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Column: Building a Child’s Educational Cathedral

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This column was submitted by Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ (Va.) Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, Virginia’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of spending a day with students from across the state who were attending the Educators Rising (formerly, Future Teachers of America) State Leadership Conference. I was asked to share my thoughts with them on what it means to be a teacher. That’s a great topic. I could talk for hours on what it means to be a teacher, but here’s what it comes down to, and here’s what I shared: Teachers matter. Teachers REALLY matter. They matter to individuals, they matter to our schools, and they matter to our community.

How do I know this?  I asked this group of students to close their eyes, think back to their own experiences in school, and identify the one teacher who has made a difference in their life. I asked this group of aspiring teachers to describe the characteristics that these teachers have in common, and here’s what they shouted out:  they’re caring, they’re interested in who you are as a person, they’re passionate about what they do, they’re enthusiastic. The response that struck me the most?  They love their students. That’s it, isn’t it?

The fundamental thing that we want in a great teacher is an adult who really cares about each of us as a person before they care about what they want us to learn.

Certainly, there are many other reasons that teachers matter, and I could not be more proud to work in public education. Our profession is incredibly important. We know the impact schools and teachers have on individual children and their families. Teaching has an authentically transformative power in the life of a child. Through education, we develop thinkers, makers, artists, entrepreneurs, and citizens, and we create hope and opportunity along the way. Because of our work, worlds of opportunity open up to our children as they transition into adulthood. What job possibly could be better than that?

Candidly, however, it’s also an incredibly challenging time to be in education. Seeking to steer the country forward, politicians and reformers have turned an increasingly critical eye toward our schools. In fact, doing just a quick Google search on the failure of public schools revealed 22 million results with just one click of the mouse!  Whether they are lamenting a lost past where education just seemed better, demanding an ever more intensive model of accountability and high-stakes testing, or advocating that we should abandon public education altogether and let the free market economy take over through vouchers or charters, each of these critics believes deeply that they have grasped the solution to a series of increasingly complex problems.

And make no mistake about it, the challenges facing our schools are complicated. Our society has changed dramatically, and there are often good reasons young people today struggle while in school. Many of our students care for their brothers and sisters, work to bring income in for their family, worry about where their next meal is coming from, and deal with domestic situations that many of us could not have imagined growing up. In an environment like that, schoolwork may not be the first priority.

Expectations for our students in school also have changed considerably over the last two decades. The federal government and state legislatures demand that every student pass rigorous state tests and that every student graduate on time and ready for college and careers. While ratcheting up expectations in this new era of accountability and high-stakes testing, the curriculum also shifted dramatically. Math concepts that were once taught in middle schools are now routinely introduced in elementary school. College-level coursework is becoming the expected norm for all high school students.

This rush for advanced coursework is done with the goal of preparing our students for the future, but there are no clear definitions for what it means to be prepared.

With college readiness, for example, some would argue that success on state standardized tests indicates academic proficiency, while others would argue that these tests tell us relatively little about a student’s readiness for college or other post-secondary learning. There are questions about the value of GPAs, class rank, dual enrollment courses, etc., in terms of their predictive value when considering future success. And of course there is the rhetoric (lively and ongoing for more than a century now) that, regardless of changes to the curriculum and advances in supporting all students through remediation, enrichment, and acceleration, our schools lack rigor and do not prepare the majority of students for higher education.

As difficult as understanding college readiness can be, career readiness is just as challenging. We frequently hear that our students are not ready to be employed. When we ask about that, we hear more often than not that they lack soft skills rather than content knowledge. In other words, some are concerned that our children might be able to read, but they can’t work together, communicate with one another, or creatively solve a challenging real-world problem.

And so we have to change and adapt. Why?  Because our schools of the 20th century were simply not designed to graduate 21st-century employees and leaders.

How do we do that?

The answer lies in part in a visit I made to one of our local military installations not too long ago. The focus of the visit to the Joint Expeditionary Base at Little Creek was on STEM and the real-world applications of STEM learning in today’s military. It was an amazing visit. We had the opportunity to hear from sailors in the dive community, river patrol units, the Naval Construction Force (also known as Seabees) and many others about their work. It was, in a word, extraordinary, and the connections between our military partners and what we are working toward with our students were many and obvious—it was no great leap to imagine students in our VBCPS STEM Robotics Challenge going on to design the Navy’s next generation of robotic tactical machines.

While talking with the Navy team, another visitor asked one sailor what was the most sophisticated equipment he had available to him. The sailor and his CO both quipped immediately that it was the sailor himself.

That was a key takeaway from my visit. While tools are critical, and the ability to understand them and program and operate them with high efficiency and effectiveness can mean the difference between mission success or failure, it is the person behind the technologies that makes all the difference. More specifically, it is his or her understanding of the math and science and engineering and his or her ability to apply that understanding to an array of new and challenging problems that are so critical. And it is his or her ability to connect with and work with teammates and to communicate clearly and to persist in the face of obstacles that determines the sailor’s success.

This trip affirmed my conviction that we must do more than teach our students content. We must make sure they learn rich and rigorous content (almost every sailor I spoke with loved science, for example) and we must make sure they can apply their learning in authentic ways. And of course, we must help them develop the skills they need—teamwork, collaboration, communication, and grit—to be successful when they leave our schools.

We have to be intensely committed to knowing that our students, like those sailors, have mastered the skills we have established as being vitally important. You simply cannot be a successful student without the fundamental skills needed to move through life—reading analytically and for pleasure, the ability to communicate clearly in writing and orally, fluency in mathematics, and understanding our history and the importance of civic engagement, to name a few.

But there has to be more to the educational experience than mastery of these fundamental skills.

I like to think of it like a cathedral. When you walk into a cathedral, you are always standing on a solid stone floor, and the cathedral wouldn’t be what it is without this foundation. But what really captivates us about cathedrals are the ceilings. The great cathedral builders were always wondering how high they could take their ceilings, how much closer to the heavens they could point them as a physical manifestation of man’s desire to be closer to God. They weren’t just building a church. It was a much more creative expression than that, and there was a kind of passion and joy that was captured in the work being done.

As educators, we have to have a firm concrete floor for kids to stand on, but we must also be intensely interested in how high their ceiling can be.

How can we provide experiences that ensure our students are deeply engaged in the processes of inquiry, problem-solving, and creativity? Moreover, how can we ensure that there is passion and joy in the work and an opportunity for the child to really find out who they are and what they love to do? After all, learning is a natural instinct. The processes of learning new things should be full of curiosity and wonder and excitement about solving a challenging problem.

We are exploring and creating classrooms now that focus on collaboration and inquiry. Technology is regularly integrated into instruction as a tool to support problem-solving. You’ll see fewer and fewer classrooms with rows and more and more classrooms where students cluster together tackling essential questions about the content they must know. Our classrooms meet learners where they are, and rich intervention programs catch struggling learners and push them ahead in their studies. In short, we see more and more classrooms and instructional practices that are designed to help us ensure all children meet the more demanding expectations we have for them.

Yes, we still have much work to do and farther down the road to go, but we are all making strides in our respective communities. We need to be champions for public education and for providing opportunities for success every single child in our school divisions. We can and we must engage in this work!

Dr. Aaron Spence assumed the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) June 23, 2014. As superintendent, he oversees the operation of 86 schools (serving almost 69,000 students) as well as all administrative support functions for the school division.