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“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why Would an Administrator Go back to School?

Plymouth North high school is a "School on the Move."  An important part of our growth and success as a school is finding ways to include our students in the decision making process.  This all started a few months ago when Plymouth North Housemaster Kevin Farrell (@kevinefarrell50) invited me to a focus group reunion.  He assembled a group of seniors to watch themselves as freshman answering questions about their education 4 years earlier.  After the video we discussed with the students whether their opinions on school had changed.  Senior Tyler Hart's response had a profound effect on me when he stated "I still think you won't really know what we are going through, or how we feel unless you walk a day in our shoes."  His opinion was shared by sophomore Gordon Kennedy, who wrote a 2 page opinion piece challenging administrators to get in the trenches with kids if they really wanted to learn anything about them. 

Mr. Farrell and I decided that most administrators aren't able to "Go back to School" because they are often too busy.  How could we be too busy to learn from our own students?  There was no excuse, we were going back to school to learn!

What did we expect to Learn?

We met with the two boys and brainstormed the benefits of a "Back to School: Student for a Day" initiative and what we expected to learn.  We came up with 3 primary learning goals:

  • To understand the impact "administration's" decisions/rules have on students in their daily lives
  • To gather feedback from students about their education in a safe and familiar place (on their turf)
  • To identify how education has changed in the 25+ years since we were students

Documenting the Experience:

We wanted to make sure we documented this terrific experience, therefore we contacted resident expert teachers Ms. Jaruse and Ms. Harkins for much needed advice.  It was their amazing idea to have two of our own students film, edit and direct a mini documentary.  Students Shawn Flanagan and Tracy Velloso agreed to direct the documentary and create a trailer.  I will post the trailer and documentary on this blog soon!

The Day:

We decided I would follow Tyler's senior schedule and Mr. Farrell would follow Gordon's sophomore schedule.  We let the teacher's know in advance, but wanted to surprise the students.  I started my day meeting Tyler at 6:30am at his house.  It was really nice going to school in jeans and sneakers for a change.  We walked about 1/2 mile to the bus stop and boarded at approximately 6:50am.  The bus ride was quiet and kids were certainly surprised to see me.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and then rushed off to 1st period class.  On my way to class I stopped to use the lav.  Inside the bathroom, a group of boys were rapping and dancing to an ipod placed on the counter.  I asked why they were jamming in the bathroom and they responded "where else can we go?"  I had my first challenge.  

I promised twitterland that I would tweet about the experience, but found I never had time to do so.  Cell phones are prohibited in the class, unless it's part of the lesson and 4 minute passing time leaves no time to greet friends, go to your locker or tweet!  Everything seemed so rushed!  I ate breakfast at 6am, but was starving by 9:30.  Students reminded me of our no food in classrooms policy, so the granola bar would have to wait until last lunch at noon.  Lunch was fun and provided me a great opportunity to catch up with Mr. Farrell.  The only problem was he bought school lunch and had to wait in line for 15 minutes!  Tyler taught me how to weld and showed me the amazing piece of fitness equipment he was making from scratch- true authentic learning. The kids were excited and felt very comfortable and sharing their educational philosophies with me.  Was it because I was one of them? I think so.  The bus ride home ended my day as a student.  I was emotionally drained, but felt truly amazed by what I had learned.   

What I learned:

  • Wearing a 20 lb backpack all day gives one a sore back
  • Kids want a seat at the table in the decision making process
  • Students respected me for doing this and felt comfortable sharing with me
  • We need to review our food policy, 4 minute passing time & crowded lunch lines
  • School hasn't changed that much at all in the last 25+ years
  • We are a school on the move- where teachers work hard, love their students & strive for authentic instruction
  • Our students are caring, resilient, passionate and intelligent: we sometimes underestimate them!
  • That by "Going back to school" I learned more from students about our school in an 8hr day than I have in my entire 2 years as Assistant Principal
  • Our future Rap Stars need a place to Jam!

What's Next: 

We debriefed our administrative team and addressed the following:

  • Set time to discuss all policies that concerned our students
  • Found an excellent venue for our students to listen to music & write their own songs
  • Continued our discussion on what is working at our school and what we need to change
  • Agreed to watch the documentary together to discuss what hasn't changed with school over the past 25+ years and what we can do to improve it
  • Agreed to share our outstanding learning experience 

Final Thoughts:

I hope you were able to take something away from our amazing experience.  I also hope that other administrators take a day to shut down the office, throw on some jeans and sneakers and walk a day in their students' shoes.  It is a learning experience I don't think you can afford to miss!

I'd like to thank our Principal Kathleen McSweeney for her encouragement and support in this project.  To our amazing student body, who treated us with respect, thank you!  Each teacher that had me as a student, thank you for your patience and cooperation, you were awesome.  Thank you to Ms. Jaruse and Ms. Harkins for your time, efforts, and vision.  Tracy and Shawn- thank you so much for taking this project on.  It is a tremendous time commitment, one I believe will help not only our school, but many others learn from the people who matter most- the students.  Tyler and Gordon- this was your idea!  Thank you for having us follow you around and sacrificing your "coolness" for a day, you taught a couple of old dogs new tricks.  To my partner in crime Mr. Farrell- thanks for leading by learning.  


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