I’m really excited today, because this is the first-ever guest author on ItStartsWith.Us. Mike Summers is a Chicago attorney who I previously featured on the site — you can find my original story on him here. I’d like to thank Mike very much for taking the time to contribute, and I hope you all enjoy the article.
A seed is an amazing thing.
When you look at a seed, it may not look like much. When you put a seed in the palm of your hand or touch it with your finger, it may not seem all that special. A seed is fragile; easily damaged. It must be watered and nurtured. It needs good soil. It requires the warmth of the sun.
But when all of these things work together—water, earth, sun—and a seed is nurtured and protected by kind and gentle hands, then a simple seed can grow and bloom into something more; something new, something extraordinary.
But here’s the best part.
What’s true of a seed, a simple seed, is equally true of a life.
Readers, look at a child.
When that child is nourished and nurtured, protected and loved, then that child, like a seed, can blossom and bloom into something more, something new, something extraordinary.
My name is Mike Summers. I am general counsel and the education technology advocate for Smart Technology Services, a Chicago-based education technology firm, and the author of a blog, The Smart 1-to-1 Education Initiative. In our blog, we make a case for change. We make the case that we cannot keep teaching our students the same way, using the same tools, and somehow expect a different result. We make the case that technology and Web 2.0 tools should be fully integrated into our curricula and our classrooms and used to bridge educational divides, close achievement gaps and bring high quality content and resources to all children, particularly children in at-risk schools and economically-challenged communities. Because, in the end, that’s what a great education is all about. It’s not a promise of wealth, but a gateway to opportunity. It’s not about remembering stuff, but preparing our children to create and contribute something of value to the world. It’s about ensuring that the American Dream, and all it implies, remains open and accessible to all children.
This post was inspired, in part, by Nate’s recent blog, “12 Simple Ways to Impress Your Boss (And Everyone Else).” I enjoyed Nate’s post thoroughly. I was particularly moved by the first item on his list of 12 tips. He started with this:
Care about people.
I put this one first because it’s the foundation for everything that comes after. Caring about others is an absolute necessity. If you don’t care about them, and you’re only in this for yourself, people will know. They can spot insincerity a mile away. If you’re labeled as insincere, it won’t matter how much you do for everyone; they’ll always be assuming you have an ulterior motive, and you’re just trying to work an angle to come out on top. The only way any of this will work in the long run is if you are truly interested in seeing other people succeed, and you do your best to help them along the way.
Bravo Nate. I couldn’t agree with you more. With this in mind, I give you “I’m not your mama or your daddy.” It’s just one man’s thoughts on what “21st century schools” should be and what “21st century teachers” should do. Because Nate’s right. Change starts with us.
And with the simple act of caring.
A few days ago I picked up a newspaper and on page three in large bold print over a picture of a wide-eyed baby was the headline:
“Brand New Baby Boom”
Apparently, more babies were born in the United States in 2007 than in any other year on record, surpassing the post-war baby boom of the 1950s. I didn’t know that. I thought we were having fewer babies, not more. But what really struck me was this statistic: 40% of these babies were born to unwed single mothers. This, too, was more than any other year on record.
That was a bit of a stunner.
And two questions came immediately to mind.
First, how would this growing trend of single parent households impact the role that schools play in our communities?
Second, how would this trend impact the role that teachers play in the lives of our students; especially in minority and low-income communities where the percentage of single parent households can exceed 70%?
These are important questions; questions that I do not hear a lot of people talking about under the auspices of education reform, but something we certainly need to think about. We can’t approach reform in a piecemeal fashion; we have to look at everything holistically and carefully consider how each proposed reform fits into our larger vision of what “21st century schools” should be and how these schools meet the needs of 21st century students.
Historically, what was the role of school? Narrowly defined, it was cognitive development; to dispense knowledge. Emotional, behavioral and moral development, values, mentoring and role modeling, were considered province of the parents. Yes, teachers were regarded as absolute authority figures (we never ever referred to teachers by their first name; we spoke only when spoken to), but only within the context of the classroom. There was a clear line of demarcation. Teachers taught. Parents parented. I can’t recall the number of times I heard a teacher say to a student during my stay in school, “Look, I’m not your mama or your daddy.”
Being mommy or daddy wasn’t a part of the job description.
But has that changed?
During a recent town hall meeting, President Obama outlined his vision for 21st century education. As he moved down his various action items (21st century classrooms, revised assessments, reformed NCLB, improved teacher pay and training, increased funding for scholarships and pell grants…), I thought “yeah, yep, good, gotcha.” But then he paused and said, “let me be clear” (a grossly overused political phrase if ever there was one) and proceeded to remind the audience that parents have to fulfill their responsibilities to be parents; to work with their children, to read to their children and to be their children’s first teacher.
And I thought, uh……ok.
I’m fairly sure that President Obama knows, as the product of a single parent household, that it is not as simple as telling parents to “step up.” It sounds great, he is of course absolutely and undeniably correct, but that’s not how it plays out in reality. In reality, there are millions of children, particularly in high-poverty and minority communities, where…
Mama is on drugs…
I only see Daddy on weekends…
Mama is too busy to help me with my homework…
Daddy is in jail…
I’m being raised by Grandma…
Grandma is too tired to help me…
You fill in the blanks.
The reality is that in thousands of communities from Maine to California, it is not the parent, but teachers, who are that child’s first and most important role models. It is not home, but the school, that provides sanctuary, peace, safety and whatever positive affirmation exists in that child’s life. It may not be fair, it’s certainly not in the job description, it just is. The line of demarcation between the home and the school, between the public and the private, has become murky and blurred. The question is: What do we do about it?
How should we respond?
I guess that depends on your vision of the “school of the future.”
When I think about the school of the future, I don’t think about a building.
I don’t think about classrooms.
I think about computers and cables.
I think about connections.
I think about community.
I think places of learning defined as much by compassion and caring, than by school colors, the size of the gym or ACT scores.
There was a time in our nation’s history, not too terribly long ago, when three institutions served as the “glue” for most communities: the church, the school and the family. Each served a different, but interrelated function. Each connected us not just to a place, but to people. When we sang our school fight songs, we did so with pride because we weren’t singing about a building, we were singing about ourselves. About our community. And that meant something. We were connected. And it was in this connectedness, that we grew strong and sure and we developed our moral and mental fiber. Of course we all had a biological mother and a biological father, but our priests, rabbis and pastors, our neighbors and friends, our coaches and our teachers, even the neighborhood business owners, also embraced us, nourished us, nurtured us, watched over us and protected us. A community wrapped its arms around us, and embraced and embalmed us, with the love, compassion and concern of a mother and a father.
We were all mama and daddy to all of our children all of the time.
But now that connectedness is gone. Communities have been replaced with condominiums. We’re having more babies than ever before, and yet we feel more isolated than ever before. And our children? So many are lost. So many are aimless. So many are angry.
So what do we do? There’s no one answer. There’s no quick fix. But a huge part of the answer, I believe, revolves around what we do with our schools. We certainly can’t keep doing things the same way and expect a different result. We have to find new ways, innovative ways, to reach our children and to teach our children. But where does this start? With an investment in technology? Through some new program? By upgrading the infrastructure and design of our schools? Yes, these are all important. But it doesn’t start there.
It starts with the simple act of caring about our children. It starts with embracing our children as a community. It starts with us.
It starts with you.
Imagine this. Imagine the school of the future. Imagine walless, wireless classrooms. Imagine school buildings repurposed as multi-use community centers. Imagine computer labs being made available to students and parents for computer training, job searches and resume preparation. Imagine schools sitting, once again, at the hub of the community.
Imagine this. Imagine volunteering 10 minutes of your time each week to read bedtime stories to a specific child or a group of children using an application like skype. Or using garageband on iTunes to create podcasts of you telling a story about famous figures in history and what they meant to you.
Not into technology? That’s okay. Then coach a youth soccer league. Buy cookies at a bake sale. Walk into the elementary school in your neighborhood and ask the principal, “What can I do? How can I help?” You might be amazed how so small an act can change and transform a life.
Because you’re showing a child who might not otherwise know just how much they matter. You’re showing a child who might be in desperate need of a role model, just how much you care.
That’s my vision of the school of the future. They are places of learning and light, classrooms and connections, education and empowerment. And these schools are not just available to those with means. A great education will no longer be a commodity, bought for a price and made available for a price. It will be, and should be, available to all of our children all of the time.
And what about our teachers or those thinking about becoming a teacher? I’ll close with this. You have a tough, tough job. There’s already so much on your plate. We’ve got to find a way to pay you more; a lot more. You need more support and more time for professional development. But in the end, if you want to do more than just get through the curriculum, if you want to do more than just get by……think of a seed.
Then look at your children.
Then ask yourself—Can you nurture these children with the same care that you would give a seed that you plant in the dirt?
Can you mold their minds and help to shape their character with kind and gentle hands?
No, you’re not their mama or daddy.
That’s not in the job description and never will be. But can you reach your children, and then teach your children, with the love, compassion and concern of a mother and a father?
Because that’s the difference between a competent teacher and a great teacher.
So there you have it. One man’s humble opinion about 21st century education.
It’s not about technology.
It’s about people.
Because systemic change will not occur because of school boards, politicians or policymakers.
Change, as Nate would say, starts with us.
It starts with you.
And the simple, but profoundly powerful act of caring about others.