An adapted version of this article by Richard Stopol, former President and CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools, appeared in The 74.
Earlier this year I retired as the President & CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools after 34 years in that role. During that time, I worked with and saw firsthand hundreds of schools, serving students of every conceivable background. Many of those interactions were uplifting and tremendously affirming, while others were dispiriting. All, however, were enlightening and helped to illuminate for me a set of lessons about what it takes to create and sustain successful public schools.
Taken together, these lessons provide a recipe of sorts for educators, policymakers and everyone else who is concerned about the state of public education in our country; those who seek to ensure that our public schools are up to the task with which they are charged – supporting the learning, development and well-being of all children, regardless of background or circumstance, so that they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and mindsets to achieve success in the workplace and become active, contributing members of their communities.
Here are those lessons:
Always Putting Students at the Center
I have a colleague who is fond of a quote he heard from a superintendent he worked with: “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.” In education, of course, the students are the main thing, and our primary focus should always be on attending to their full range of needs. Successful schools take a whole child approach, recognizing that young people’s intellectual and social-emotional development are equally important and intertwined. They understand that helping their students develop qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, integrity, empathy and compassion is not only an essential function of schooling but that doing so will translate into better performance in the classroom. And they focus, laser-like, on ensuring that they know each child in their care well so that they can properly calibrate the kinds of support they require in both the academic and social-emotional realms.
But, given all the administrative, operational and logistical tasks associated with running schools, many struggle to maintain this focus, losing sight of the main thing. When this happens, I have found that a surefire way of staying on track is to keep asking this simple question: “What does this conversation have to do with our students?” It’s remarkable how grounding and centering that question can be. Schools would do well to make it their mantra and invoke it with regularity.
Keeping Expectations High For All Students
This is a corollary to putting students at the center, and once again, while it seems both obvious and necessary, I have found that it is too often honored in the breach. Virtually everyone in education gives it lip service, but sadly there are many who don’t truly believe on a visceral level in the capability of their students, particularly when those students are Black or brown. I am reminded of the story told of Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn, a German-Jewish educator who started several schools in Europe, including Gordonstoun in Great Britain. In a conference he held with a Gordonstoun teacher about one of the school’s students, the teacher remarked: “I have no faith in that boy.” Hahn’s immediate reply was: “Then you shouldn’t be teaching him.”
Hahn had it right. It is imperative that everyone in the school community genuinely believe in every single one of their students: to recognize that they each have potential and possess gifts, and that their obligation as educators is to help unlock that potential and nurture those gifts.
On a related note, it’s time for us to strike the terms “gifted and talented” from the vocabulary of schools and cease using those terms as a way of sorting kids. If we truly believe that every child has talents waiting to be discovered and tapped into, we are both undermining that belief and sending a harmful message when we use those terms with respect to some students and not others.
Building School Communities of Trust and Belonging
Trust is the foundation upon which good schools are built. Indeed, my experience, confirmed by research studies, has demonstrated that good schools simply are not possible without high levels of trust – between students and adults as well as among students and adults themselves. Trust is a prerequisite for the kind of trial and error, risk-taking and vulnerability that learning often demands. And without it, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for even the most well-designed curriculum and instructional program to gain traction.
Building a culture of trust is not something that just happens. It needs to be intentionally and actively cultivated, and an essential element in fostering it involves establishing a sense of belonging that is felt by every student in the school community. This involves creating a school-wide ethos (to quote Hahn once again) of: “We are crew, not passengers,” where everyone takes care of and looks after one another. It also means providing students with regular opportunities to have their voices heard, and ensuring that students of all backgrounds are able to see themselves represented in a curriculum that is culturally sensitive and responsive.
Those schools looking to kickstart a culture rooted in trust and belonging should strongly consider implementing an advisory structure, or, even better, what we at NYC Outward Bound Schools call “Crew.” Crew is our supercharged version of advisory, which brings together small groups of students and an adult advisor, ideally on a daily basis, for community-building and other activities. Crew has proven to be a particularly effective vehicle for helping students to be seen, welcomed and affirmed, with many students describing it as being akin to a second family.
Connecting Learning to the Real World
For too many students, school is a place of rote activity where what they learn has no obvious connection or application to their lives and the issues that concern them. I believe the best way to remedy this is through a project-based learning approach that engages students in the authentic and purposeful study of real-world issues that matter to them and their communities, and calls upon them to apply what they are learning as they investigate and consider responses to those issues.
Climate change, immigration, criminal justice reform, gun violence and gentrification are among the many issues I’ve seen students explore over the years. And one of the things I’ve been most struck by is the quality and rigor of the student work these projects have yielded. They are not just studying history, science, math, and literature abstractly, but are instead becoming historians, scientists, mathematicians, and avid readers who are deeply invested in these topics, while breaking down the walls between the classroom and world that exists outside of them.
Honoring Teachers as Professionals
We entrust our children to teachers, asking them to bring all of their expertise along with their full devotion in attending to the needs of every student in their care. And yet, we often fail to give teachers, and the teaching profession, the respect and support they need and deserve.
The paradigmatic experience for teachers is to be placed at the head of a classroom behind closed doors and asked to deliver a series of lessons, with little if any opportunity to observe and learn from their colleagues. And when they do, it’s frequently on administrative matters that don’t directly impact the content or quality of their teaching.
Breaking down this paradigm is not only possible, it’s necessary. I’ve seen time and time again how teachers, and by extension, good teaching, can flourish when they are given regular opportunities to collaborate in planning and critiquing lessons and review student progress as well as visit each other’s classrooms. I’ve also seen the tremendous benefits of professional development that puts a premium on content and skills that can be applied in the classroom and that translate into enhanced learning for their students.
The vast majority of teachers are hungry for more opportunities for learning and growth. We owe it to them and to their students to feed that hunger by making investments of time and other resources that make professional learning and collaboration central to the teaching experience.
Supporting and Empowering Principals
It is perhaps too simplistic an observation, but one that is nevertheless a truism: successful schools cannot exist without strong, effective leadership. In fact, I’d point to the nature and quality of principal leadership, more than any other factor, as the key determinant of school success. It is the principal who sets the tone and establishes the culture, decides how resources are utilized, and who is constantly sending messages about what is valued and what isn’t in connection with curriculum, instruction and all things school-related.
It’s important to note that principal leadership need not be a solo act. The most successful principals I’ve seen are the ones who have learned how to distribute leadership – to harness the power of and tap into the expertise of teachers in informing and making decisions. They also make room for students to provide their perspective, and they view parents and other family members as true partners in their children’s education, making them feel welcome by actively soliciting their inputs.
But it’s also important to understand that at the end of the day it is the principal who, no matter how collaborative or inclusive their leadership style is, has the most influence on, along with the accountability, for what happens in schools. Recognizing this, it is crucial that principals, as much as teachers, be given opportunities for professional learning and collaboration with colleagues that can help them better serve their students. It is equally essential that principals, much like the CEOs of companies, be given full autonomy to run their schools, and that their jobs be structured so that they are able to spend the great bulk of their time on matters related to teaching, learning and students, rather than being mired in the administrivia that so burdens the typical principal these days. That should be the quid pro quo for holding them accountable for what goes on in their schools.
By lifting up these half-dozen lessons, I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve provided a complete playbook for achieving school success. There are a number of other lessons that schools can and should incorporate into their practices and cultures. But based on my experience of the past three and a half decades, I can say with considerable confidence that by heeding the six core lessons I’ve put forward, schools can realize the promise we seek to uphold through our public education system – of ensuring that all of our children, regardless of income and no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other form of identity, are prepared for meaningful, productive lives in which they can compete economically and contribute civically.