Imagine That.

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Seven teens piled onto a couch

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Close your eyes. Imagine a high school, a real high school, one, perhaps, you’ve driven by many times. Picture the building and the grounds. What would you change? Pull up the editing tools in your mind. Cut. Crop. Sketch. What’s different now? Is the parking lot freshly paved? Are there more trees, flowers, benches, a fountain? Have you removed an annex? Added a second floor? 

Would any of your changes impact what happens inside the building? Perhaps, they would. Maybe teachers and students would feel more inspired, or have less or more to do. Maybe there would be more order or more freedom.

There is at least one change to the building that would have an enormous impact, a positive one in my view, changing the way everything happens inside: work relationships, what is taught, how it’s taught, behavior management, and the social lives of kids. 

Any guesses?

Use your imaginary tool box to demo, let’s say, three quarters of the building.

Of course, this would no longer accommodate the majority of the students. In my town, it would leave space for about 250 high schoolers, maybe 60-70 kids per grade level. Still too many? I don’t know the magic number, only that the aim is to stay small even if serving a large population. Therefore, after some structural repairs, I’ll use my editing software to copy and paste the charming new building in different parts of town. I know this sounds like a game of Minecraft, but please oblige me in my fantasy, just to see where the possibilities take us.

Put aside all the practical, and I’ll admit, monumental challenges to splitting one large school into several small ones. For the sake of argument, pretend that issues such as extra staffing, bussing, and the location of the sports complex are settled. 

What does small get you? 

Well, a lot fewer people in a much smaller space translates to more connection, deeper connection. In a given day, individuals will have approximately the same number of human interactions as in a large school, but with fewer people in a smaller space, those interactions will be with more of the same people, much more frequently. That is no small thing.

I believe it is a fundamental difference between a meaningful education and merely sufficient one.

We all know intuitively that good relationships take time to build, and that human beings flourish in good relationships. Good relationships account for tremendous growth in character and are often the catalyst for maturity, the birthplace of wisdom. Isn’t this all the more valuable when it comes to education, the very endeavor that seeks to raise mature, thoughtful human beings? Isn’t an environment that fosters good relationships among staff and students exactly what is needed to get the job done? When growing a garden, what is more important: the tools you use or the soil you plant in?

I like small. I like it because it creates the fundamental condition under which human beings grow. I think educators need to talk to each other every day about the work they do and the kids they teach, especially those they teach together. They need to talk about their lives, share laughs and frustrations. In spare moments, imagine teachers sharing funny, endearing stories about their students, the way parents do when they’re amused by their kids. Imagine them meeting at the end of the day to talk more seriously about the kids, one at a time—discussing what’s going on and how to help, strategizing, seeing situations from all angles. I’m not talking about the happenstance and sometimes bitter conversations in the faculty room among teachers who may or may not work together. I’m talking about something intentional, among people who work side-by-side as a team. They are good parents discussing their children at the end of the night. 

These simple things accomplish the work that all the tools, strategies, and workshops fail to do. They happen naturally in close quarters with fewer people, people who know each other and want to talk to one another. There are attempts at this kind of cooperation in large schools, and from my public school teaching experience, they eventually fail because it’s too complicated and taxing to align schedules and personalities in a large network. Like a large closet packed with too many clothes, it’s simply ineffective. You can’t find anything to wear. All one needs is a little chest of drawers with well-cared for essentials. And cared for, they are… In relationship with one another, staff get real support, find relief, gain perspective, become inspired and get creative.

But what about the social lives of the kids? Will they develop the proper social skills to make it in the world with far fewer peers, the same peers year after year? They will, and not only that, they’ll develop better ones. Most work environments do not engage hundreds of same-age colleagues, all loosely interacting and being shuffled around on an hourly basis. In fact, I think most of us would find that chaotic and stressful. Such an environment, yes, does provide a lot of friendship possibilities, but under the worst circumstances. Because there are so many students moving around throughout the day with brief, superficial interactions, kids will naturally develop hurried evaluatory tools for making friends — they dress like me, act like me. They look for their tribe, find them, and that’s that. Sounds great, but it’s actually a poor foundation for building a community. 

First, some don’t find their tribe and casually fade into the background where it’s easy to be invisible. Second, most real-life social situations do not resemble this structure at all. People become friends with their colleagues, neighbors, members of their pickleball club. They learn to make friends with the people they’re with, regardless of differences in age, background, fashion, etc. This produces wonderful results: deeper connections, compassion, perspective, openness, authenticity. In more intimate social situations, kids are able to let their guards down, be themselves, find themselves. I witness this all the time working in a small learning center. Among small groups, there is less bullying, less pettiness, and more understanding—when you’re with each other all day long, every day, you’ve more incentive to keep the peace and see the better side of people. What’s 2,000 Instagram friends in comparison? Less really is more when it comes to the social development of human beings. 

Finally and importantly, the relationships between adults and kids in this humble little building will improve tremendously—even if the student-teacher ratio remains the same. This ratio is a selling point for many institutions, but what real profit is it to relationship-building if the students and staff comprising a 12:1 ratio are routinely shuffled with 300 others just like them? And that’s just within a single grade level. Education is more than the number of minutes-per-child afforded by teachers once the classroom door shuts. In a small learning environment, the same adults see the same kids throughout the day, year after year—in multiple classes, in common areas, in group activities, on trips, etc. They know each other in different settings. They see different sides of one another.

This has a remarkable impact in many ways. For one, it makes true and lasting behavioral growth par for the course. Working in a very small learning center, my colleagues and I are able to understand what is going on with kids on a deeper level because we have the full living picture, not just one piece of a mosaic. Together, we create and implement plans. We have real conversations with the kids, kids who know us, know we understand them, even if they don’t always like what we have to say. I remember a situation with a boy who was leading a class, something we encourage kids to try. His follow-through didn’t match his enthusiasm. The staff were left to pick up the pieces more than once, so we agreed to discontinue the class, and I volunteered to deliver the news. I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation, however, because he had a past history of being somewhat confrontational. To my surprise, he was very receptive and understanding despite being visibly disappointed. Having a pre-established rapport, mutual respect and understanding made all the difference. He listened because he trusted, and because he listened, he was able to self-correct and try again with more success the following year. When both adults and kids are able to see each other’s humanity, miraculous things can happen.

If difficult interactions are much improved by closer relationships, then positive ones are all the better for it. Imagine the possibilities. More sharing. Deeper learning. Better questions. Better answers. Personalized plans. Individual challenges and feedback. What is the actual potential of thoughtful, understanding, guiding influences of educators upon youth? Just imagine. But that’s another whole essay. 

Thank you for obliging me in my little fantasy. It’s now your turn to dream. But before you do, let me leave you with this. In my imagination, “closeness” among people makes all the difference, and it’s achieved without fanfare by literal closeness, proximity. The same few people in the same small space where everyone’s a “neighbor.” What if it really were that simple?

Learn more about our small learning centers here.