Relationships Are an Indispensable Variable in the Education Equation!

Recently, I have heard many very smart people trash such ideas as “personalized learning” and “digital learning.” While I have great respect for all of you, I ask you to consider the question, “what if you are wrong?”

Just because “Education Reformers” who are attacking public education are misusing these concepts does not mean they are bad ideas! Clearly, education reformers are wrong to think that the future of public education will be realized by kids working independently on computers, going their own way, and not needing the help of teachers. Anyone who thinks that would be a good thing and would increase the quality of education our children receive does not know much about working with children.

Those of us who have worked closely with children, especially kids as young as 5 and 6, know that relationships matter more than anything. And make no mistake, relationships are every bit as important to preteens and teenagers. Think back on the kids with whom you had the most success and it will almost always be the students with whom you had the best relationships. Also, think back on those times when you were successful in your own endeavors. More often than not, in those special times in our lives, we were working closely with a favorite teacher, boss, or mentor.

When working with children of any age, not only do relationships matter, they are paramount. Relationships are an indispensable variable in the education equation.

“De-personalized learning” is what kids are getting, now, and it is tragic.

Every year, young children who arrive for their first day of school and who are starting at a disadvantage are placed in a race with other students in their classroom. It is a race in which these children are totally unprepared to compete. When they begin falling behind, we act surprised when they give up on themselves, stop trying, begin acting out, and maybe even drop out of school before graduating.

In the hands of qualified teachers whose minds and hearts are open to new ideas, “personalized learning” can be a powerful strategy. When a child is beginning from his or her own unique starting point on an “academic preparedness continuum” and is being given the time he or she needs, the child will begin to learn and will progress at his or her own best speed. As kids begin to discover that they can learn, they will gain confidence and gradually increase the pace at which they learn. Once kids discover that they can learn, successfully, learning becomes fun!

It is my belief what children need is learning of the most “personalized” kind, from capable and qualified teachers with whom they feel a close, personal connection and who have at their disposal the most sophisticated tools and resources.

Dissing “digital learning” is another example of educators reacting with Pavlovian predictability to neutral names and labels that have become pejorative words and phrases. Just because reformers over-value digital tools does not reduce their potential as tools for capable teachers. And, the fact that they undervalue teachers and the relationships between teachers and students creates a real opportunity for those of us who are against high-stakes testing, privatization, charter schools and vouchers.

It creates an opportunity to demonstrate how effective public schools will be when they employ an education process or model that:

• Optimizes the power of positive relationships between teachers and students;

• Pulls parents into the equation as partners in the education of their sons and daughters;

• Identifies an appropriate starting point for students based upon where they are on an academic preparedness continuum when they arrive at our door for their first day of school;

• Tailors an academic plan to meet the unique requirements of each student, in conjunction with academic standards;

• Expects students to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed;

• Expects teachers to give each child the time and attention they need to learn as much as they are able;

• Expects teachers to help kids learn from mistakes even when it takes multiple attempts and then celebrate each success like the special achievement it is.

• Equips teachers and students with the best tools and resources available, including cutting edge digital tools and learning technology; and,

• Expects students to achieve a sufficient level of mastery of subject matter that they can apply what they have learned in the real world and where nothing less is acceptable.

With such a model, public schools will outperform charter schools and other experimental classrooms at every level.

Champions and heroes of public education, at every level, are asked to take a step back so that your passion does not overshadow your wisdom. The job of public school educators is not to blame poverty and segregation for the failure of so many of our disadvantaged children. Rather it is to accept responsibility by acknowledging that what we are doing does not work for everyone and not giving up until we find a solution that will work.

Public school educators have been blamed for so long for the problems in public education that they will not listen to just anyone. It is for that reason that the champions of public education whom teachers have come to admire and respect are in the best position to influence public school educators at every level. Having the respect of teachers comes with certain responsibilities the most important of which is to provide positive leadership.

I have applied all that I have learned from over thirty years of organizational development and leadership experience to examine and strive to understand all that I witnessed during the 10 years in which I worked as a substitute teacher for an urban public school district. My objective, initially, was to understand why so many children are failing and I very quickly realized that I also needed to understand why some children manage to succeed in spite of all of the disadvantages they face. Once I felt I had a solid understanding, I began applying the skills I developed while working with my clients as an organizational development and leadership consultant.

I was guided by an axiom from operations management that said “if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and should be replaced or reinvented. In almost every instance, giving hard working people a process that works proved to be empowering and led to unprecedented success.

In every project the objective and methodology was the same. Apply the principles of systems’ thinking, organizational development, and positive leadership to clearly identify mission and purpose and then design a process that is tasked, structured, and resourced to produce the outcomes my clients were seeking. The outcome of my effort with respect to education was a process or model designed to empower teachers and meet the needs of all students, even the disadvantaged children.

I invite you to examine the model and accompanying white paper at
http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. I then ask for your help in finding at least one superintendent and school district willing to test my model in one of its lowest performing elementary schools.

It’s all about the kids!

Educators and Billionaires: Adversaries or Partners?

Anyone who has worked with kids knows that when an adult has a real connection with a child, amazing things happen. Clearly, some proponents of “personalized learning” or “digital learning” seem unaware of the importance of such relationships and this is tragic. These powerful advocates from the Gates’s to the Zuckerbergs and beyond are squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on initiatives that will ultimately fail. More tragically, the combination of their zeal and power has pushed us further away from a solution.

We need to embrace the utilization of technology in education but rather than involving professional teachers to learn how technology can be folded into the art and craft of teaching, these reformers have drawn a line in the sand. They want to diminish the role of teachers because they have not taken the time to understand why so many children are failing.

In the education model I have introduced, first in 2013 with the publication of my book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (CreateSpace, 2013) and more recently on my website under “Education Model and White Paper, my conclusion is that if our goal is to bring an end to the failure, we need to enhance the relationships between teachers and students (and parents) rather than diminish them. The problem with public schools, today, is that the education process is rigid and obsolete and does not support improving relationships and giving students more time to learn. Rather, it is a system that is structured like a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, and where there are both winners and losers.

Once we have addressed that issue, as I have done in my model, it opens the door to the utilization of technology to help professional teachers guide their children down an academic plan that has been tailored to the unique needs of the child. The categorical imperative, however, is that the relationships are the key to every interaction between people, and the more fragmented our world becomes the more important these relationships become.

My model changes the structure of the education process and classroom in such a way that teachers are supported in their efforts and that such relationships are an expectation, not something that happens every so often. Anyone reading this who has had a special relationship with a favorite teacher at school, or a favorite boss or supervisor at work, knows that it was during these periods that we were the most productive and achieved the best outcomes. We look back on these special times with regret, particularly when we were in school, that such relationships were not allowed to continue. These relationship could not endure because the education process required that we move kids on to a new grade and a new teacher at the beginning of every school year. The existing education process is focused more on preserving traditions than it is meeting the needs of 21st Century children.

My model changes this reality and makes the formation and preservation of such relationships our highest priority. No matter what we do in life, even if we are programmers writing code in a secret location, our success is ultimately determined by our ability to interact, communicate, and form relationships with other human beings.

Technology in any form, whether “digital learning software” or making full use of our smartphones, will always be tools to help us achieve results and produce outcomes through our interactions with other people. As I wrote in my book, The Difference is You: Power Through Positive Leadership (Create Space, 2013), even in their purest form, the value of assets whether land, money, or time is always measured in terms of their utility to people. The challenge is to keep abreast of new developments and discoveries, in the context of a dynamic environment. This is the job of leadership, in any venue, including public school corporations.

In education, whether public or private, the relationships between teachers and students are paramount whether we are talking about five and six year olds in Kindergarten or teenagers in high school. The second priority for teachers in my model are to pull parents into these vital relationships as partners with their child’s teacher. When there is a positive and enduring bond between the key players in education’s cast of characters, truly amazing things happen.

In her insightful blog post, “The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote ‘Personalized’ Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch,” Jan Ressinger notes that true collaboration would involve the “billionaires” working with teachers through the NEA and AFT, and through college departments of education.

There is a simple lesson from operations management that “if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and must be replaced or reinvented. The one thing of which we can be sure is that the outcomes produced through the initiatives of our “billionaires” have been no more acceptable than the outcomes produced by far too many of our public schools. Our best chance of success is when the business community, even through retired consultants like this author, and professional teachers work together.

The irony is that the outcomes from the charter schools promoted by our billionaire reformers are rarely any more acceptable than those from the public schools the charters were intended to replace. And, why should we be surprised at this? With rare exceptions the charter schools rely on the same obsolete education process as public and most private schools. When are we going to admit that putting different teachers into different classrooms while using the same process will never produce the outcomes we need.

I invite the reader to check out my model and white paper to see how professional teachers, parents, and students can utilize the tools of the 21st Century to transform public education in America. Once we put talented professionals in an environment that is tasked, structured, and resourced to produce the outcomes we want, success is always within our reach.

Every Kid Needs a Favorite Teacher, Even in the Age of Digital Learning

Most of the people reading these words can recall a favorite teacher. If we are lucky, we may have had two, three, or more. However many, these special men and women played an important part in our development and academic success. With the spread of both digital learning and personalized learning, it is imperative that we clarify that the relationships between teachers and students, must always be at the core of academic success.

Relationships are everything in both public education and private, but it is also necessary that teachers have at their disposal and are trained to utilize, fully, the latest in instructional technology. No matter how good a farmer might be in plowing behind a team of beautiful horses or how much such a sight may stir the purist’s heart, their production will never approach that of farmers using the latest agricultural technology.

The impact made by our favorite teachers is the best way to illustrate the importance of the relationship between teachers and students and how powerful those relationships can be, even in the age of digital and personalized learning.

What did our favorite teachers do differently than the others who clutter our memory? Our favorite teachers treated us as if we were special. They liked us and they listened to us and they made us feel important. They believed in us and held out ever higher expectations, challenging us to push beyond our comfort zones, knowing they were close by to help us if we stumbled. They cheered us on and helped us celebrate each of the victories we worked so hard to achieve. They also smiled at us and it was genuine, heart-felt smile that made us glow. They treated us with respect, they trusted us; they wanted us to be the absolute best that we could be. They let us make mistakes without fear of consequences and taught us that mistakes are learning opportunities and the building blocks of knowledge and wisdom. They made learning fun and taught us that learning is a great adventure. We owe a great deal to these special men and women.

For children, relationships are everything. Relationships with their parents, siblings, extended family are vital to the healthy development of children. As their world expands to daycare, nursery schools, head start programs, or regular schools, relationships continue to be the most important ingredient in their ongoing growth and development. Whether their social skills, psychological and emotional development, or formal learning, kids need to feel safe and secure and they need to feel that the people with whom they interact care about them. Security builds confidence, and confidence builds motivation, and motivation leads to success, whatever the level to which we aspire.

The relationship between teachers and students is one of the two most important variables in the formula for academic success and this is true throughout a child’s thirteen years of school. As children get older and must learn to deal with temptations of peer pressure, solid relationships with teachers become more important, not less.

The other is vital variable is the support and commitment of parents. Parents, particularly those of disadvantaged kids, are suspicious because many of their own experiences with schools and teachers were negative. Most of them must be won over, but that won’t happen until teachers are able to demonstrate, in very real ways, that they are having a positive impact on the child.

If the reader has doubts about the importance of parental support and commitment, consider disadvantaged students who excel in spite of the incredible disadvantages they face. What is different about these success stories?

Almost always, when a disadvantaged child excels in school it is because of a parent or guardian who somehow clings to hope that an education will provide a way out for their children. These parents are ferocious in their commitment to make sure the child is motivated to learn and is working hard to learn. These mothers, fathers, grandparents or other guardians are fully prepared to seize their child’s teacher by the throat, figuratively of course, if they think their son or daughter is being treated unfairly or if the teacher is not giving their child the best effort of which they are capable. In these uncommon but almost miraculous success stories, it is the powerful parental commitment that is the difference maker. Without that parental commitment disadvantaged children fail, routinely.

It is only after their son or daughter begins to come home, every afternoon, bubbling about how much he or she loves their teacher that the parents are curious enough to want to learn what is happening. The same is true as parents begin to see their child enjoy success at school and be excited about the new things they have learned. Winning is contagious, even for those sitting on the sidelines. Teachers must be prepared to seize these opportunities to pull parents into partnership.

All educators know these things to be true, and many of you who are reading these words are nodding your head in agreement. What I want the reader to understand, however, is that the current education process is not structured to support and encourage teachers to reach out to parents. It is not an expectation held out for teachers and it is not something for which teachers are held accountable.

If these relationships are as vital as we believe them to be, then working to develop them must be at the top of every educator’s priority list. The reader is invited to read my education model and white paper to see how these expectations and the utilization of personalized learning are integral and interdependent components of a new education process.