The Essentialist’s Guide to Education

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I considered titling this post “The Proverbial Death of an Educator,” but decided that was likely a bit dramatic. I’d love to take just a few minutes of your time to explain why I believe (like many other things in life) we overcomplicate the educational process and in doing so, we overextend our educators.

The purpose of our public education system is to serve the needs of every student. To provide a sound foundation for future success. This requires attention to the academic, physical, and social-emotional needs of every child.

That’s the task. If you unpack that statement you will find that there is quite a lot that needs to be done to successfully fulfill this purpose. Not only do our schools (our educators) need to provide quality instruction, but they must also be aware of the growth of the “whole” child. Kids are not widgets. They do not show up in our classrooms with the same skills (academic, or social), the same levels of support, the same life experiences, the same personalities…and the list could go on. In other words, every child is unique. Meeting the individual needs of every student and keeping them safe is a daunting task that requires time, attention to detail, constant monitoring/adjusting, collaboration, and community support. That should be the focus of our educators. Activities that support this broad goal should be pursued, those that don’t clearly connect should be put aside.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. – Goethe

Here is the rub. In our well-intentioned efforts to address all of these needs, we flood educators with a host of new “programs,” meetings, professional development sessions, and activities that actually take time and energy away from “what matters most.” When I say “we” I mean school and district administrators, as well as state and national school leaders and politicians. Not only do many of these initiatives end up being a distraction from the more critical work at hand, i.e. face-to-face time with students, but in many cases, the initiatives do not take into account the diversity of needs among schools. We try to pound a square peg into a round hole because if it is a pressing need at one school, it must be a pressing need at another school.

I am not advocating for an elimination of professional development, or of innovative programs. However, I am suggesting that different schools often have dramatically different needs. Just as we should be expected to tailor our instruction and services to the individual needs of students, we should use professional development and training to meet the individual (and diverse) needs of schools.

I would suggest that, to the extent possible, instead of a “pull-out” model of professional development we need a “push-in” model. Send instructional specialists into classrooms and schools to meet with students, teachers, and administrators — and most importantly, to observe. Then, and only then, develop a plan for purposeful professional development. How can you provide meaningful instruction and support to teachers and students if you have never observed the school environment — seen the needs of specific sites and their students?

Go back to that definition of the purpose of public education.

The purpose of our public education system is to serve the needs of every student. To provide a sound foundation for future success. This requires attention to the academic, physical, and social-emotional needs of every child.

It is a common purpose that requires different kinds, and levels of support, based upon the individual school. We no longer accept that one method of instruction will meet the needs of every child, so why would we assume that all schools should emphasize the same programs and initiatives? We recognize the importance of positive relationships in teaching and learning. How can we expect professional development to be effective if it is developed in a vacuum without a clear understanding of specific schools, teachers, students, and their needs?

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In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown shares a diagram similar to the one above. Our educators have a finite amount of energy, and I fear that in many ways our current educational system forces them to use that energy as a non-essentialists — on far too many pursuits (some worthwhile, others, not so much). Instead, we should be adopting an essentialist’s view of education. We all need to be guardians of time and energy — eliminating pursuits that are not purposeful. Allow educators to focus their time and energy on what is most important with the understanding that they are the people most capable of determining what matters most.

Thoughts and opinions are those of Jeff Delp — private citizen. 

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