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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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Andre' Layral's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading Tony's vision. Whether it be teachers or employers, the dispositions they want most in students and employees are the soft skills that are precursors to successful relationships and personal success.

The myraid personal visions of parents, school staff and community leaders form school vision. Just as adults know what they value and want for students, students know what they value and want from the adults in their lives. So why is it so hard to create a school climate that makes this possible for the adults who work in schools and the students who spend much of their time in schools? The visioning process involves taking the many individual visions held by parents, teachers, students, and community and molding these into a compelling vision of the school the group would like it to become.

What sustains this vision is a collaborative culture where staff support give and receive support from one another, feel free to take risks and have strong personal relatuionships on a professional level. A healthy culture is critical to raising achievement.

These things we know lead to a welcoming climate for students and their families, where school is experienced as friendly, open, calm, caring and supportive. The measure of a welcoming climate is a caring environment. Schools cannot become caring places without teachers and staff who care about their students in a way that students are aware of it. Schools need to be attentive to how their students experience their school experience. While schools may not have control over may facets of children's lives, they do have control of establishing the proper classroom and school-wide learning environment. This isn't rocket science. A proper developmental setting needed for all students to thrive and succeed requires that each adult do what they can do, while working together until they are working like an orchestra together making beautiful music together. When this happens, climate improves, and achievement increases.

The foundation for a thriving school culture that leads to caring and a welcoming climate is relational trust, having others who know students well, provide care and support, and give respect unconditionally. This leads to recognition, acceptance, trust, respect, confirmation (mattering) and a positive view of one's personal future.

Structures need to be in place, as do policies and practices, that support students and ensure a sense of belonging for all students. These classroom and school-wide structures are needed to promote connectedness, ensuring all students feel recognized as unique individuals and feel supported in their personal and academic development. When students feel a sense of bonding and attachment to school and the adults who work there, an increasing body of research shows that students achieve more academic success, and engage in healthy behaviors and choices.

Finally learner centered strategies provide students with opportunities for individual and collaborative activities and projects that challenge their abilities and interests.

Thank you Tony for beginning a valued conversation.

Kirk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Accepting that the idea of a school that both deeply cares for and truly challenges its students is only a good thing, it is the details of arriving at such a culture that are unclear. What does the school/teacher/principal actually do when a student needs academic support (when and where and from whom does the student get it)?
Whats does the school/teacher/principal actually do when a student behaves in such a manner that the whole class or whole school is affected?
Are students ever kicked out or always coached toward better behavior? If always coached toward better behavior, by whom? when? where? how?
Specifically, how is such an ideal culture -- one that balances love and kindness with high expectations/standards and rigor to result in real opportunities for all kids?

Maida's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a wonderful concept, and I know it can be done. For 5 years I've worked at a middle school that focuses equally on social/emotional development and academic preparation. My goal, as Head Teacher, is to help each one of my students discover the adult they wish to become and for them to leave middle school with a well developed sense of self. People often ask me what I teach, which technically is science and math, but my answer always is that I teach life. The middle school years are the crucial years to accomplish this incredibly difficult task. It does take an incredible amount of commitment from facutly, administration and parents. It takes teachers going to horse shows, hockey games, football games, dance recitals, choir concerts and everything other extra curricular thing you can think of. Essentially, students need to know that there is an adult (other than their parents) that truly cares and is dedicated to their well being and development. This also obviously works best when their is a low student to teacher ratio as then teachers can get to know each student at a personal level. Without that strong personal relationship and knowledge, it is very difficult to succeed in this task.

Jay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with the idea of balancing students' social needs and academics. This is the reason I chose to be a middle school administrator and have stood by the middle school concept.
My question for educators and administrators... How have you been able to get ALL to buy in to caring for kids (not just black and white rules and deadlines)?

Leanne Hoagland-Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tony addresses many significant points. However from a performance perspective the question needs to be asked is if a shared vision is adopted will it alone improve performance? A shared vision must be accompanied by planning, execution and measurement (dynamic forces of performance) along with leadership, goal achievement and quality processes. Any organization must be able to consistently plan, execute and measure its actions.

I also agree that social and emotional development needs to be part of every school's curriculum especially at the middle school. The success of the social and emotional development is contingent upon how well the affective learning domain is intergrated into the curriculum. Unfortuantely, most curriculums and many teachers' action fail to develop this crucial domain.

If we could develop students (not train them) to take responsibility for their own learning and create a plan of action, I believe that this could be a significant catapult for helping young people unleash their potential and realize their hopes, dreams and goals.

Maggi Carstairs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with trying to write Collaborative Cultures, and implement them to be more than simply words, lies partly with the School Administration. Far too much is dependant on the Administrative Individual who sets the tone of the school. A caring person can create a caring school environment, and this is what is needed.

Far too often the Task is left with someone who does not have the inherent ability to work with the teachers, students and parent bodies, and the result does not follow the initial planning or Dream.
The Education System screams out for a Social and Emotional Wellbeing component, but until the teachers and leaders are secure and self confident in their own Social and Emotional Worlds, there is little they can do to promote it amongst their schools, students and staffs.

Maybe some preparation should be made with helping teachers feel more secure and self responsible first, as part of the problem actually lies with the Administration itself. Something like 'Physician heal thyself', but he has to realise he needs some healing too. Your concept is simple wonderful and there is a need for more teachers to realise their educational responsibilities towards each other, as well as towards the community they teach.

mehreen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am wondering if you are the same Mr.Bencivinga that taught in Bozeman Montana at Bozeman Sr. High. If you are I was student of yours that was greatly influenced by you and your teaching.

Amy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This truly is the key to why all educators do their job, or so I hope. What I am wondering is how you see this type of community taking place in a nontraditional school setting? I work for a virtual k-10 school. I am wondering what your thoughts are on how to create this type of environment when we do most interaction by phone or intranet?

Sasha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 100% with this article. A shared vision is key. I would like to believe that all teachers see the importance of social/emotional well-being and its correlation with academic success. In fact, don't we teach and strive for academic excellence so that students can be social/emotionally stabe individuals who contribute to the well-being of society? There must be an intentional effort put forth in cultivating the well-being of our students in order for them to be life long learners. Futhermore, along with the shared vision there must be a shared plan. There must be a plan for implementation in order for the vision to became reality.

Nancy Schubb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The concept of educating the whole child seems to go in and out of style. Yet while we are expecting ALL students to learn at the same rate/level (a la NCLB) we are certainly NOT taking into consideration that all students come from different social, economic and developmental places. We can no longer expect teachers to do MORE. What needs to happen is MORE SCHOOL COUNSELORS. School counselors not only remove the barriers to learning, they teach life skills for academic, personal/social and career success.

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