would fall in love with the classroom and find my way there, but I was receiving an excellent education on what makes a great school. And what I found was surprising.
Great schools did not all look the same. They were not all urban or rural, wealthy or poor, public or independent. Two of the most wonderful schools were in diametrically opposing environments, but the common characteristics were palpable among all of them: Respectful and visionary principals and administrators, engaged and empowered teachers, smiling children, and warm interactions between and among these three essential cohorts. There were other things: vibrant and individualistic work on the walls, evidence of school-wide events and initiatives, teachers who were moving around the classroom as children engaged in work, and children whose bodies were at ease -- but whose eyes were trained on the task ahead.
When I entered the classroom, any classroom, I came to find other evidence of great schooling. In those schools in which teachers were participants in the decisions affecting their classrooms, they had chosen to take a trip to one of our museums. The children were prepared for my pre-trip visit because the trip was to be part of a curricular vision that the teacher was co-creating with her students. These students were ready with questions, listened attentively to the presentation and actively participated in the discussion and activity I had prepared in concert with their teacher. The teacher was an active part of the experience, co-teaching with me, and engaging her students over the course of the presentation. The work we had done together was always displayed with pictures of the trip on the walls when I made the post-trip visit.
One of my favorite classrooms to visit was in a school in urban Poughkeepsie, NY. The teacher, Martha Sullivan, had been teaching for thirty years, the last fifteen in sixth grade. Her room was a laboratory for learning, her students filled with purpose. There was something so moving in each interaction she had with her students, something so inspiring in the choices they made together about their studies, and something so intentional about how the room changed and reflected the important work that was happening within it. But Martha was not working in a vacuum. It would have been hard to tell that this was a great school. The building was unremarkable, the neighborhood run-down, the playground did not feel safe, the student body was diverse, with its share of challenged learners. Yet Martha was surrounded by teachers like herself, supported by a principal who had a clear vision for a school that would be vital and engaging and had hired highly capable teachers whom he trusted to collaborate in developing curriculum that addressed the whole student: intellect, body, emotions, and ethics. Perhaps I was drawn to this particular school because it was so reminiscent of the school I attended in New York City as a child, but I found myself making excuses to visit Martha’s class on the way to this place or that. Martha made me want to teach.
I left museum education and spent six months doing what many aspiring teachers do to get a job -- substituting. This presented me with many more opportunities to informally study what makes a great school and teacher. I could see it in what I was given to teach, in how students responded to the work and to each other when the teacher was gone, and in how I was treated I learned that great schools enabled teachers to create materials and activities that supported a teacher-made, rather than teacher-proof, curriculum. These curricula were designed to do many things at once: to meet the expectations the school set for student learning, to address the particular needs and interests of the children in that class, and to elevate the dialogue and awareness of the students as thinking and feeling citizens. I learned that students who had ownership over their learning carried on with their day despite the presence of a substitute. I learned that school leaders in these schools knew the names and histories of the children and made sure they visited a classroom where there was a substitute. I learned that in great schools, a feeling of collegiality and collaboration pervades the relationships among the staff. One knows this when teachers stop in to a colleague’s classroom where there is a sub to see if anything is needed. One knows this witnessing the conversation at the staff tables of faculty rooms in myriad schools.
Most importantly, I learned something powerful as I made my way across three counties over the course of three years: education is what happens between a teacher and a child. Great schools work tirelessly to cultivate and protect this essential relationship...