School Restructuring and Transformation

Blaine AlexanderBlog, Lead Better

TL;DR:

  • It is time to begin conversations about school restructuring and transformation.
  • We need to bring everyone to the table to begin conversations about reinventing what schools should look like.  Teachers and students deserve it.

School Restructuring and Transformation

You are given the task of reinventing or restructuring what schools look like.  Would the result mirror our schools’ current reality?  What would you keep?  Would you modify anything?  Are there components you would eliminate?  At one point in history, this task was given to a community of people. It was their responsibility to create this organized learning structure.

Of course, there is much research about the “history of education.” But I often wonder what that initially looked like?  Were the adults sitting around the dinner table watching the children make so many “uneducated” decisions that one person piped up, “We need to create some sort of structured environment where our children can be educated?”  Of course, I am simplifying this, but remember, all developments begin with a need.

Why do schools exist?

What is our “need” today?  Is it the same need as when schools were developed many years ago?  If I crossed paths with you in the white donut aisle of the local grocery store (this is where you will often find me) and asked you to share with me the purpose of school, what would you say?  I would hope that we all would agree that, simply put, the purpose of our schools is to prepare all students to be successful in life—emphasis on the word “all.”

So, back to my initial question.  What would schools look like if you had the opportunity to reinvent or restructure schools, but the result was a setting where all students are prepared for their individual futures?  This is a question that I often ask participants in our professional development opportunities, and who better to give feedback than those who live it every day—teachers and students?

It is time to begin conversations about school restructuring and transformation. Why, you may ask? Because currently, our systems not preparing all students for success. Click To Tweet

Let’s ask the experts: teachers and students.

I posed this question to our students in the Arkansas Leadership Academy Student Voice Institute, and their task was to create a presentation sharing what schools should look like through the lens of students.

With their permission, I have shared two short presentations in this blog.  The students from Clarendon High School represent students in grades 7-9, and the team from Sylvan Hills High School is comprised of students in grades 11 and 12.  Take a look at their amazing and unique perspectives: Presentation 1 & Presentation 2.

After years of such conversations with administrators, teachers, and students, I want to share the “big rocks” of school transformation.  These are just a sampling of the responses I received numerous times from educators and students from diverse backgrounds.  In their opinion, what should schools look like if our goal is to create an environment where all students are prepared for success?

Relationships are the foundation for learning.

Teachers and students want to have strong, supportive, and positive relationships with a shared vision for their school.  In so many schools, the culture seems to divide adults and students where each group is pushing against the other.  School culture can easily be read by seeing how many students are waiting in the office for discipline.

I recently heard an adult in a school setting say, “If we allow the students to use their phones in class, then we are letting them win.”  Win?  Is this a competition or should our relationship with students be a collaboration?  Our school culture should be a collaborative environment where adults and students are pushing toward the same goal: success for all.

Students want to be more involved in school decisions that affect them.

One of my previous blogs spoke solely to this topic of “student voice.”  Allowing students to come to the table as part of the discussion will give them a deeper investment in the process.  Remember, it is actually their table.

Students tell me they want to be able to use their strengths and talents when showing what they have learned. They can create a presentation, write and sing a song, use artwork, or create a dance that reflects their learning.  We should acknowledge and celebrate creativity. When students are part of the process, they are more academically motivated, they feel that they have a purpose, and relationships are strengthened between adults and students.

We should focus less on giving grades and more on student learning and progress.

From the mouth of babes…students can make so much sense.  Just recently, a student asked me, “What does a letter grade actually tell anyone?”  We get so caught up in letter grades, honor rolls, and GPA that we focus less on whether the student is learning the skills they need to be successful.

A parent once stormed into my office complaining that her child’s teacher “gave her child a B” on her report card.  I began to try to help the parent understand the difference between a letter grade and actual learning, and she interrupted me and responded, “Listen, Dr. Alexander, I really don’t give a rat’s (behind) if she is learning or not.  I want her name in the newspaper when the “All A Students” are posted.”  How sad, but we have done this to ourselves with the current systems in place.

There should be less of a focus on standardizing students and a larger focus on understanding that schools are made up of diverse people.

Although the term “diversity” is used in multiple contexts, I am viewing diversity through the lens that all students have different needs.  Students are not cookie-cutter individuals with the same goals and needs.  Students come to us from different backgrounds, but they also have different futures.

We often get so caught up in standards, assessments, data, labeling students and schools, and accountability that we forget that schools are made up of people—people with many different personalities, backgrounds, desires, goals, and needs.  Are standards and accountability important?  Of course, they are.

I will be in that line raising my hand supporting such components, but I am going to be the first person in line supporting that people come first.  If we are not addressing the needs of people first, we will not see an improvement in the data and other accountability factors.

The curriculum needs to address the future goals of all students.

When reinventing and restructuring our schools, our teachers and students want to focus on a curriculum that prepares all students for their goals in life.  When I was in high school a couple of years back (pause for laughter), there was a push for all students to continue their education in a two- or four-year college.  Those not wanting to attend college were viewed as students with no ambition.  How sad to have this perspective!

We should provide opportunities for all students to be successful after high school.  Success is relative. Students want more opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.  They want the chance to observe multiple careers and have the opportunity to intern in the community.  Learning does not have to take place between the four walls of a classroom.

The curriculum should involve more life skills.

Over the last 15 years leading focus groups with students, the second most desired factor in learning (after the longing to have positive relationships with teachers) is the desire for learning to be connected to real-life situations.  Students want to know how to open a savings account, create a budget, do taxes, and even change a tire.  Such skills will prevent difficult situations which they may face in life.  Remember, the school should prepare all students to be successful in all areas, not exclusively in academic preparation.

“Just because it is a school, does not mean that it has to look like a school.”

This statement was shared with me by my mentor during my first year as a building principal.  He challenged me to make the school less “traditional” and more people-friendly.  The teachers and students who respond to my prompt tell me they want the school environment to be engaging and inviting.

Our facilities do not have to be painted the color that was on sale at the local hardware store.  We all know that color, right?   I think the official name of that color is “Blah.”  Students want murals and bright colors.  They even want the restrooms to pop.

Classrooms do not have to have desks but could have comfortable places to study and do work created by the students.  When teens meet at the local coffee lounge, the lounge does not provide desks lined in a row.  Our facilities should be inviting and say to our teachers and students, “Please come learn here.”

What do visitors initially see when entering your building or the front office?  What are the first impressions?  Is it inviting?  Are visitors offered water or coffee?  Is there an inviting comfortable waiting area?  Heck, are they greeted by a smiling face?  Do we make the teacher lounge or workroom a place where teachers feel important? Are they provided with a round wooden table and four hard maroon or blue plastic chairs and a couch that one of the teachers put in her garage sale?  Our teachers and students deserve to feel important and the environment should reflect how important they are.

“There is such an emphasis on physical health in the curriculum, so why is there not an emphasis on mental health?”

This question was asked to me three weeks ago in a student focus group.  Mic drop, right?  I saved this component to mention last because this serious issue has been on my mind lately.  Over the last two months, in various school districts, I have had several students use the terms “stress,” “anxiety,” and “depression” when describing challenges they are facing.

This is not exclusively a student issue but an adult issue as well!  Whatever the root cause, students are dealing with issues that are affecting their mental health, and most of them are confused about how to deal with these issues.

We must begin to normalize mental health in our school system.

As educators, we can no longer look the other way when it comes to mental health.  This not only is affecting our students, but our adults are struggling too.  We must put structures in place to address mental health and no longer see this issue as taboo.

Does this mean that all schools should have mental health experts?  The short answer is a definitive “Yes!”  Do whatever it takes.  Make it work.  No excuses about personnel or budgets are acceptable.  Our teachers’ and students’ mental health are worth whatever it takes to make this happen.

You may argue that schools have full-time school counselors who should address the mental health issue.  If you have the time, find a school counselor and ask him/her what duties they have.  These amazing people are overworked with their current duties they are assigned.  Mental health is too vital for our schools to ignore.

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It is time to begin conversations about school restructuring and transformation.

Why, you may ask?  Because currently, our systems not preparing all students for success.  Too many populations of students are falling through the cracks, and we just chalk this up as data.  The “data” have faces and futures.

We all have heard the story about the young bride who cut off the end of the turkey at Thanksgiving before putting it into the oven.  When her husband asked her why she did that, she informed him that her mother told her this was an important part of the process.  Being curious, she called her mother and asked her the same question.  Her mother shared with her that this was something that her mother always did.

Again, being curious, a phone call was made to the grandmother who was asked why it was important to cut off the end of the turkey.  She replied, “Oh honey, that was the only way the turkey would fit on my small pan.”

It Is Time to Stop Cutting Off the End of Our Turkey

Are we still maintaining school structures that have been in place for years just because we have done it this way for years?  What evidence do we have to show that all our current structures are successful?  Do our current structures focus more on standards or focus more on the needs of our people?  Are the structures we have in place today meeting the needs of all students?  Are we providing all students with the skills they need to be successful?

If the answer is no, it is time to bring everyone to the table to begin conversations about reinventing what schools should look like.  Our teachers and students deserve it.

If you want to know where to start, just ask them.


About Blaine Alexander

Dr. Alexander is currently serving his eleventh year as a Leadership Performance Coach with the Arkansas Leadership Academy through the University of Arkansas. Prior to his current experience in leadership development, Dr. Alexander served as a school administrator for 17 years. His research focuses on developing collaborative cultures founded on trust and respect and immersed in student and adult learning. Dr. Alexander’s dissertation explores the factors necessary for student voice to be institutionalized and taken to scale in a school district. Each year, he facilitates learning for students and teachers in the Arkansas Leadership Academy’s Student Voice Institute.

Education:
B.A. Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas
M.Ed. Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas
Ed.D. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Dissertation: Student Voice Initiative: Exploring Implementation Strategies