Our Children Are Watching

On September 20th, 2019, I attended a protest march for climate change in Philadelphia.  Marching along, I snapped the photo above. I thought “how true - our children are learning every minute out of every day”. As educators and parents, we need to take heed - watching and listening while asking ourselves the question, what are they learning?  Over the last several months, my thoughts have frequently returned to this photo. In March, 2020 our worlds were flipped upside down.  My undergraduate and graduate students struggled with their new reality - passionate, caring, and talented educators - trying to learn and teach in an environment they were not prepared for. Their inner alarms were going off!  It rubbed at everything they knew as education professionals about best practices, kids, and education.

In times of crisis, good leadership supports organizational systems as well as individuals to stem feelings of fear, frustration, and uncertainty. As humans, we all react and respond differently - fear, shock, and anger. We lash out, we curl up into a ball, form a protective bubble, keep our families close, and think, "What can we do and how do we move forward?”. Great leadership can bear the weight and provide us with what we need to make that journey. A friend of mine often views leadership as coming from the ‘top’ down;  I counter his arguments with “It needs to come from ‘within’ - it takes a village and every entity within an organization has a role to play. Leadership shifts from individual to individual as situations evolve.”  In today’s pandemic world, I would say that both are going to be critical in leading our schools beyond today and into a brighter future.

The study of leadership across organizations including corporations, non-profits, and schools has been widely researched. In the book The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-class Leaders, Botelhol and Powell (2018) discuss outstanding leadership through the lens of “intentionality” (https://ceonextdoorbook.com/). In essence, where we put our attention and energy can and does change how complex problems are solved in practice.The authors state that “when leading with intent, leaders are able to translate their vision, goals, and acute awareness of context into [organizational] intention for every action they engage in” (p. 46). Looking at the concept of intentionality in leadership is critical during these uncertain and troubling times.

So, how might all educators develop strong leadership practices through a lens of intentionality to achieve what we believe is a valued outcome – maximizing student well-being, learning, and growth for all children?

When I first started teaching at the college level, based on years of reflective practice and “learning by doing”, I formulated what I perceive to be my “truisms”. One of my favorites - “When your gut tells you something is amiss - pay attention! Pause and reserve judgement - watch, look, listen, reflect - and then plan forward!" Today, my gut is telling me to pause, think outside the box and look through a broader lens. Amidst the chaos, I do see light and opportunities to create a better version of who and what we were before. The reality is that every child became immersed in a wide range of learning environments and experiences. Upon their return, the gaps are going to be immense. When our students come back to brick and mortar buildings, if we meet them at the school-house door with the intention of building on what each student experienced and learned while they were away, I believe amazing things can and will happen.

We must honor all that they have been through and build on the rich learning experiences that happened beyond the classroom door while building bridges to academic learning and success. Let’s take time to reflect on what has worked and not worked in both the recent and distant past. When teaching first and second graders, they often heard me state - “I wonder what would happen if …”  Now, I wonder if there are schools that have worked on developing instructional programs based on combining grade levels and teaching thematic units structured around core learning standards? Can we plan with the end in mind? What are the big ideas that we want students to be immersed in? Can we build schools to not only teach facts and figures, but also develop creative minds and deep thinkers?  I would posit that this is what great teaching looks and sounds like.

At this moment, mounting an effective crisis response in education needs to elevate the voices of all stakeholders. We must be clear, thoughtful, and honest in what we know and believe is necessary to build better schools. All of us, including administrators, teachers, parents, and students, are up to meeting the challenge together - shoulder to shoulder- NOT arguing, accusing, labeling, and blaming!  Remember...our children are watching and learning - it is what their minds crave.

Dr. Kathryn Christiana taught for 40 years in the Abington Public Schools before retiring in 2015. Her commitment and passion for education began early in life whether she was volunteering at the Salvation Army Center during the Detroit Riots (1967), on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana (1968) and later, traveling to impoverished schools in Guatemala (2010).

During her tenure as a public school educator, she taught Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 5 and Gifted Education.  In addition, she held several administrative positions including Assistant Principal, Curriculum Specialist and Supervisor of Special and Gifted Education.  Believing that life-long learning is essential to our work as educators, she received her Doctorate in Educational Leadership (2016) from Arcadia University.  Today, Dr. Christiana is teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in differentiated instruction, inclusive practices, school finance and law.  She continues to write and recently published The Mystery of Wide Variations in Rates of Inclusion: Does Money Make a Difference? in Social Innovations Journal (April, 2020). Dr. Christiana was a Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year finalist in 2002. She is a proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).  Feel free to email her at [email protected].

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