Last week I discussed areas that we shouldn’t focus on when selecting a school for our children. This week, I discuss areas I believe we should pay closer attention to when investigating options.
Culture of the School/Morale
Research shows that bad school culture can lead to poor teacher morale. And poor teacher morale negatively affects student performance, while high teacher morale positively affects it. The reasons for this are relatively simple. Happy teachers are more likely to go above and beyond. They’re kinder, more encouraging, and put more into their classrooms and students. Conversely, a poor school culture can lead to low staff morale, and this can have incredibly damaging effects on students. Teachers with low morale are less likely to go above and beyond, lose their patience more easily, and burn-out. Children are smart and perceptive, and they’re way more likely to learn from someone who is excited and happy to be there. Ultimately, teachers will either give their students energy, or take energy away from their students. A good classroom should have a nice balance of these two that tips just slightly toward giving students energy. Ask a teacher what their favorite part about working at a school is, and what is their biggest challenge. Listen carefully to their answers, which are likely to be coded. If their biggest pro is that it’s close to their home, their friend works there, or they’re in it for the money (hahahahah!), that’s probably a red flag.
Student-Teacher Relationships (Secret Handshake)
In John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analysis Relating to Achievement, he basically looks at a lot of studies on a lot of studies. This research indicated that one of the most important areas for student achievement is teacher-student relationships. “It is teachers who have created positive teacher student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.” John Hattie (2009). I can attest to this being true. I’ve met some awful human beings that are teachers, and from a methods and delivery standpoint, they were good teachers. They had no interest in building relationships with students, though, and for that reason they had worse data than people thought they would. The best way to assess if teachers value relationships and are building them, is ask them what they do to build relationships. Talk to the administration to find out how they foster relationships with students. Look for signs of relationships in classrooms. Ask your child if they like their teacher-- and analyze their answers by asking specific questions. Even if they say they don’t like their teacher, you may find evidence of relationship building in their answer.
The real world doesn’t segregate knowledge. There’s never a problem in life where we sit back and say, “Well, I’m only going to need to use math to solve this!” The world requires critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis to solve problems. This is how we should be teaching content areas: with multiple subject skills necessary to think critically to solve a problem. We should also be doing this through authentic assessment regularly. Authentic assessment is basically a way of evaluating knowledge through the mirroring of a “real world” task. For example, creating a budget and purchasing groceries, balancing a checkbook (do people still do that?), designing a playground, and researching/debating. Ask the school what authentic assessments they provide, and how they build in cross-curricular activities?
Does the school offer arts programs? Do they have recess and PE? Do they have character education, cooking, music, or dance? Are there options for clubs/after school activities? Does the school remove electives for students in need of remedial coursework? These are important questions to ask so that you know what your child’s daily routine will look like.
Emergency Plans and Practice
Florida state law requires that all schools practice an emergency egress drill no less than once a month. In addition to fire drills, schools should also be practicing severe weather and assailant drills. Ask your prospective school for a list of planned dates. Most should be operating with the district’s policy. Follow-up with your child to make sure these drills are happening.
Level of Questioning
There are different levels of questions, and you want to ensure that the teacher, and the school as a whole, has an understanding of higher-level questioning. Instead of always asking simple yes or no questions, teachers should be asking questions both verbally and on tests that require students to think deeply, analyze, synthesize, and compare. This leads to higher levels of understanding and long-term memory storage.
Recess is Different than PE
Next week’s blog is all about recess being different than PE. For now, just know there is a difference, and students should be getting both at the elementary level.
Teacher Time for Planning, Researching, Developing, Meeting
Highly effective instructors are not just effective when they’re in front of students. Teachers need time to plan as individuals and as a team. They should be meeting with other instructors from that grade level, as well as those a grade below and above to ensure scope and sequence. This planning time is when teachers should be-- well no shocker here-- planning. They should be anchoring to standards and delving into data. They should be backwards planning, integrating cross curricular content, and creating authentic assessments. Ask your teachers how much planning time they get as individuals and as teams. Ask them if they get this full amount of time as scheduled regularly. It’s not uncommon for teachers to lose parts of their planning in an organization, and this robs students of needed benefits. It also burns out teachers, and this has a huge impact on morale. As I’m sure you’re starting to see, a lot of it is really all tied together.
Accessibility of Teachers and Administrators for Communication
In a recent search for our son, I emailed and called a school administrator with no contact back. None. I decided I didn’t want my son at a school where no one would bother to get back to me, so I moved on to the next one. I emailed them and never heard back. Third time’s the charm, right? I went to a third public school. I emailed and waited a week. I called to ensure I had the right email address (I did). I also left a voicemail. A week later I emailed again and referenced my previous email and phone message. That was over two weeks ago and I still haven’t heard back. Now I’ve CCd the superintendent of the district on my third email. I just wanted a tour. This is not ok, and we all deserve way more.
Like I’ve discussed before, choosing a school can be emotionally and physically exhausting. The stakes seem so high, and that’s because they are. You’re giving this building the most important thing in the world to you and asking them to help you raise it. You deserve the best fit for you and your child, and I hope this list can provide some guidance. Check back next week for part 3 in our Evaluating Schools Series- “Recess is Different than PE”.