The Purpose of Schools

In the last few weeks, I’ve read multiple perspectives on the role of schools in a community. Some argue that schools should be community centers, providing services well beyond educating pupils. For example, this district in Missouri that is going above and beyond, offering all of these services:

School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.

The other side of the argument suggests that America’s insistence on using schools to cure all ills is a significant factor in its current international education standing — well behind twenty-five OECD countries. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley argues that several of those countries have attained their success by focusing solely on academics. The countries she examined — Finland, South Korea, and Poland — are at the top of PISA national rankings, and spend substantially less per student than the U.S. does. Ripley posits that these countries, among other strategies, hold education in such high esteem that they don’t offer extras, deprioritizing everything from sports to school lunch to SMART Boards.

Reading the article closely, I see that the Jennings School District provides most of their extracurricular services in partnership with community organizations, which makes me more comfortable with the setup. But I fear that in too many cases, schools forego outside resources or services that already exist; rather, they try to be everything to everyone. Many argue that if our teachers are not even trained well enough to teach, how can we expect them to be successful social workers, nurses, and career counselors on top of their classroom responsibilities?

Historically, I’ve leaned toward the idea of using schools to support a variety of needs, particularly to combat the harm of poverty on a child’s education. But I see significant potential value in allowing schools to focus on their original purpose: educating. I think the real answer is that the role of schools in the community depends on the community. The service learning / leadership educator in me appreciates this conclusion, but I’m still torn on which way the U.S. should lean in the first place — I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Modeling the Growth Mindset

Growth mindset. If ever there was a hot topic in education, this would be it. Multiple times a week I come across articles discussing it, and have even written about it in ”Reconsidering the Avoiders”. One of the biggest factors of implementing the approach is modeling it for students: showing a growth mindset in ourselves and how we approach learning.

Quick summary: a growth mindset believes that learning is always possible, and that one’s ability is not dependent on or limited to innate qualities.

While my school talks about this mindset and encourages staff to foster it in students, I’ve noticed significant challenges in doing so. First, because of the nature of who is drawn to teaching, not all teachers have a growth mindset — or they forget it sometimes. Second, the intense time pressure of school makes implementing these practices tricky.

Teachers are, generally, people who like to be in control and the center of attention. While this manifests in a variety of ways, few people who don’t like to be in charge find themselves leading a classroom in a traditional school. This need for control can inhibit a growth mindset, and I think the struggle is particularly true for elementary teachers. As a third grade teacher, I share concepts that are considered simple by the rest of the population, and I often take for granted that I will either know the answer or will be able to immediately figure it out. Of course, this doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes, I discover that I have helped a child land on a wrong answer. On a recent math test, I counseled five different students through a particular problem before realizing that I wasn’t doing the problem right at all. Fortunately in this instance, I was able to call them back and share my mistake while helping them see the correct path. But other times, feeling duped by a worksheet or poorly phrased question, I go in a completely different direction, insisting that the seemingly odd answer is indeed correct. A recent matching sheet about Charlotte’s Web asked who pledged to save Wilbur and was missing the choice “Charlotte.” Rather than allow the flummoxed students to cross out Fern, I rationalized how Fern could have been the correct answer and argued with them until they relented. I try to employ a willingness to share my mistakes with students and let them see that I am frequently wrong, but in the moment it’s hard to do so.

This is especially true because we are constantly pressed for time. With the students I led astray in math, I wish I could have spent even more time explaining what went wrong and why the new way made sense. But with four other students in line and a limited window for the test, it didn’t seem possible. Daily, there are situations that could warrant a debate over a question or answer, but my schedule doesn’t allow for such discussion very often.

To adopt a growth mindset, my students need to change their attitude towards mistakes and new challenges. The phrase, “this makes no sense,” has become so prolific in my classroom, and causes me such anguish, that the students who hear it anticipate my reaction and start chuckling at my caricatured frustration. Some even respond to their classmates, “Ms. Schultz doesn’t like when you say that.” These words hurt my soul (almost as much as when they use library books for umbrellas), but we have yet to have a class conversation about why the phrase is so detrimental — there hasn’t been time.

Surely, helping our students vanquish this attitude has as much value as being right on a worksheet. We need to admit our own shortcomings if we are going to be the models our students need to adopt a growth mindset.