I think most of us would agree that our school system could stand to improve. I believe this proposal, if followed, will have a profound impact, leading to significant improvements in both our most challenging and our best schools.
Proposed: Our schools should follow the lead of the democratic education movement and implement school-wide participatory management!
That means: invite every single person in the school to join the School Improvement Group (SIG), which will meet regularly with the goal of making that school the BEST possible learning institution it can be. Every teacher, para, counselor, cafeteria worker, administrator, parent, secretary, custodian, support staff, and especially every student, is welcome! Only requirement is that the person must participate regularly and respectfully.
And it must be made clear that those who choose not to participate as full-fledged SIG members are still part of the school improvement process, in that their voices - their thoughts, feelings, ideas - will sometimes be requested and will always be welcomed and appreciated! The British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at.” Thus the more perspectives that are offered and considered, the better ‘our school’ will become!
Pretend you’re the principal. First off; the (everyone is invited) invitation ALONE will make your school a better place! You have just told all the people in your school that you think they are worthwhile. That you believe they have something to contribute. Right now, in every school in the country, there are quite a number of people who feel marginalized and are wondering if they are good enough - or who outright feel that they are NOT good enough! Your simple act of letting the people in your school know you want to hear their opinions validates them! Makes them feel more worthwhile. Makes them feel better about themselves! And when people feel better - especially when they feel appreciated - they perform better!
Feeling that you are worthwhile is one of the most basic of human needs. Another basic human need is the need to belong. The need to feel included. Connected. And especially the need to feel that you are a significant part of something good! And, look at it: to be a part of a group whose committed mission is to make that school the best possible place it can be; hey, that’s a good thing, so that means that you are a part of something good!
So BOOM, right off the bat, everyone in the school has a boost in two of the most basic human needs!! And, in fact, I believe that before long you will have a triple win going on, in that you will have new perspectives and ideas available from people who have a new and improved sense of self, and who are living within a new and inspired school-wide collective energy!
The members of the SIG will spend many hours evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the school, analyzing why something is working well or not, and offering well thought out suggestions on how best to expand or make even better the things that are working well, and how to improve or fix the issues that need fixing. They will look at curriculum, school regs, behavioral expectations, food, extra-curricular activities, counseling and mental health services, the school-community relationship, and anything else that is brought up.
The principal does not relinquish any power! Within the limits of expectations from the District Superintendent and the state or federal government, the principal still has the final say in the school building. But now her or his decisions will be better informed.
Oftentimes principals and teachers want to introduce new and creative programs or courses into the school or the classroom. (I would guess the same is true for superintendents.) But their jobs - including dealing with mandates from ‘above’ - are extremely demanding; and as such they usually don’t have the time and/or the energy to ‘add one more thing to their plate’. Here’s where SIG can step up! SIG members can put in that extra time in order to research, analyze, problem-solve, and just generally work out most of the kinks and logistical issues. They can then present to the principal a report which gives her or him (a) the info s/he did not have the time to compile, and (b) probably some specific suggestions on how to deal with would-be roadblocks and then effectively implement the program.
Thus initiatives which would otherwise have been impossible to accomplish will now see fruition! The benefits are plentiful, both academic and social among students.
On an individual level, some of the students who excel as SIG members will be young folks who are already doing well in school. Others will be students who have been mired in the background, maybe even somewhat invisible, who will step forward and shine. And there will be ‘at risk’ kids (sometimes considered ‘trouble-makers’) who will become trouble-fixers and problem-solvers!
Furthermore, and of extreme importance, SIG participants are experientially learning how to maximize their potential as life-livers and leaders! They’re learning effective communication skills - i.e. the importance of (1) assertive (instead of aggressive or timid) expression and (2) active listening. They’re learning how to keep their minds open and look at issues from every angle - and how to analyze and synthesize, and work with others to develop creative solutions. They’re learning the responsibilities of democracy and voting. These students will be better prepared to live fulfilling lives, and to be highly informed and productive citizens!