The key to education is trusting relationships, says Manson educator
(First of 2 columns)
I am a believer that tapping into the insights and wisdom of people actually doing the work on the ground is essential to charting a thoughtful path forward, particularly when in the midst of tumultuous change.
With that in mind, I recently spent some time picking the brain of a talented fourth-grade teacher at Mason Elementary, Marcella (Marcy) Lindert, to gain a ground-level view of how we might better meet the needs of students.
I’ve already written a couple of columns about the need for us to abandon the high-pressure, factory production mindset that characterizes our approach to public education and what might be possible if we rehumanize the process.
Lindert provided additional insights about the limitations of the state’s current educational approach as well as ways we might create a more dynamic approach to meet kids where they are and create a constructive environment in which they can develop their gifts in a more developmentally appropriate way.
Lindert, who has taught in the district for 29 years, described herself as the product of a stable and loving household. By contrast, many students today come from difficult home environments and the range of student skills and experiences is far broader.
She comes from a family of educators and knew that she wanted to be a teacher after spending a summer helping her aunt who was teaching in a migrant summer school program in southern Idaho.
She spent three years teaching in a private school before taking a job in Manson, a job that she originally thought would be short-term, but during the first year she met her future husband and made the valley her home. “I just fell in love with the community, the people and the kids here,” she told me.
In her first year teaching at Manson, she walked into the classroom and found virtually no materials — just some cabinets, some tables and chairs and a file folder of math worksheets. “And to tell you the truth, I really loved that because I’m one of those people who like to create my lessons,” Lindert said.
The principals who have made the biggest positive impact on her viewed the role as supporting the staff in creating an effective learning environment. Education took a radical turn in the late 1990s by emphasizing standardized tests and a high-pressure approach that encouraged administrators to take a more managerial approach to education. We started seeing efforts to limit the power of the Washington Education Association because the underlying assumption was that the problem with schools was that teachers weren’t performing. While every profession has a percentage of ineffective members, the dozens of teachers I’ve come into contact with are fully committed, creative and doing their best for kids.
Some districts and some schools are bucking the accountability-centered, punitive focus of the Legislature and are focused on building a creative, caring and collaborative learning environment.
I asked Lindert what it takes to connect with kids these days. She talked about the importance of developing a trusting relationship and understanding each student. “One of the ways I connect with kids is through fun and humor,” she told me.
Meeting kids where they are as human beings, having a sense of when to push them and when doing so would be counterproductive and creating meaningful classroom experiences through the arts have helped her to make a difference for kids.
Many of her former students stay in touch and some of their children have ended up in Lindert’s class.
Lindert loves the diversity of the students at the school and says the staff is exceptional and the principal is helpful and encouraging. This school year, the staff supported the decision to split the classes in half and teach them in daily three-hour sessions. It’s harder on teachers but better for kids.
What’s been the impact. Discipline problems in her class have been eliminated and students are learning nearly as much in a shorter, more intimate and personal environment, she told me.
At the same time, the requirements for social distancing make it somewhat more challenging to truly engage kids and build collaboration and cooperation. The staff at Manson Elementary are doing their best in imperfect circumstances, Lindert said.
It seems to me that if we want our kids to succeed, we need an approach based on trusting relationships rather than the punishment-based accountability system favored by the state Legislature.
“Nothing can happen until there is a relationship,” Lindert said. Time and time again, she has seen kids who come in with serious personal challenges turn themselves around and thrive in the classroom.
Next: Towards a more human-centered education system