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A Shared Vision: Reading Parents' Minds

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How do we begin to create a school culture that values social and emotional well-being while promoting academic success? I believe it starts with a shared vision. If the fundamental vision is that of caring for children, then their academic success follows. But academic skill and achievement cannot exist alone. It is a part of balance in which everyone -- students, parents, teachers, administrators, boards of education, and community stakeholders -- has a role.

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Bencivenga

This may not be the most popular or accepted vision, or the simplest and easiest to create and implement, but it is a vision all leaders and practitioners need. It is a meaningful, practical, and essential approach that can become the basis for the academic success of students and a profound force in nurturing and unifying all members of a school community.

So, how do we do it? First of all, it takes a relentless commitment on everyone's part. Let's start with parents. Each spring at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, we held a meeting with the parents of fifth graders (soon to be the parents of incoming sixth graders). Keep in mind that we were a grade 6-8 middle school. I would begin by asking parents a question: "As you look ahead to the next three years, what three things do you wish most for your children?"

Each year, I would "read their minds," and tell them what I thought they were thinking. It was nearly always the same. Almost without exception, they would wish them good health, happiness, and a life filled with love. They did not wish for high SAT scores, at least not at the expense of their social and emotional well-being. They did not emphasize a need to prepare for high school or to get straight A's. Clearly, the parents were concerned about what kind of person their child was going to become and how the school would serve as a partner in that mission. It seemed evident to me that if those were the wishes of the parents, why should the school's vision be different?

I remember spending time following those spring meetings listening to the gracious comments (and, some concerns, as well) and encouraging words from parents. They were pleased to hear that they were about to entrust their children to educators who cared about academic achievement and social/emotional well-being. They left the school auditorium with an understanding of the vision and mission of the school, the role they would play, and the exciting nature of the programs that awaited their children at Benjamin Franklin.

From that first meeting, the parents knew our vision: We are a school community that strives to provide a joyful, supportive, and academically challenging learning environment for their children.

That first impression, which is critical for a principal and a school, was that of a synergy between social/emotional well-being and academic success. The children would have a role in their education and have some ownership of their learning. We would provide opportunities for project-based and reality-based activities in which they would create meaning and enjoy learning. We invited the parents to become partners in the synergy, share our vision, and join us in a relentless effort to make Benjamin Franklin a joyful, nurturing, and challenging home for their children. It would be the beginning of shared commitment to create the culture of our school.

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Carol Rothman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not agree with the article more, and wish all educators felt the same way. When I finished my education and started to teach I was mortified to find out how many adults that stood in front of young minds were so cruel and mean. Academic achievement and social/emotional well-being is the foundation for life long learner and that should be the mission for all educators, I know it is mine. This article should be in every teachers mailbox to help them become aware of their responsibility. Hopefully they will all buy into the
synergy between social/emotional well-being and academic success that the school provides.

Matt Butcher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ok, so once you have that shared vision -- how do you keep it up? How do you monitor it? I have the feeling that we have a shared vision but then it gets sidetracked or lost along the way. How do you pick up those pieces?

Christine Nicolosi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know Tony from taking one of his graduate classes at William Paterson last semester, and find myself in constant agreement with his ideas about education and learning. A key element in both of our educational philosophies is this notion of "a shared vision." I also agree that this may not be the most readily accepted or popular vision but perhaps it can be understood from its most basic level -- as I see it anyhow.

What is the basic goal of education? -- To educate, but educate to what end - for each individual to have personal, individual "success?" And how is that success measured - through wealth, material items, or occupation? While these assessments may ring true for many people, I believe that education needs a focus that transcends the individual and ultimately cultivates progression for humanity; the individual succeeds as a member of a community. We educate ourselves to gain worldly knowledge applicable from specific to general, family to business, and countless other situations that collectively make up our existences—but we are not separate entities, rather we are reliant members of a species who in virtually every way needs others to survive. If we accept that education of each individual should ultimately lead outward to the benefit of others, naturally it follows that we must adopt a shared, unified, and concerned responsibility as members of and participators in school communities. A shared vision is the only way to attempt harmony in the school and guarantee success in the community, both locally and globally.

James's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a really interesting piece. It definitely makes middle school a lot more appealing to hear about how much the school cares about the children. I was wondering since this post was tagged as Emotional Intelligence if the school and/or you did much with emotional intelligence testing for the children. Emotional Intelligence has been a big thing, and I was wondering if Benjamin Franklin tailored any of its teaching methodologies to different emotional intelligence aptitudes that the students have.

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