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Lessons I Have Learned This Year From Higher Ed


Today is my birthday, usually a day on which I make time to stop and reflect on the past year, to measure how and where I have managed to grow in the past 12 months, to smile over the joys, and to see what can be learned from the low points.  Today, however, has been a whirlwind of meetings and workshops, which I think is good as I have approached this day with a great deal of trepidation; not because I am another year older, but because of what happened on my birthday last year.

Last year, on my birthday, my beautiful daughter, Jessica, was taken to the ER in agonizing pain, for what was the latest manifestation of the saga of her battle against Crohn’s disease.  Both she and I were cognizant of this ‘anniversary’ of sorts as we approached this day.  On Monday, I accompanied Jessica to her first intravenous chemotherapy treatment (a form of chemo is one of the drugs used in battling this disease) and then to a second-opinion visit.  We have spent a lot of time this past year in hospitals.

Jessica’s battle has been a valiant one, with many ups and downs.  And, I have found, in everything, there is something to learn, something to value, something for which to be grateful.  In this case, I am deeply grateful, not to Jessica’s doctors, but to her teachers.

Jess is a first-year law student at UPenn.  Her first semester was made more difficult by repeated bouts of painful illness.  These crescendoed as exam season approached.

Jess has had a lifelong history of physical illness and I have long been grateful for the deeply caring outlook of her many teachers; they recognized that hers is a unique and gifted intellect.  They nurtured this and allowed it time and space to flourish in spite of her physical battles.  And I did a disservice to law school faculty; I did not think that they would do the same.  I assumed that they would treat Jess as a number, a dollar sign, just another student and if she couldn’t make it – for whatever reason – too bad.

I could not have been more wrong.

The faculty at the school actually monitored how Jessica was faring; they noticed her condition, they spoke with her daily, and they – not her – suggested accommodations for exams.

Throughout the exam period, Jess had a series of medical procedures; the faculty adjusted her exam schedule around these.  The Dean of Students met with Jessica several times to monitor, not only her academic schedule, but her physical condition as well.  All of her teachers had taken the time to truly get to know my daughter; they knew what she was capable of and they expressed to her that they were interested in testing her knowledge of the law – not her disease.  To this end, they built an exam schedule that she could physically complete around treatments and procedures.

Throughout my teaching career, a hallmark of my own practice was to learn everything that I could about each student.  When I went to work on the National Board assessment program at ETS, I learned that this was called Knowledge of Students.  Through work with ASCD, I learned that it was called knowing the Whole Child.  As I worked on the committee revising the InTASC standards, I was part of incredible group of educators who struggled to define and include this aspect of teaching throughout the standards.

As a good friend of mine has reflected, “I think it is important to remember that as we are crafting policy for the future, not everything is black and white.   There needs to be flexibility for illness, hurricanes, and other traumatic events that can and will disrupt the school day.  Great teachers are the ones that are able to teach the whole child and help them develop their character as well as learn content.  Statistics and test scores only give us a snapshot of a student.  Grit, perseverance, a growth mindset and the ability to deal with obstacles may be better at determining a student’s future success than a test score. We also need to remember that these are important characteristics for teachers to have too.  We tend to forget that part. “ Jeanne DelColle is a wise woman.

Jessica’s law school professors have made a point of learning Jessica, while she has been learning the law.  And shame on me for being surprised that faculty at a law school would do this.

As teachers, knowing our students, our whole children, has become much more complex over the years.  My students at the end of my P12 classroom career had lives infinitely more overtly complicated than those with whom I began my practice.   And, it is becoming more so all the time.  We are being asked to do more and more for our students and are being blessed with students who face a more diverse set of needs than ever before.  Yet we, as teachers, still invest in knowing our whole children, our students.

As I reflect on my past year tonight, I have much to be sad about – as you know, it has been a difficult year – and much to celebrate.  Knowing that I represent a network of teachers who deeply care about every aspect of each student’s life is one of these celebrations; knowing that my own child has teachers who care as deeply about hers is another.

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