Systems of support, space for stars

By Josh Parker, 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year; Title I GAP Reduction Specialist; former English/Reading/World Languages Department Chair, Windsor Mill Middle School; 2011-2012 Baltimore County Teacher of the Year

When is the last time you really studied the stars? What makes stars stand out so brilliantly? Stars may have their own luminescence, but they pop because they sit against a black canvas custom-built to display their brightness.

I think there is much we can learn from shining stars in relation to educating our underperforming students. Like the black canvas that holds the brightness of stars for the world to see, we must provide supportive systems that give our most vulnerable students space to shine. A system can best be described as a constellation of processes that aligns resources and personnel with the best of our beliefs about all children. It is the “y-intercept” on the line of our best thinking about our most school-dependent children –– the point where coordinate efforts touch the hearts and minds of children. Valuing in-class time and believing in the capacity of students and parents are hallmarks of such a system.

Regarding in-class time, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year (and 2011 Maryland Teacher of the Year), Michelle Shearer, says that she begins her A.P. Physics class by telling students how much instruction time is compromised if even five minutes is lost daily. The result over the course of a year –– one month.

Josh Parker, surrounded by some of his “stars”

A system that supports advanced learning for all students makes provisions for students to be in class receiving high-quality instruction as much as possible. Resources and employees are organized so that students removed from class still receive quality instruction. Additionally, there are processes allowing students the opportunity to process and modify their behavior while remaining in school, where caring instructors and life-changing educational experiences await.

Finally, this system sets processes that support belief in the infinite capacity of all students and their parents. I call all of the students I teach “doctors.” Imagine how a student feels to be called “Dr.” by his/her teacher. Imagine how the teacher’s mind changes through the verbal repetition.

The words “weaknesses” and “deficit-skills” are used so often when assessing our underperforming students that these traits become identities. What if instead of talking about students’ weaknesses and strengths, we talk about a student’s strengths and areas for more strength? What processes would support a belief in the intelligence of all students? Would schedules be adjusted to allow multiple gifted and talented sections per grade level? Would reading interventions focus on accelerating students out of the program?

If you see the best in students, they will show you the best in yourself.

Also, parents are a vast human resource ready to assist. Are processes in place allowing them engagement with the school improvement process? Have we contemplated the vast reservoir of job-related skills and connections that our parents have that could greatly benefit our most school-dependent children? 

A system with these components can be the critical first step toward creating a culture where everyone is working together for the common goal of high achievement of all students. Systems are not perfect, so collaborative evaluation and revision should be ongoing, engaging school and community stakeholders. Enacting or establishing these systems provides space for our students to radiate brightness which, like stars in the night sky, inspires awe in spectators and places for others to wish upon. This is our challenge, our opportunity, and our privilege.

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