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Education Opinion

Trusted Teachers Nourish Students as Unique Individuals

By Sam Chaltain — March 19, 2013 5 min read
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Guest Post by Kim Farris-Berg

Chapter Four of the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill shows its teachers working to create a school environment that can accommodate students’ varying learning needs as well as the varying ways in which students learn. Like other teacher groups who are trusted with autonomy to collectively make the decisions influencing school success, Mission Hill’s teachers have decided that acknowledging and accommodating students as individuals is the cornerstone of their shared purpose.

Paul Krafel, teacher and administrator at the teacher-run Chrysalis Charter School in California, sums up this decision well: “We seek to consistently nourish individuals for who they are with the intention that no one will go home feeling devalued for not being the same as everyone else. We expect that students are different.”

Generally, teachers who call the shots reject the notion that all students must be on the same path to prosperity. My colleagues and I found in Trusting Teachers that, when responsible and accountable for school success, teachers design and choose learning programs to accommodate students’ varying levels of readiness, interests, aptitudes, rates of learning, learning styles, and cultures. To many of these teachers, “readiness” includes social and emotional readiness, not just academic readiness.

As word gets out that individuals are valued, teachers find that their schools attract all kinds of students and families, and are especially appealing to students who perceive that they are not accommodated well in conventional schools. The list includes: advanced students; students committed to pursuing nonacademic goals, such as athletics and music, in addition to academic goals; students who need special accommodations due to medical treatments; students in minority cultures (such as LGBT students and immigrant students learning English as a second language while adjusting to American culture); formerly homeschooled students; and teen parents.

Students receiving special education are another group who seek out the environments teachers create. Seven of eleven schools that my colleagues and I studied in detail, including Mission Hill, had higher-than-average percentages of students receiving special education in 2010-2011.

Sometimes far higher. Thirty-three percent of Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) students receive special education; the nearby district’s percentage was 15. If students got their first choice in the school lottery, Independence School Local 1 in Baltimore would have 50 percent, but a teacher-selected administrator works with the district central office to get the percentage down to 27.6. Just over 19 percent of students at High School in the Community (HSC) in New Haven, Connecticut receive special education, the highest of the six magnet high schools and two comprehensive high schools in the city (the next highest percentage being 13.8).

We asked the teachers for their ideas about why their schools hold such a strong appeal. Dee Thomas, lead teacher at MNCS said: “If a student needs to be pulled out for services, or has a tick and needs to stand up, spin around, and sit back down, no one here will even notice it. The student wouldn’t be disrupting anything. [The way our learning program works] everyone is moving around all the time to complete their own learning goals.”

Thomas went to say that while in most schools only special education students have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, all students have something like them at MNCS.

Erik Good, lead teacher at HSC, explained further: “Our students have little trust that adults at school care about them when they first arrive here. They left other environments because their needs weren’t being met--they were not learning well, they were bullied, or whatever--and they didn’t think anything was being done about it.

“We set out to change their experience. Rather than, ‘I’m the adult, you’re the kid, do what I want or else,’ we emphasize, ‘You’re here. You’re a part of the community and culture. What do you need so you can do the learning you’re here to do?’ Word gets out that there’s an opportunity for students to learn on different terms.”

Good’s colleague, and New Haven’s 2009 Teacher of the Year, Cameo Thorne, added, as did other teachers who call the shots, that their schools also attract many students with serious social and economic problems. “Sixty-five percent of our freshman class is on referral to our social worker. [That’s why we’ve decided to invest a portion of our discretionary funding to have one on campus more frequently than the district requires.]
“As we address basic needs [such as food, shelter, and clothing], students become more emotionally ready for their education. They know we care, and that we aren’t going away. From there we can help individuals meet graduation requirements at a pace that makes sense for them.”

These teachers demonstrate that nourishing students as unique individuals is absolutely possible to accomplish in our schools. As Sam Chaltain, the narrator of A Year at Mission Hill, said in the film, academics need not exist in a vacuum. We do not need to make a choice between students’ academic learning and their social and emotional learning. We don’t need to choose between knowing and helping to address students’ needs and accomplishing academic goals. The common assumption is that if adults in the schools took time to accommodate individuals then academic performance would suffer. This assumption leads us to expect that students should adapt to schools.

But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe, in support of academic progress (not to mention social progress), schools should be better able to adapt to individual students. Maybe schools should be designed to acknowledge and accommodate students as whole persons who have varying academic and nonacademic needs and pursuits. We can achieve this. And it’s the teachers, the professionals closest to the students in their schools, who are in the best position to show the way.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent consultant and Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.