“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy
It is hard to imagine a segment of our American society in 2019 that has not been impacted by the dysfunction of our current political and social structure. Nevertheless, our inability to find unifying solutions to matters that we agree upon is an indicator of a much deeper problem that we have not begun to understand. Sadly, these issues are magnified in the public education system in America. I am sure we have all heard the adage derived from the writings of Thomas Reid, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Unfortunately, today the strength of character of the individual educator is the “weakest link” and is often overshadowed by the debate over the effectiveness of the United State’s public education system.
Collectively, we are channeling billions of dollars into innovative programs to close the growing achievement gaps between students from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, which only result in pockets of change and overall no lasting effects. We publicly claim a focus on student learning and the quality of public education, yet we are growing in our over-reliance on standardized tests and other evaluation systems that don’t accurately capture the state of student learning. We have teacher shortages across the country coupled with struggles in the recruitment and retention of effective teachers. Moreover, increasing numbers of currently employed teachers are crossing the line with students and exercising poor judgment by engaging in inappropriate relationships with students. At the same time, more students are committing suicide and carrying out mass shooting in schools while politicians and the media argue over gun control and mental health support. These problems interfere with optimal academic performance and degrade the strength and vitality of our society. So, how can we begin to solve the issues that plague our public education system?
For starters, we should be asking ourselves individually; How have I contributed to these problems? Before you stop reading let me be clear, I know that no one wants to have the finger of blame pointed at them. As I stated earlier, there are tons of people sincerely working to address these problems on a political, financial, even spiritual level, so there is enough blame to go around. What I am claiming is that we all have a responsibility to examine who we are and the content of our character. Before we can look at how public education can improve student achievement at the classroom, campus, or school system level, we have to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard of character and own up to the fact that when we don’t, it negatively impacts our students and the communities we serve. Just look at your average elementary teacher. She has the responsibility to make hundreds even thousands of decisions every day that will, in the long-term, impact the lives of hundreds of students. As such, we can’t lose sight of how her character, in addition to her professional knowledge and skill, will help her accurately diagnose students’ instructional needs and adequately utilize the resources and strategies available. Principals have the added responsibility as the instructional leader, to ensure that teachers have the resources, professional learning experiences, and collective vision for all staff to do their best work. With these weighty charges on the shoulders of a collective few, it is imperative that each educator has the highest moral character and is more cognizant of how their values and integrity impact the broader system.
To this end, the more that teachers and teacher leaders enlist the courage to address their responsibilities and personal character, the more likely it is that more campuses and school systems will be able to take a different approach to mitigate the problems public education faces today. The individual in education makes all of the difference in the world!