After 45 years of teaching, I made the decision last summer to retire. After a couple of months of not setting the alarm, drinking coffee into the late morning, and staying up late, I began to reflect on those years in education. Recently, someone asked me what the biggest change was in those 45 years. So I have had time to revisit, reflect, and renew.
It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. School climate and culture were the biggest changes. When I began teaching 45 years ago, we weren’t concerned about people coming into our schools. We didn’t need metal detectors or police in our schools. We didn’t have badges that showed we “belonged” in the school. In the district where I worked, they now take a copy of your driver’s license before you enter a school. School violence and school shootings didn’t exist. The only drills we had were fire and tornado. (I live in the Midwest.) Now there are lockdown drills.
So as I sit on my deck with my feet propped up, I can’t help but wonder how my former colleagues are doing. I think about professional learning communities and wonder how they are dealing with these changes. In a PLC, the focus is on learning. How have these changes affected our students and their learning? When I was an elementary school counselor, although learning was the focus, I was always concerned about the emotional well-being of my students. I still remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Students must have their basic needs met before learning can take place. Do your students feel safe in the school environment? How do you know? Do the culture and climate of your school allow for optimum learning? According to Robert Barth (2002), “A school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the school house then the State Department of Education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal can ever have.”
I always encourage schools to look back and reflect on how it was when they first became a PLC and where they are now. Make a five-year time line—or longer, depending on how long you have been a PLC. On the time line, list the decisions that were made, when attitudes may have changed, and anything else that shows the changes on your PLC journey. Also, add to the time line any changes in school policy and curriculum. Then list the decisions that were made because of these changes. Most importantly, mark if these decisions and changes led to improvements in school climate and student achievement. This is one way to revisit, reflect, and renew: making any necessary changes and keeping all the good your school is doing.
I would encourage your staff to look carefully at your school plan. Does it address the emotional well-being of your students? What is in your plan to help students who are not learning due to emotional needs? What is in your plan to help students who are not learning due to safety issues? How do you determine if an emotional need or a safety issue is the root cause of a student not learning?
If you have not read Creating Physical & Emotional Security in Schools by Kenneth C. Williams, I would highly recommend that you do so. It is a book that in this day and age should be read by all school personnel.
Now that school is coming to a close, state assessments are complete, and the last lesson is taught, take some time for yourself, grab this book, and reflect, revisit, and renew for the coming school year.
Barth, R. (2002). “The culture builder.” Educational Leadership, 57(8), 6–11.
Williams, K. C. (2012). Creating physical & emotional security in schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.