I have been absent from blogging for almost a year. This has been due to a sudden and unexpected change in our family status. My wife and I have three daughters. The oldest is out of college, the second just completed her second year of college, and the third is a senior in high school this year. We were preparing ourselves for the next phase of life, when we came across a nine-year-old street boy – Max. Through a series of circumstances, we ended up taking him into our home. We didn’t initially plan to have him stay, but we very quickly found ourselves attached to him, and several months later went to court to gain legal guardianship of him. He has now become a central figure in our family, with much of our time and attention focused on him. For quite a while, I’ve been thinking I need to do some writing about our experiences and adventures with Max, but have been grappling with exactly where to start. To be honest, it seems like every day with him brings a new adventure of sorts, and just when I think I want to write about one, another pops up that dominates my attention. However, recently, I read an article by Diane M. Hoffman, Raising the Awesome Child. It had me pondering a number of important topics related to Max, as well as to the early years with our daughters. I realized the place to start is with a topic I am passionate about…..schooling.
The circumstances of Max’s life are such that though he was nine when he came to us, he had only attended a minimal level of schooling. As educators, my wife and I believe there is a value in an education. Therefore, though we didn’t initially plan to have Max stay with us, we did think it would be meaningful for him to further pursue an education, so we hired several tutors to work with him to bring his level of learning up to speed and to learn English. Within a very short period, he was spending several hours per day receiving individual instruction. Outside of those hours, it was a different story. Daily, he would come by my office on a bike we provided him to check on me, and usually he and I had lunch together. After school, he would wait for my youngest daughter to come home to have snack with her. After my wife and I finished at school, we would swim with him in the pool, ride bikes, and review his studies. Dinners became more animated as Max struggled with English to communicate with us, and we looked forward to a family game or a video each evening. Occasionally, there were issues to be dealt with, but that was by no means the norm. As I said earlier, he became the focus of much of our time and attention, and we in turn had become the focus of his whole world.
When we finally became legally responsible for Max, our benefits provided it was now possible for him to attend the school we worked at. I have to say; the decision to have him start school was one we made with a certain level of reticence. In reality, there was no doubt in our minds he needed to go to school, but we questioned how school might change him from being the boy we had come to know and love. Hoffman describes American, or Western culture as being obsessed with cognitive development to the detriment of other qualities. This is something I recognize in many international schools we have been involved with, and I often question this particular value. I remember when my second daughter was young. The spring before she was to start preschool she had a chance to visit school for a couple of hours. I remember when she arrived she was standing at the top step of the school entryway. She spotted me, and immediately and gleefully shouted out, “Daddy, today I get to go to school!” I remember thinking I wanted to remember that moment forever because I was confidant that joyful desire to learn and go to school wouldn’t last for very long. It was this same sensation contributing to my reticence around Max starting school. Here was a boy that had a level of maturity that went beyond cognition. Life experiences had taught him to solve problems, read others, resist defeat, and appreciate the value of little bits of enjoyment that came his way. In starting school, I wanted to believe this would be appreciated and valued, and I found myself thinking about what kind of experience we want for our children when we watch them go off to school that very first time.
I recently watched a TED Talk given by Tim Carr, the head of JIS in Jakarta. In it, Tim discusses the creation of joyful schools for the future, and the need for fun and balance to exist in schools. In listening to Tim, I found myself nodding my head a lot. He spoke about wanting to revolutionize learning when he became an educator 30 years ago. I’m sure when he said this, he spoke to the heart of many educators. Many teachers, myself included, enter education because we want to make a difference. We may have had some great teachers ourselves, but we recognized there could be so much more to learning, and we wanted to be part of that.
Unfortunately, the classrooms our children go off to and grow into usually do not reflect that revolution in learning so many of us wanted to be a part of. As educators, we often find ourselves constricted by the latest, greatest trend in education, or confined by the desire to “fit in” with the educational process occurring in the classrooms around us. Still others find themselves teaching in a world of educational isolation, lacking the ability to collaborate and explore new ideas with others. In these situations, we often find ourselves relying on those tried and true methodologies that came before us, or finding an instructional strategy that achieved some level of success with one, or a few students, and then applying that across the board. The challenge that exists when this happens, says Hoffman, is though some strategies might have some success, this doesn’t recognize individual students come to school with entirely different sets of experiences and what might work with one child may not carry over to another. This is a particularly important factor in our international schools, or the diverse classrooms we serve overall, as different cultures and families most likely have different ideas of what a good educational experience looks like.
So, what can and will make a difference for Max and other students like him? What can change school and create that joyful school experience? I believe there are many aspects of a school that can contribute to this general condition, from leadership making children the focus of the school, to schedules that encourage teachers to interact and explore new ideas. Ultimately though, it has to be the teacher. Paul Tough tells us many schools respond to behavior outside the norm by increasing control, and reducing the sense of autonomy. However, “if teachers create an environment that fosters competence, autonomy, and connection rather than control, students are more likely to feel motivated.” As a school administrator, I try to regularly visit classrooms, and have had the opportunity to visit hundreds of classrooms over the years. When I visit a classroom with an environment like the ones described by Tough, you can feel it. There is joy in those classrooms and it has a clear impact on how students seem to view themselves and the learning they are engaged in.
Getting back to Max…his first day of school was an interesting experience. As I prepared to take him to class, he told me he didn’t want to go. I took a picture of him, and when I look at it now, I see a boy who is clearly unhappy, even petrified about what he is about to encounter. I didn’t blame him. His short previous experience with school had not been too positive. Plus, I was nervous for him. I didn’t know how school would change him. How would the expectations for learning, as well as the pressures he would face from other students impact the aspects of street culture and self-reliance in his personality we had come to love? The boy I saw a few hours later was a different one though. He was beaming from ear to ear – with joy. I asked him why he was smiling. He told me he loves school. When I asked him why, he was very clear in saying, “because of my teacher.”
We are now on summer break, and it has been several months since Max started back to school. I’m happy to report, he still loves school and can’t wait to return. Even more important, he seems to love learning. We bought him a bug box, and he has been thrilled to collect different bugs and learn about them. He has been tutoring with my older daughter and looks forward to it each day, and he is constantly exploring and asking questions. Tony Wagner says play, passion, and purpose drive innovative learning. It is the teacher in the classroom who creates this. When I think about what I want for Max, and other children, as they go off to school, it is that joy, that passion and that desire to learn and be there. I will write more about Max in the future. For now though, I’m pleased to write the teachers in his life have provided that experience I hoped for him.
Hoffman, Diane M. “Raising the Awesome Child.” The Hedgehog Review Fall (2013): 30-40.
TEDxTalks, and Tim Carr. “Creating Joyful Schools for the Future | Tim Carr | TEDxJIS.” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Apr. 2017. Web. 23 June 2017.
Tough, Paul. “How Kids Really Succeed.” The Atlantic June (2016): n. pag.