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School board retreat hears advice: Focus on engagement

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

CHAPEL HILL — It’s all in how you look at it, according to the Schlechty Center. On Saturday morning, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, Rowan-Salisbury teacher representatives and representatives from the Alvin Independent School District in Alvin, Texas, spent some time thinking about how they approached their roles as educators.

The discussion and session, the last of the board’s three-day retreat in Chapel Hill, was facilitated by George Thompson, president of the Schelchty Center, a non-profit that focuses on thought and design systems in education.

“One of the problems that we have is an organizational problem,” Thompson said.

Currently, educational systems are almost solely focused on compliance, when they should be focused on engagement.

Schools need to be places where students are engaged and learning, and teachers are empowered and excited, Thompson said. And while schools are slowly moving away from a factory mentality — with desks in rows and a teacher as the sole source of knowledge at the front of a classroom — some things still linger.

“We still have the language of the factory still with us,” Thompson said.

It haunts schools in words like “monitor” and “supervisor.” And it lingers in the way educators approach their jobs — a principal, for example, may sometimes feel more like a prison warden than an educator. And sticking strictly to rules and regulations, as one would do in a factory model, isn’t always best — it can prevent teachers from flourishing and showing off their true talents.

While compliance is necessary, Thompson said, schools should also focus on the engagement of students and teachers. If lessons and schools are engaging, students are more likely to learn, and teachers are more likely to be happy.

After the short introduction, teachers and board members broke off into mixed groups to discuss what it would take to turn the system’s focus from meeting standards and passing tests to ensuring that students were engaged.

Board member Travis Allen spoke of the difference in classes that a student may need for the future and those that were required, such as higher-level math courses. While it’s important for children to have the basics down, oftentimes anything beyond that falls on deaf ears.

“If I’m not a chemist or an architect, when am I ever going to use calculus?” he asked.

It’s not something the local school board can control, he said, but it’s something to consider.

Moody said that while teachers designing engaging work may be the goal, “it’s not as simple as it sounds.” It takes a great deal of time and effort. But there has been progress.

One way Rowan-Salisbury teachers have been working towards making lessons engaging is through the use of problem based learning puzzles — activities that encourage students to solve real-world problems. In the process, they’re forced to draw upon math, language and science skills. If a student has to create, think through and then present their findings, they often show more mastery of a subject than would be revealed by any other measure.

“That’s more accountable than a test,” she said.

Lynda Hunter, a teacher at Millbridge Elementary, said that she thought teachers feel pressured to teach the standard, and don’t think they have the time to do a problem based learning activity.

“I think teachers are afraid of the test score,” she said.

Hunter said that last year she taught her students with a goal for them to master a subject, instead of focusing on all the standards. While standards help give teachers a road map, if they just teach the standard they may be “missing big huge holes” in students’ understanding.

“If a child can’t add and subtract basic numbers, why are we trying to get them to divide?” she said.

Hunter did not manage to check off all of the standards for her students last year, but said her class still out-performed their peers when test season arrived. She also added that some of the school systems tools, like Achieve3000, did not work well with some of her students.

Allen wondered how the system could give teachers the opportunity to use their personality and individuality to teach students, without overburdening them. Hunter said she found it helpful to work with students in smaller groups and to focus on growth instead of proficiency.

“When I stand up at the front of the room and teach my kids, I lose 75 percent of them,” she said.

After some more discussion, the group decided that perhaps the best thing to engage students was to give teachers more freedom and flexibility to use the tools available to them. Moody said they needed to start thinking about not only what works for students as individuals, but also what works for teachers as individuals.

“There’s no one size fits all on anything that we do,” she said.

For Rowan-Salisbury Schools, it looks as though change will take two things, Moody and Thompson said: more tools, and more trust.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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