What would you expect to hear from a would-be superintendent if you asked him what he wants to change in the public school system? Smaller classes? Stronger academics? Improved test scores? These are often the words we hear proclaimed when discussing school improvement, so I was surprised and delighted by the answer from one superintendent candidate in my local school system — an answer seemingly straight out of Positive Psychology. He said he would like to replicate two initiatives he started in the large city school district he currently manages: a one-to-one adult to child connection and an expansion of both sports and arts. These strike me as positive interventions.
Adult-Child RelationshipsPeople like Bertrice Berry, author of When Love Calls, You Better Answer: A Novel know the difference one caring adult can make to a teen’s school experience.
When Bertrice spoke to over 500 women at the Massachusetts Conference for Women last year she said she had been an adolescent “with an attitude,” when a teacher turned her attitude around, insisting that she was capable of going to college and challenging her to do better at each step along the way. To top it off, in an event that students of Hope Theory and goal-setting will appreciate, the day Bertrice’s application arrived at Jacksonville University a donor called seeking to finance a deserving student’s education! Guess who got the financing?
George Vaillant notes in his book, Adaptation to Life, that some of the Harvard men (studied over their lifetimes) with miserable childhoods fared better as adults than others from more fortunate socio-economic backgrounds. One distinguishing factor– for the healthiest– was a nurturing adult relationship in childhood. Not every child is so lucky within his family, but imagine if someone in the school– where she spends nearly half her waking hours– establishes a direct nurturing connection with her and this occurs year after year. Might that make the difference that it did for Bertrice?
Expanding Arts and Sports
Arts and sports programs often end up on the chopping block when a school feels a financial pinch. Art and music rooms give way to regular classrooms, sport teams are limited and fees added. The trade-off is clear: math, science, language, literature, and history take precedence over the “extras.”
Until recently, I thought it was hard to argue with that logic, but consider this: Mike Csikszentmihalyi says that most kids today don’t have enough challenge– or resulting joy– in their lives. Sports and arts are two areas where children can express and challenge themselves, to get relief from what too many find to be the tedium of academics. How sad then, to limit the opportunities and how wonderful to find an academic leader like the candidate I interviewed who recognizes the importance of expanding these opportunities.
I thought about this over the weekend as I traveled with my husband and daughter on a college visit road-trip. I found inspiration in an unlikely place: Waterloo, New York. The Holiday Inn displays historic memorabilia from the area and one of the historic items is a wall plaque with a photo of enterprising high school girls at Mynderse Academy in 1924.
They chose to challenge themselves. Having never played basketball before, they went to school administrators and asked to form a team. According to the press, they had three winning seasons before their teacher/coach moved on. They had no subs… no try-outs… no cuts… no one warmed the bench!
What if it could be that easy for every teen who wanted to play a sport?
I still remember that awful, sinking feeling in seventh grade when my name wasn’t on the final team list. I didn’t make the cut. This followed a similar feeling in the fall, when the field hockey list was posted, and was followed by another round with the spring lacrosse list. What possessed me to put myself through it again in eighth grade is beyond me. All I remember of that time is that I loved basketball and wanted to be on the team.
Unfortunately, unlike kids today, I had never picked up a basketball before seventh grade gym class, and my parents had no interest in team sports so I was on my own to learn the game. Crushing disappointment struck again in eighth grade, but for some unfathomable reason, I still loved the game and finally in ninth grade my name was on the varsity roster. While my primary position was bench-warmer, it was still a daily thrill to practice and play a sport I loved.
Looking back many years later, it is clear that both sports and the arts are life-long activities. While some might question that claim for basketball, two years ago a group of us in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, formed a pick-up group and we continue to play weekly.
I hope someday to be playing “Granny Basketball.”
My hope, optimism, and gratitude were boosted simply by hearing about the school district with the adult-child-connection and expanding arts/sports initiatives. I am encouraged by the thought that we may be seeing the beginning of a positive shift in thinking (and action!) about what makes for a great education.
Berry, B. (2007). When Love Calls, You Better Answer. Broadway Books reprint edition.
Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of Hope : Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Vaillant, G. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.
Big brother courtesy of @Photo.