29 steps to a better school

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.08.58 PMSolid ground.

Teaching and learning is the terra firma of what happens in schools.

But the topsoil – the nutrient-dense surface layer – is found in the growth-stimulating relationships that develop between educators and students.

That’s why I wanted to devote a follow-up blog post to Kelly Middleton and Elizabeth Petitt’s second book, “Simply the Best: 29 Things Students Say the Best Teachers Do Around Relationships.”

Cover of “Simply the Best"(Middleton jokes that because he’s a guy — and maybe a little ADHD — he needs check-off lists to focus on what’s important.)

This book teases out specific things that educators can do to nurture strong relationships that inspire emotional, social, moral, spiritual and even physical growth.

What surprises me most is that these tips are all common sense. It’s the same behaviors we’d use to make a friend, or demonstrate good manners.

What the best teachers do (according to students): 

  1. Know us personally.
  2. Let us know who they are as individuals or people.
  3. Smile at us.
  4. Remember our names and use them.
  5. Speak to us. They say “hello” and “goodbye.”
  6. Argue, banter, tease and joke with us in a fun way in informal situations.
  7. Visit us at our homes before school starts.
  8. Check on us when we are sick or even when we have sickness in our family.
  9. Remind us about school events and activities. They encourage us to participate.
  10. Come see us perform in activities beyond the school day.
  11. Establish rules for everyone, including themselves.
  12. Show no favoritism or perception of favoritism.
  13. Are consistent.
  14. Cook (or do something special) for us.
  15. Know we are always watching. We observe their behavior before, during and after school.
  16. Tell us why.
  17. Tell us how we will use what we are learning in the real world.
  18. Help us learn about our future and our role in making it better (e.g. “going green”).
  19. Use effective practices, like hands-on projects. They keep up with the latest ideas.
  20. Use technology and find ways we can use our own technology at school in appropriate ways.
  21. Give meaningful work. They know we do not like word searches, worksheets or busy work.
  22. Are energetic, enthusiastic, and enjoy their job.
  23. Help us beyond the school day, or on their own time, with our work.
  24. Are in control of the class.
  25. Tell us how we did on our work (timely and specific).
  26. Value our work and effort.
  27. Tell us they believe in us and work with us to be successful.
  28. Admit it when they mess up or make mistakes.
  29. Stick up for us. They have the courage to stand up for us when we are treated unfairly.

My take on the 29

Middleton and Pettit elaborate on each of the 29 tips – and I could, too.

The list certainly “nails” characteristics of the top performers in the estimation of this veteran of 19 years of formal education (kindergarten through master’s degree).

Even in grad school – where students tap wellsprings of intrinsic motivation – I found it disappointing when instructors didn’t give feedback on major assignments.

And, if an instructor promised to respond to email within 72 hours – but didn’t – somehow it felt that a contract had been breeched. If I needed a little extra time to upload an assignment, I felt those instructors had no right to mark me down.

But what resonated most with me was the quote that Middleton and Petitt used to set the tone for their book.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.16.02 PMThe quote reminded me of the night I graduated from high school, when a teacher made me feel special with the anonymous gift of a Ticonderoga No. 2 yellow pencil with a red eraser.

I know the pencil was from my English teacher, Peter Lefevre. Our class had read Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil is a symbol of savoring memories of childhood in the novel.

I found the pencil in the white envelope that held my diploma – which graduates were not allowed to collect until after the ceremony, when we turned in the loaner gowns.

None of my friends found Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils with their diplomas, although I imagine other members of Lefervre’s senior English class did.

I walked out of my high school for the last time, clutching my diploma and Ticonderoga pencil, eager to write the chapters of my life.

I thank LeFevre for that buoyant moment.

It’s this kind of beyond-teaching-and-learning magic that Middleton and Petitt hope their 29 tips help inspire in all schools.

The making of Middleton

Kelly Middleton

Kelly Middleton

 Of course, Middleton has a special educator story of his own, even beyond his service as a successful school superintendent in Kentucky which I profiled last week.

In fact, he said he was inspired to become a teacher because of the relationship that Marvin Stringfellow, a health and wellness instructor at Georgetown College, forged with him during his undergraduate years.

Middleton was attending the small Baptist college on a basketball scholarship. But he was taking mostly business and economics classes because growing up poor made him think he’d like to be a stockbroker.

Stringfellow routinely ate with students in the cafeteria in an effort to get to know students he didn’t have in class. He playfully goaded Middleton into taking one of his fitness classes.

Stringfellow attended basketball games and began joking with Middleton about his performance on the court in class.

“He built relationships with students beginning from where they were,” Middleton said. “He wasn’t afraid to joke around with students, or to allow students to know him as a human being.”

By the time Middleton graduated, he said Stringfellow’s mentoring had revolutionized his career goals. Middleton not only wanted to be a teacher, he wanted to teach health, too.

During his first four years teaching high school, Middleton describes himself as equal parts teacher and student. He studied  teachers like Stringfellow, who had the best rapport with students, and emulated them.

Finally, in one class filled with students who showed no desire to connect with him, he mentioned the back-breaking labor of harvesting tobacco — an experience several boys in class shared.

As impossible as it sounds, tobacco turned the tide, Middleton said. Students began engaging with him and the curriculum he taught. When a student misbehaved, peer pressure set him straight.

Magic, indeed.

Is there anything you would add to Middleton and Petitt’s list of 29? Which things are most important, in your experience. Share your thoughts in SCN’s Forum.

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