April 7, 2009

Are You a Leader?

My friend, Marie, isn’t afraid to try the unexpected. Two years ago, she left her position as a well-respected principal at a “nice” school to return to the classroom. Not only that, she chose to bid into one of the more “at-risk” schools in the city. And she enjoyed a wonderful first year back, teaching a fourth-fifth grade split.

In the middle of that year, Marie and Kelly, another 4/5-split teacher, attended some of their students’ basketball games. And they were struck by how different the group dynamics were among the kids when it was just boys or just girls, as opposed to how things were in their classrooms.

From that simple observation grew the seed of an idea: What if they could divide the students by gender? Could that take away some of the distractions that plagued all the students during the day? Could it introduce some of the positive interactions from the basketball court into the classroom?

Of course, before they could even draft a proposal, they did their homework, discovering strong data to support the idea that creating single-gender classrooms is one of the most effective intervention techniques for kids in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades – particularly in at-risk schools. Heartened by this knowledge, they surveyed students and parents and got a positive response, especially from the students. The concept intrigued their principal, who then went to bat for the idea with district administrators. And, despite the administrators’ initial hesitation, Kelly and Marie were given the green light to try it out.

So this year, Kelly has had a class of fourth and fifth grade girls, while Marie has taken the boys. And – because they’ve been able to adjust their teaching methods to more accurately match their learners’ brains and hearts – they’ve seen amazing results. Among other things, the kids in each classroom have been more engaged in all their schoolwork, asking more questions when they don’t understand and spending much more time on-task than before. Marie has seen marked improvement in many boys’ reading levels, and Kelly has witnessed the extinction of “mean girl” cliques in her room.

In addition, Marie and Kelly have thoroughly enjoyed the year. Since they regularly see academic and relational growth in their kids, they’re excited to be at work each day, and they go home feeling “a good tired.” And this experiment has been so successful that they won a Golden Apple Award, a prestigious local honor given to public and private school educators who demonstrate innovation and excellence in the classroom.

What about you? It’s all too easy to get caught up in the pessimism of district bureaucracy, tight budgets, and underachieving students. But, rather than sink into that muck and mire, why not seek out a way to try making things better? Do you have a creative idea? If so, step up as Marie and Kelly did; do the research, present a proposal, and see what happens. An educational leader sees innovations and takes well-reasoned chances. Are you a leader?


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