Having something to be proud of: The power of demonstration-site status

The other night, I heard a rumor that a school in the county may have lost its demonstration-site status for a program they were very proud of.  To me, that’s devastating news.  Currently, I work in a school that is a New Tech Network Demonstration Site school, which means we get visitors.  We received this honor because of our full-scale implementation of project-based learning, our 1:1 deployment of laptops for each student; and our continued dedication to a culture built around collaboration, trust, respect and responsibility.  In a city that was very hard hit by the pull-out of manufacturing, this is saying something.

At the beginning of the year, we tell our students that they are in a special place.  We go over the pillars that really ground us — trust, respect, responsibility.  We go over protocols on how to address visitors.  We talk about outside parties coming in to evaluate their projects or presentations.  And, well, they don’t believe us at first.    We tell these things to kids who, for the most part, would jump at any opportunity to get out of their home city and think poorly of their school.  And then, through the presence of interested outsiders, we show them they have a ticket to a second chance that is so unique.

Last week, a contingent of some University of Illinois faculty and staff came to tour our school and see what we were all about.  These days are usually my proudest days.  And, I was certainly impressed with how my students engaged adults.  My student ambassadors were fearless in walking up to these distinguished academians, extending a hand and inviting them to join their collaborative groups.  (Little did my students know that they were engaging with some of my own teachers/mentors.)  There is a power in having students talk about their work, their directions and “the difference” that a school like ours makes for them.  As teachers, we can sell anything we want, up, down, sideways, with a song, with a dance, etc., but we are still seen as, well, teachers.  To have an outsider come in and really say, “Wow, you’re doing that?” with awe and interest to a student is tremendously powerful.  What’s fascinating to me is that talking to another adult brings out such a pride in my students.  These interactions renew our culture and prove to our students that what they are doing is important and unique.  I look forward to returning to that energy when we watch, as a class, the video reflections our tour guests were asked to record for us.

Of course, the students are not the only ones held up for examination (and I’m sounding way too scientific with that word choice).  Our staff also participates in a panel that answers questions about the program and about our experiences.  But after watching (with a proud smile) how much my kids want to show off to complete strangers, it never fails that the teachers, too, get a pat on the back for what we have done at our school.  Last week, compliments were abound, and credit is due to collaborative efforts on all levels of our school.

Having outside visitors brings a whole new level of respect to your school.  Teachers get too caught up in the fears of another adult; I embrace them.  The horror stories about “helicopter” parents or distrustful administrators to me are buried.  No other staff event for me has ever renewed my energy like a good site tour has.

If you are a school with something to share; do it.  As I study more in my educational leadership program, I keep reminding myself of the power of the community that shares your common vision and mission.  While I am sure the preparation work sometimes does not seem worth it, just the one day with a handful of visitors will prove to be the best payoff.

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