Just What Is A Good School

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This is a guest post by Tom Anselm. His book, You’re Never Too Old For Space Camp is available in Ebook or Paperback formats from Booklocker.com.

 

“My kids go to a good school”
What parent doesn’t want to be able to say this about the bricks and mortar location where they entrust their offspring for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year, again and again.

And for that matter, what teacher worth his or her salt doesn’t want to be able to say with some conviction, “Yeah, I work in a good school.”

This word “good” when used in the context of quality holds so much meaning. It brings us to the question of this article. “What is a Good School?”

I have been in this game in various capacities since the early 1970’s. I’ve had the great good fortune to have taught in institutions for developmentally disabled people, in a juvenile court learning environment and most recently in the traditional public education experience. I’ve seen a lot, heard a lot, and have lived to tell about it. But the observations to follow are not exclusively my own. Nor do I claim to have any expertise in this field. Everyone who’s ever worked in a school or been to a school (and that pretty much covers most of us) has their own idea of what makes up a good school.

So, in no particular order, here is what I have come to believe.

A Good School has clear and positive leadership
In any organization having a truly great leader is a rare treat. Education is no exception. In our world, it’s the principal and her assistants whose job it is to set the tone and direction for any school year. Almost without exception, they were once toiling in the classroom, and for one reason or another, they’ve gotten their papers and credentials and moved into the front office. The good ones share a few common traits. First and foremost, they are fair and honest with their staff. Nothing ruins a building’s climate like a boss who can’t be trusted. They also need to never forget where they came from, especially when expecting the teachers to take on one more “new and innovative program that is taking the country by storm.”

The absolutely positively must be visible. In the halls, at lunch, at the concerts, games and dances. The guy who hides behind his secretary is the guy who has lost his school.

I’ve had bosses for whom I’d run through the gym divider, and others for whom I wouldn’t cross the parking lot. Believe me, it’s a lot easier on those days when you just don’t feel like rolling out of the sack to make the push if you work for the likes of the former.

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There are the unofficial leaders in a good school as well. We see them in the coach who makes about 37 cents per hour, but will stay behind to help the kid who just can’t get that jump shot down. We find her in the quiet, unassuming sponsor of the club to help girls learn how to be a woman, or the cheerleading moderator, or the art teacher who leads the school in a fundraising drive to provide water to villages in war-torn Africa. We find them in the new teacher whose enthusiasm is as contagious as pink eye in a kindergarten classroom, or the veteran who is able to impart a sense of calm to a harried department chair. These are the people who embody the quote from a novel called “The Little Prince”: What is essential is invisible to the eye.

A Good School must have these leaders, formal and informal. They together produce the positive culture of an organization whose sole reason for existence is to build new generations.

A Good School must be safe
In today’s world, we cannot place too high a value on the physical and emotional well-being of our kids. Sure, all schools must have policies and procedures for safety measures. And more and more of them are keeping their doors locked. But the Good School practices being safe, and keeps that in mind day to day.

As a teacher, I know I appreciate somebody looking out for me.

A corollary of this safety issue goes hand-in-hand with the previous discussion of administrators. “You can’t let the inmates run the asylum”, is a commonly heard dictum, and never is it more true than in a school. We are entrusted with all manner of individual, and given the law of averages, not all of them are sugar and spice. A Good School deals fairly and consistently with those who choose not to play the game by the rules. There are few things worse for a teacher’s morale than no one “having your back” when it comes to discipline.

A Good School is clean
Especially the bathrooms. For that give credit to the unsung heroes of the hallways, the custodians. They fight the never-ending battle for truth, justice and a litter-free environment against insurmountable odds. Whether it be a brand-spanking new facility, or one that seemingly is being held together with duct tape and a prayer, a body can sure tell a lot about a place by how it looks.

A Good School values its “newbies”
A lot has been written about how our colleges train students for 4 years and then our profession loses 50% of them within the first five years of their careers. Some studies indicate that some 30% of those who leave find their way back to education. The job has that strong a pull. However, the Good School looks out for its New Kids on the Hallway. This goes beyond a district’s formal mentoring or academy programs. It can be as simple as someone inviting them to sit with them at lunch, or encouraging them to sponsor a club, or just being there to listen to them as they wonder if they can make it through the toughest year of their lives. Our profession needs this infusion of their youth and excitement, and a Good School recognizes this.

A Good School values its “elders”
Being one, I can relate. We old folks have been there and done that, year after year, and despite less hair or a slower pace going down to the teachers lounge, we have something valuable to share about how to survive in our native land. And with that comes a responsibility for the veteran to avoid being jaded. Reality is one thing, but pessimism never helped a person just starting out in their chosen field. A school that can blend its old with its new is all the stronger in the struggle. We must work together, sports fans. Let’s face it — everyday we come to work we are vastly outnumbered.

A Good School doesn’t lose sight of the forest for all the trees of statistics and state test scores and walk-throughs by yet another agency and surveys and assessments.

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Of course, our business is to impart knowledge and sound curriculum and methods is a given. However, none other than Albert Einstein said “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Our product is for the most part invisible. One social studies teacher I know said very simply “I don’t teach history… I teach the future.” I’ve also heard that “All children are gifted. Some of them just open their presents later than others.”
There is the story of the high school student who was what could be called a loner. One day, he and a teacher passed in the hallway. No one was there but these two. The boy happened to look up and the teacher stopped, smiled and said “Good Morning. How are you today?” He didn’t respond, and they continued on their separate ways.

A year later they met again. The boy was working at a grocery store, gathering carts, and stopped the teacher in the parking lot.

“You don’t remember me, probably, but you know last year when you said ‘good morning’ to me in the hall way? Well, I was going to kill myself that night.”

The teacher was unable to speak. The boy smiled warmly. “As you can see, I didn’t.” He paused. “Thanks, Mrs. Tanner.”

So as former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar said, when asked to describe baseball in one word, “Youneverknow.” You really never know what one word can do to change a life. And we as teachers have so many opportunities to say that one word, day after day.

A Good School has tons of Mrs. Tanner’s
If all the above comes together, you just might have a Good School. If you work in one, stay as long as they let you. If you don’t, then find one and get in there as fast as possible.

A mom summed it up for me a few years ago.

“What is a good school? Well, to me, a good school is a place where every kid can’t wait to get there in the morning, ’cause maybe that is the day she gets to be ‘Teacher’s Pet.'”

(Missouri National Education Association, “Something Better”quarterly magazine, Summer, 2009)

4 Comments on Just What Is A Good School

  1. Awesome points, Tom! You said they were in no particular order, but I believe that #1 has to be the leadership one. (which you happened to list first) My school will have a new principal/teacher due to retirement & I hope to see my school resemble more of your list as a result. (hey – we made clean bathrooms last year! There IS hope!) We have the unofficial leaders already in place. The various parts of a good school fit together like dovetail joints in cabinetry – there are complementary notches (gives) to receive the dovetails (takes) in each piece being joined together.

    • Margaret, thanks so much for the complimentary comments. I love your analogy of the cabinetry. Too often, schools resemble a third graders popsicle-stick project for Mother’s Day. And you’re probably right in that leadership should be #1, since all else flows from that. We are facing a change in about three years. Coincidently, that is when I am shooting to make it my retirement year. Again, appreciate the reading, and good luck in your career.
      Tom Anselm

  2. All good points. Really. Some of them very important (I truly believe that taking care of new teachers and valuing experienced teachers is a missing pair of ingredients in way too many cases)…

    But it feels like something about learning, about teaching, about academics should be in there somewhere.

    • Thanks, Jonathan, for reading and for the comments. I agree that teaching and learning are essential. I wanted to consider other points, but could have said that a good school must have that value and success as a given. No way can it be good without that.
      Just as a good baseball team must have pitchers who can get that striceout with the bases loaded and hitters who can drive in runs, so a good school must see to it that kids learn. Still, lots of schools do that, but are not considered “Good” places to be.
      Thanks, again. Tom

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