For school to feel like a ‘home”, the teaching community must continually process the following questions; and for the most part, agree on the answers: “What do we teach?” “Who do we teach?” “How do we teach?” “Why do we teach?”
While the answer to the “what” is a given due to standardized, common curricula, in schools that employ large numbers of teachers and house hundreds of students, I question how administrators inspire a shared educational philosophy and effective collaboration among staff and students.
Ongoing observation of social dynamics and overall academic performance in my own school, have by now assured me that "how and why" questions are best addressed in schools that are smaller in numbers. And I maintain that to thoroughly understand how kids learn best, the smaller school environment provides the answers to this crucial question.
“I think the most important part of getting a good education is cooperating and having teachers and students work well together.”
VIS Student, Gr. 6
That being said, thirteen years of qualitative research at VIS has led me to believe that kids perform and learn better in school when they experience a sense of ‘belonging’. They meet expectations and take more risks when they feel safe to do so. Feeling safe seems to be the knowledge that your peers will not judge, criticize or take advantage of your weaknesses and individual differences. And a growing desire to come to school is about internalizing (and trusting) that 'one' is a valuable part of a community where each member's actions are understood to be interdependent and interconnected. It’s also about mutual acceptance and it's about a need for respect and accountability toward one another. As well, safety, as it relates to a school-wide code of conduct, is most effectively implemented when faculty is able to manage issues that would normally go unseen in larger settings. In small schools where teachers are able to discuss issues in depth and problem solve the academic, social, and emotional dilemmas of their students, solutions are addressed as part of a value system that is lived and felt by each member of the school.
“A good education is when the teachers understand, help, relate and have fun with the students. You also need to feel at home. You need to ask questions....to feel trusted and trust the teachers and learn in a safe environment. You have to feel welcome every day you come in.”
The challenges, I imagine, in maintaining an effective (and affective) educational mission, and guiding a staff that is large in numbers must entail frustration to effectively promote a widespread ‘how’. Instilling a school-wide philosophy that is shared and agreed upon by all, could no doubt be difficult. So because my greatest fear as an educator is exactly this - the disintegration of a culture which has proven to function so well because our school is small, among other factors, I see no choice other than to guard its safety by allowing it to play itself out organically, yet contain its numbers to no larger than one hundred students.
“All together, a good education is where the students feel as comfortable as the teachers, and the teachers help the students and make them feel heard.”
What I have observed throughout the years is that for school to feel like home, the students in that school must all know each other. They should feel comfortable to approach teachers who view them primarily as human beings. And when the notion of ‘personhood’ transcends all else in a school, exceptional learning possibilities result for students and teachers.
Undoubtedly, I have had to address questions and potential issues related to happiness and performance when students transition from a small school to a larger institution. The answer to this question is unequivocal: I see no real issues. The transition is seamless if our school has done its job to foster confidence and a knowledge of "self" in each of our students, and if it has prepared them toward accountability, assertion and future leadership. Academically, emotionally and socially confident kids are not afraid of large crowds; however, they might likely determine at any given time, that their former smaller school was highly successful in promoting a sense of belonging. This knowledge can only come from experience. The skills to analyze, think critically and make informed choices are best gained in small, safe, democratic school settings where the "how and the why" are everyone's shared mandate, every day, and where everyone knows each other's names.
In my view, regardless of smaller classes, the larger the school, the more diluted this mandate becomes. Such is the gap between the institutional setting, and the school that feels like a "home".
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