Hooked on a Feeling

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What makes a good school? The amount of research generated over the past 20 years to answer this simple question would fill a bus. I can't claim to have read a lot of it, but I can claim that, like most teachers, I've spent a lot of time working hard in schools that aren't very good. And, like most teachers, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to make schools better.

What makes a good school, whether it's public or private, religious or nonreligious, charter or noncharter is a feeling.

I've found that the qualities of a school I thought mattered really don't. What makes a good school has very little to do with how rich or poor the students are or the type of curriculum that's taught. It has very little to do with special programs, expansive playing fields, huge endowments, snappy uniforms, celebrity alumni, or whether the school is wired to the Internet. What makes a good school, whether it's public or private, religious or nonreligious, charter or noncharter is a feeling. A feeling shared by the entire staff that their particular school is special. The feeling that their school really belongs to them.

Within the field of public education, this feeling is hard to come by. Teachers and administrators don't own schools; we just work in them. It's difficult to feel your school is special when your entire school day is organized to comply with teachers' union contracts and myriad state and district regulations, rather than the staff's particular beliefs about teaching and learning. In Boston, individual schools can't even control the output of their boilers. Literally and figuratively, the very climate of our schools is controlled by others.

These harsh realities have driven this feeling, this craving for ownership, underground. The feeling is elusive, yet it still exists. I've felt its power. It's most likely to appear when a group of like-minded teachers gets together for a meeting, or for ice cream, or a beer. It materializes when their conversation turns to dreaming up new ways to organize their time, their students, their school. On those occasions, the feeling leaps from the discussion. I've seen it widen the eyes of the most jaded, most cynical teachers. An invisible form of energy seems to radiate throughout the group. For an instant, hope is tangible.

This sense of ownership is difficult to measure and doesn't show up much in the research.

This sense of ownership is difficult to measure and doesn't show up much in the research. But when a school community feels it's really in control of its destiny, teachers, parents, and administrators are more inclined to do the hundreds of little things it takes to make their school work. When people are doing something they believe in, they do it better. There's more passion. When teachers are excited about what they're doing, students become excited and learn more.

Unfortunately, the heavy-handed bureaucratic control of our public schools flattens the thrust of most new ideas. It wipes out individual differences. It makes it nearly impossible for individual schools to express themselves, to establish an identity. The regulations assume that what's good for one school is good for all schools. What misleads us in public education is the notion that there's one type of school that can suit everybody's tastes. We think that all we have to do is agree on it, perfect it, then somehow get all schools, all teachers, to follow it.

With this type of thinking, we'll end up with schools that function like fast-food franchises, with teachers mechanically serving up the same educational program. Our whole system of public education will be nothing more than an educational journey from Happy Meals to the Big Mac.

This feeling of ownership, essential to all good schools, can't be packaged and shipped. It's homemade. It forms itself only when a particular school community is given the freedom and authority to try what its members believe is best for their students.

Philip Manna teaches science and reading in Boston and is a co-author of Making Books by Hand: A Step-by-Step Guide (Rockport Publishers, 1997). This is adapted from an essay that first appeared in The Boston Globe.

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 47

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Hooked on a Feeling
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