Don’t underestimate the power of a teacher

I spent the morning working with educators from two school districts and with representatives of the Seneca Nation regarding drop out prevention. The group was formed after an initial meeting with school superintendents and Seneca Nation representatives about the consideration of an alternative school on the Cattaraugus territory. The intent was to provide another opportunity, another way for our Native American students who are not succeeding in our public schools. 

I should mention that approximately 27% of our students are Native American and too many are lost to us before graduation. Not only is it of paramount interest to me as the principal, but also to our teachers, superintendent, BOE members, and community. It’s a fight we can’t afford to lose. 

At the initial meeting, there were those of us who said, “Wait a minute”. Before we consider the evolution of an alternative setting, let’s talk about how we’re currently serving our students. Or more to the point, let’s talk about how we may be falling down. My hope would be that we could be that alternative school, that place where all students can find success. And before we look for another way, let’s make sure that we’re getting it right for as many students as possible. 

This led us to the thought that we should form focus groups and listen to the students. While several studies have been conducted over the past ten years, not much ever seems to change as a result. What if we started to think differently? What if we ask our students questions directly about curriculum and instruction? Questions like what works for you in school; what is keeping you from doing well in class; which is the best way for you to learn; with which teachers do you do the best and what is it that they do that makes that happen; in what classes are you always willing to participate; what challenges you the most; what are the characteristics of the adults who matter most to you; do you feel emotionally safe in school–why or why not; what kinds of things would you like to do in the classroom?

So that’s how we’ll proceed. There are a lot of other details I haven’t mentioned like the group or individual interview formats chosen, the communication with parents and community members, the formulation of a meaningful action plan, and the students we’ll involve. But there’s something about the whole process that keeps playing over and over in my mind. They are all items that are within our realm of control and responsibility. I’m reminded again of the power of a teacher. The teacher is the variable in the classroom, he is the only person who can effectively change what happens based on what our students tell us. She has the incredible power to make a difference. If we only listen and endeavor to connect, to adapt and to constantly strive for engagement. 

We acknowledge that there may be circumstances in students’ lives that are overwhelming to any school experience we may provide. We know some of our students have huge obstacles to overcome. We also know we employ some of the best teachers in the state. I hope they come back in September rejuvenated, hopeful, and willing to assume responsibility for instruction. When they come back, I’ll be hopeful that they’re willing to listen and that we can get past any ideas that it’s “these kids and we’re doing the best we can with them”, ideas which only deflect responsibility. Because while I acknowledge that some of the needs seem insurmountable at times, “these kids” are entrusted to us, they need education, and we’re what they’re given. They deserve everything we’ve got and more.




  1. Wow, those are tough questions that you ask about your own service to those students. Good for you for not shying away from asking the tough questions. I have no doubt that an honest search for the answers will lead to good things for the students. Hang in there!

  2. I’m not sure I understand Amy’s point about intrinsic change and the parallel drawn. We’re looking for instructional possibilities. Strategies that work and don’t work for our native children. Best practice that recognizes the cultural differences about which Amy speaks and the possibility of some unique learning styles. I’m not sure how to look at a “school” culture change without looking at that which we’re about–curriculum and instructional strategies. We’ve been after the climate and made progress, we’re continuing to make connections (but not nearly enough and that’s on my mind for another post), and I think we’ve got to get to the business of learning. That’s extensive, one on one and group conversations about best practice. It’s not uncommon for a student to tell me that they hate a class and why, with detail. I just want to ask them equally what works and why. Hey, but that’s just my take. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. Kimberly

  3. This is my first feedback to a blog and question the ‘computer vocabulary’ that seems to be materializing through cyberspace – Webster needs to get on board and print some new books because some of us still need them. Weren’t these referred to as message boards a few months ago?

    I agree that students, faculty and parents should be involved in reforming a program but asking students to evaluate their education is similar to asking a child to describe his homelife, assess his parents, and state recommendations for change that will determine his success as an adult. Think about it, this is what they have, these are the cards they were delt, suggestions for intrinsic change is parallel to asking them what improvements could be made to the space shuttle. Extrinsic changes are easy for students to articulate; they want things they were exposed to but don’t have. A school that changes within, changes for years to come (for the good or the bad). I’m not suggesting that you discredit student opinion but perhaps you might want to take a look at cultural change.

    Native American students are different, many were raised with a diverse outlook of the world and of their community. Research shows that Community schools on reservations were successful while most BIA schools were not. Community schools engaged those people most familiar with the students while the Bureau of Indian Affairs made decisions that countered the intrinsic needs of the students and forced an Anglo environment.

    There are many books about the Seneca Culture, events that welcome non-Natives, and people willing to educate (perhaps through a blog :). Teachers and staff members may need some direction and modeling but the kids are well worth the effort.

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