More of a Good Thing: School As a Stabilizing Force

I always say that the best part of my work at NCTL is when I visit schools. There is no better feeling—for me, anyhow—than to walk into a school and see students and teachers engaged in active learning. Those moments when you can see kids’ gears turning, when you sense that everyone in the room wants to do their best, is what those of us who advocate for stronger schools imagine is our core objective. In the day-to-day debates about what might be the “right” ways to educate children and what conditions are necessary to ensure optimal teaching and learning, the noise of dissention and competing agendas often drowns out what really matters. And it is what is taking place in these classrooms that is the ultimate measure of success.

I must admit, though, that school visits sometimes produce a converse effect instead, situations where it can be jarring coming to grips with just how steep the hill is to achieve quality teaching and learning. Certainly, this was my experience this past week during my visit to a school in Lawrence, Mass., a school that serves an overwhelmingly poor student body. The most profound moment came when I listened in on a discussion among eighth-grade teachers about the various challenges that certain students were dealing with and the steps the teachers would take to help resolve these challenges. For the sake of students’ privacy, I won’t give too much detail, but suffice it to say that of the students that were discussed while I was in the room, one faced a severe medical issue—the school nurse spoke directly to the teachers in this case—another was teetering on the brink of homelessness, and another exhibited severe behavior problems.

As I sat there and tried to take in all that the students (and, in turn, their teachers) had to manage on a daily basis, the inevitable question arose in my mind: “How can these children who have so much stacked against them be expected to learn anything or their teachers to reach them?”  Imagine a child who does not know for sure where she will be living the next day trying to focus on interpreting a poem by Langston Hughes or understanding different types of heat energy or reducing fractions. These academic pursuits—even as they constitute the foundation of skills and knowledge one needs to navigate through the modern world—seem like luxuries compared with what is likely occupying the minds of these youngsters.

And, yet, it also occurred to me that the true dynamic can be quite the opposite. For children whose lives are ruptured by forces outside their control, school can be the most secure and functional thing they know. Not only are they generally safe inside the walls of the school, but, equally important, they can also find a sense of self-worth. Having the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do in the context of class can give them the locus of influence that they lack outside of school.

Within the painful circumstances that are many children’s lives, an expanded schedule is thus vital for two reasons. First, the more time they spend in the safe and supportive confines of school, the less time they will have to deal with the uncertainty that disrupts the rest of their lives. Second, for children who have to overcome such enormous challenges to their physical or mental health, the act of learning simply takes longer.

So, I guess what might be so heartening to me as I walk through classrooms that have uplifted the lives (and, we hope, prospects) of their students who confront so many out-of-school challenges is actually nothing compared to how good it makes the students themselves feel.  And this might be why you’ll often find students in expanded-time schools say simply, “More please.”