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Creating a School With Soul
Richard Njus (email@example.com)
Deerfield Elementary School, Novi Community School District
“We need to ask ourselves why we became educators. What do we want for our students? Do we want them to be efficient test takers or do we want them to be filled with the wonder of learning?”
When parents send their children off to kindergarten they hope that they will be safe, instilled with the joy of learning and a sense of wonder, made to smile and laugh each day, fueled with a desire to explore the world, and that their creativity will be sparked. Although each child comes to school with different needs, the reality is that we continue to put all learners in the same box for learning as if all students are the same. We are told to judge all students by the same standards or testing procedures, which restricts the learner and impedes learning for a large proportion of our students. We grade our students’ and schools’ success by the score of a test given once each year and by our rating on government-mandated guidelines.
We need to ask ourselves why we became educators. What do we want for our students? Do we want them to be efficient test takers or do we want them to be filled with the wonder of learning? I believe that most teachers want the same for our students that a parent wants for their children: an education for the whole child where each child is provided the tools to reach his or her full potential. As educators, we have to say, “No! I am not accountable to the people who mandate the high risk test; I am accountable to the kids.” In short, we need to create schools with soul.
A school with soul is one where staff members work from the heart and keep the whole child at the center of the educational program. It is a school that educates minds and touches hearts. As Mary Pipher (1996, 87) puts it,
Children need to believe that the world is an interesting and safe place. The relationship between children and their teachers isn’t incidental, but rather is the central component of their learning. Human development occurs within the context of real relationships. We learn from whom we love.
In my 35 years experience in education, 30 of them as an elementary principal, I have found that the culture for learning that we create in a school and the connections teachers make with students are critical for the success of a school and its teachers. What makes a school with soul different from other schools is illustrated in an email one of my staff received from the parent of a former student:
The level of care and support from John’s [name changed] teachers in his [current] school is nowhere near what you and other Deerfield teachers have. I am amazed that in the same school district, the gap can be this significant.
Of the four schools where I was the principal, two were new schools. The two de novo experiences are almost a case study in what is most important in the creation of an educational environment where students thrive academically, socially, physically, and spiritually. Most of my comments in this article relate to the last school I opened, Deerfield, a magnet school in Novi, MI, north of Detroit in 2000. Deerfield illustrates what a community can do when head and heart work in tandem.
Deerfield was the culmination of two years of preparation by a district cadre of administrators, teachers, parents, and an outside facilitator. Our intent was to take the strategies from research on best practices in teaching and learning and develop a school that met the learning styles, interests, and needs of all children. The cadre wanted to create a school that truly prepared students to take their places as whole persons in our global society.
Their mandate was to review research, primarily the Carnegie Foundation’s Basic School program, visit successful schools, and create a program for Deerfield. The school program and design were very unique. Deerfield’s program is built on a continuous progress model in a multi-age setting. Continuous progress looks at teaching and learning as a seamless progression at the student’s own learning rate and pace — not the traditional standardized curriculum for all students at each grade level. Our school is designed in four K–4 multi-age houses with 120 students in each house. The educational program was based on the four themes of the Basic School: School as Community, Curriculum with Coherence, Climate for Learning, and Commitment to Character.
Yes, the design of the building and program make our school unique, but the real difference in the school is the culture that staff in partnership with parents created. The reason for “John’s” mother’s amazement in the significant difference in schools in the same school district was the underlying care and love that staff surrounded each student within their learning experience at Deerfield.
Creating a Soulful Culture
How does one create a school culture with such richness? First, one has to look at education and the role of educators differently. When we went to college we were taught that if we filled our students’ minds with knowledge and skills they would be successful. Education was a simple matter: Open mind, insert information. We need to rethink that understanding of education. The root meaning of the word education is not to fill up the students with information, but draw out something that the student already holds within. Education should be discovery. Children are born with the gift of discovery and wonder, but in traditional, government-mandated, test-driven education we insist so much on performing up to someone else’s expectations that children soon lose their sense of wonder. In contrast, in a school with soul one tries to help students reach deep into their souls and reclaim the joy of learning.
We must always remember that we are not just educating minds; we are also touching the heart, the source of will, emotion, thoughts, and affection. The heart is the center of the whole person — intellect and body. It is the center of passion and love. We must help students better understand themselves. The avenue to learning is from the heart to the head. The culture of the school is the key factor in a school with soul. In my book, Touching Hearts, Educating Minds (Njus 2009, 99), I defined culture as “the living core that runs through an organization; those values and beliefs that don’t change.” The emotional connection of teachers with students is one of the core values of a school with soul. Parker Palmer (2007, 248) said, “What we teach will never take unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teacher.”
A teacher creates the climate in the classroom. One of the most important decisions for one’s child each year is who his or her teacher will be. The teacher sets the tone for learning: Will it be a joyous place? Will it be a challenge to excel without causing frustration? Will one’s child be instilled with an excitement for the joy of learning? Will one’s child have the freedom to express themselves and reach full potential? We must hire teachers who realize the importance of their vocation, who love kids. If teachers truly love their students, they would do everything in their power to make sure that they learn and grow.
Student success should be judged not by test scores and grades, but by their success in life. Education is all about building a life — mind, body, and soul. Teachers who think this way connect in a rich way with their students and have a major impact on their lives. Therapist and author Chris Crutcher (2001) said,
In all the years I worked fulltime as a therapist, I don’t remember a kid over the age of nine or ten who didn’t have a teacher in his life who had saved him.
Teachers who connect with their students help create a school with soul. They save kids and help them realize their fullest potential.
Creating a School with Soul
So how does one create a school with soul? A soul culture has to be built on attitude and trust. It is a process. It takes three years to create a culture and six years to realize flow. Deerfield started with the development of a mission statement and a commitment to the joy of learning. To create a soulful culture, staff members need to spend time together. When staff were assigned to Deerfield six months before it opened, we began to meet to talk about the school, to create teams, and begin the process of training and developing our program. We met at least once a month. One of the most heartwarming and effective things we did to help us get to know each other and bring us together was having each staff member share his or her story. Most people do not have the opportunity to share their stories. Teaching is often an isolating career. We had teachers who had teamed for ten or more years together learn new things about each other. We laughed and cried together.
The summer before our school opened the school district arranged for us to spend three weeks together to prepare for the opening. We did a lot of program training and curriculum and staff development. We created personal profiles to help staff better understand themselves and each other. They also helped us realize how we need each other, that our combined talents make us better. We defined how we would work together and our decision-making process. Through the years we have begun holding our meetings in a Circle of Trust. We sit in a circle with nothing between us but open space, which helps create an opportunity for everyone to share, for everyone to be heard, and for us to reach the best decisions possible.
This concept of the Circle of Trust extends beyond staff training into the very fabric of the classroom and school. The eight guiding principles of the Circle are the very core of how students and staff relate to each in the school.
- Come with the whole self. This means being fully present. How many times do we talk to someone and they seem to be somewhere else? It means looking, listening, and being attentive.
- Presume and extend welcome. Help others feel they are valued members of the group. Give affirmation.
- The Way: Listen, not invasions; Opportunity, not demand. It is an invitation to take part in the conversation, not an invasion of the person’s space or a demand that one take part. No one has to speak. You are offered the right to speak, but you may simply pass.
- Listen with the “soft eyes” of compassion not judgment. Soft eyes are thinking the best of the speaker. Von Goethe (n.d.) put it this way: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.”
- Deep confidentiality. What is said in the group stays in the group, which gives participants confidence that they can speak their truth freely. One cannot ever talk about what is said in the group unless the person who spoke brings it up.
- When things get difficult, turn to wonder. We do not always have the answers. We sometimes have to live in the question.
- No fixing! No saving! It is not our responsibility to set people straight. We are to help everyone pull what they want and need to learn from deep inside their core. It lets one realize their own need to change and learn from within. Change is much more effective when we change because we see the need rather than being forced by someone else.
- Assume best intent. Everyone sees life through a different lens, from different perspectives. It is accepting our differences as something positive rather than negative, and valuing the views of others.
When the staff embraces these simple rules for working together, when they model it, and when it is integrated into the classroom and becomes an attribute of the school culture, the school is well on its way to genuine soulfulness. The eight principles result in an openness to learn that increases engagement in learning. Staff and students become better listeners, and adults and students both feel freer to express themselves. Many more ideas and different perspectives arise from the discussions and the sense of accomplishment is almost palpable.
Our program was developed around a strong emphasis on character and high expectations for students. Monthly assemblies are held to develop our school culture and the attributes of character. We emphasize the celebration of diversity and understanding of our cultural differences by integrating them in our daily instruction. Every year we hold an international festival with all our families to celebrate the diverse cultures represented in our school. We center our program and discipline on our school pledge, Deerfield Explorers are caring responsible community members who respect themselves, others, and their environment.
We also engage our students in quality service learning activities.
Through the years we have enhanced our program with student-led conferences, student-created character assemblies and a buddy system between older and younger students. We also established programs to help students better understand themselves, such as personal profiles, the study of multiple intelligences, and the adoption of the Making Meaning program, which emphasizes comprehension, diversity, and character.
To create a school with soul, leadership is extremely important. The leader sets the tone for the school and waves the flag of the vision. Think of the greatest leaders in history. Why did people follow them? Passion. I remember that when I met with 60 teachers who were considering applying to open the new school, they wanted to know more about who I was than what the school was going to be. They wanted to feel comfortable that I would support them in the risky undertaking of opening a new school.
All the passion and effort has paid off for Deerfield school. We have great test scores; we have the highest state and federal ratings that schools can receive; we have extremely high parent approval; and, most of all, we have students who are excelling not only in academics but also in their personal growth. A parent whose children had been out of our school for a few years told me that he can identify the teenage children in his neighborhood who attended our school by how they are performing in school and by the character they display in the community. Can the Deerfield experience be replicated anywhere? Without a doubt. There are pockets of soulful schools around the country and world. We don’t have to think about changing the whole system; we just have to work to change our little piece of the system. Twenty years ago some graffiti on a piece of the Berlin Wall was said to have read: “Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” If we all do our part, we can change our schools. Our challenge is to dedicate ourselves to creating soulful schools that truly touch hearts and educate minds.
RICHARD L. NJUS has been an elementary principal for 30 years. He has worked with the U.S./China Center at Michigan State University on numerous projects, including the creation of a school in Beijing. He is the author of Touching Hearts, Educating Minds.
Crutcher, Chris. 2001. Whale talk. New York: Harper Collins.
Njus, Richard. 2009. Touching hearts, Educating minds. Mustang, OK: Tate.
Palmer, Parker. 2007. The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Piper, Mary. 1996. The shelter of each other. New York: Random House.
Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. n.d. Cited online at www.quotationspage.com/quote/36860.htm