Monday, September 30, 2013

Even the big kids are kids

"The best high schools are those that are the most like elementary schools."  Out of the many conferences that I have attended in almost 30 years as an educator, I still remember this sentence vividly.

It was over 20 years ago when I was not currently teaching and being a principal was not in my wildest thoughts as an educator.  A stay-at-home Mom at the time, I had searched for a local conference in the Columbus area that I could attend and earn graduate hours to renew my Ohio certification (now called licensure).

I had located a conference in Worthington that was sponsored by two nearby suburbs, Upper Arlington and Worthington.  I did not necessarily have overly high expectations, at that point it was more about convenience and cost.  I needed graduate hours and the drive would only be about 10 miles. 

Who knew that this would be a significant moment in my life as an educator.  I had taught high school for about 9 years and had then taken a leave of absence followed by a move to a new area.  My daughter was then in second grade and I loved being home with her.  I was a teacher who fell in love each year with her classes and was genuinely sad when a year ended.  I loved creating special communities in my classroom and am not ashamed to say that these wonderful high schoolers often brought tears to my eyes, even leading me to put my head down on my desk at the end of the year and cry.

At this conference Richard Slaven played the music "The Rose" and juxtaposed it with a wonderfully warm metaphoric presentation which tugged at the heart of being an educator and the transformation of a seed into a rose.  I loved it!

I looked over the list of the other presenters and chose one by another English teacher, Dr. James Allen.  I chose it because he was an English teacher at Upper Arlington High School and I hoped to acquire some ideas, having taught high school English myself.

I soon learned that Dr. Allen was a mesmerizing educator.  He described in detail the Senior Project that every student at Arlington completed and that he oversaw.  But during his presentation he interspersed his own philosophy on building relationships and interacting with high schoolers on a daily basis.  I had found a kindred spirit.

As he spoke, he uttered those words I have always remembered-- that the best high schools are those that are most like elementaries.  He went on to explain that elementary schools are great places for kids because they find a way to celebrate everything-- a kid loses a tooth and the entire class finds a way to celebrate it.  A child enters as a new student and the entire class throws a welcome party. Moving away-- the entire class writes notes about how much they will miss him/her, and so on.

His point was that high schools need to show kids how much they also care about them without waiting for the big achievements.  All of the small successes in a high schooler's day can and should also be celebrated.  If elementary schools can do it, we can do it.  I know I had always believed this, but he was the first to articulate it so clearly and with so much passion.

And so, years later, I am now a high school principal and we work hard every day to find a way to recognize students.  Our teachers are the best at it with their daily interactions and small celebrations.  Every student, every day-- some daily interaction with an adult who cares.  Do we still celebrate the perfect ACT scores, the National Merit Semifinalists, the State Championships, and Graduation?  You bet.  But also small victories, for every student, every day.

One of our building's recognition programs is an Ice Cream Social, sponsored by our PTO and held once per semester.  If a student has a 3.5 or higher GPA based on the last semester's average then he/she receives a certificate of achievement in homeroom and a ticket.  During lunch period, students present their tickets at a table manned by PTO volunteers and receive a vanilla, chocolate or mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich.

I can tell you that it is amazing how much fun it is to see 200-lb linebackers standing in line for their ice cream sandwich as well as the Chamber Orchestra concertmaster.  This semester we recognized over 500 students and next semester (with freshmen eligible) it will be over 800.

That's a lot of ice cream.  And more importantly, a lot of happy smiles.  They may not have "windows' in their smiles of the missing teeth of childhood, but they are all beaming. 

Even the big kids are kids.  And it fun to recognize that in high schools.