You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What Makes a Great School Great?

I work in a great school. I've mentioned this in many of my previous posts, including Come Together

It's a stretch to even say that it seems like work. There are definitely times when it is tough to get going in the morning and I certainly enjoy the holidays we are blessed to receive. I've worked in several different schools and I say with absolutely certainty that Grandview is great.

It's worth examining and I hope I can do it justice. What happens in our building really is special.

At the heart of a great school are great people. In my mind, education is about allowing children to see who they are and what they could be. Every decision that is made in a school must be made with its students' best interests in mind. Our school motto is "Parents, Students, Staff - Now That's Teamwork". I didn't make it up, but I like it because we really do live it. There will always be people who don't quite fit in, parents who mistrust the system, students who have trouble accepting the culture of how things are done, staff who do not commit themselves to the hard work it takes.

Overall, things work very nicely in our building. We have great kids. The vast majority of them have bought in to what we do. Work hard and play hard. Treat others with respect. Have fun! We don't have a long list of rules, but some things are not negotiable. As the vice principal of the school, I sometimes have to point out to children that it's not OK to play fight. Usually, they believe me and their behavior gets adjusted accordingly. If they don't "get it" the first time, then I need to spend time with them at recess. We watch the other kids, we walk, we talk and usually, they realize that play fighting is not what we do. There have been a few students who either don't get it or tell me they plain don't like that rule and those kids get to be my executive assistants. They get to do jobs inside, help with recycling, or work in my office. These kids are the exception because overall, the students who walk our halls understand their part in making Grandview a great place.

We also have amazing adults in our building. Starting with our indefatigable and overwhelmingly positive principal, Grandview is full of master teachers who care deeply about their students. Our staff is flexible and innovative. They openly embrace guest clinicians, performers and speakers. They seek out new field trips and technology to make learning come alive. These teachers understand that it's not possible to do a great job by arriving at 8:30 and leaving at 3:05 every day. Even better, they know how to work together. When they are given time to collaborate, it's all business and the business is making sure every child in our building gets the best opportunities possible.

The support staff does exactly that. They support the kids and the teachers. They do an amazing range of things and it all helps the kids in our building. Individual assistance, working with groups, tending to cuts, contacting parents, helping students with special needs participate in every activity, preparing materials and learning environments. These ladies do WAY MORE work than they need to and they do it because they enjoy it.

Much of what happens is a result of the prevailing culture in our building. In general, if people don't "get it", they leave sooner or later. I've been at Grandview for five years and we have some turnover each year. The core staff who drive the culture here have also been here for at least that long. It really is an amazing thing to be a part of.

You'll note that there is nothing in this post about achievement. We don't need an outside test or survey to tell us we are doing things right, though we do very well on those externally imposed and contrived "measures". There is nothing in this post about being a "Renaissance School" or a "Seven Habits" school. We don't need to attach any stickers or gloss on what we do. We are not a "Program of Choice" with a focus on arts/technology/languages/science etc. We have never attached the label of a "Professional Learning Community" to what we do, but if you understand what a PLC is supposed to be, you'll see that the definition applies very nicely.

We don't need labels, programs, high test scores and positive survey results. The people who spend their days in our school know it is a great place. You FEEL it the moment you walk in the building and to my knowledge, there is no way to measure a feeling like that.