The topic of interest has become central to my thoughts on education. Academic memories of my high school years are scarce, vague, and not particularly encouraging. Rare academic images include teachers who slept while students completed worksheets, people as uninterested in me as I was in them or the material, and hours spent staring out the window and thinking about anything other than the task at hand. I was a spectator, and a marginal one at that. The cause of those experiences, and the reinforced result, was a lack of genuine interest in anything formally educational.
It was not until my involvement in the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 that I became more genuinely aware of and interested in things around me. The timing of this transformation in my life is articulated well by John Dewey who said in Democracy and Education that “for an active participant in the war, it is clear that the momentous thing is the issue, the future consequences, of this and that happening. He is identified, for the time at least, with the issue; his fate hangs upon the course things are taking”. Further, Dewey claims that “the career and welfare of the self are bound up with the movement of persons and things. Interest, concern, mean that self and world are engaged with each other in the developing situation”. The momentous thing, the possibility of death and my engagement with the environment to that possible end, instigated my emergence as a learner. The defining difference between these events and my previous formal education was that I truly cared about the outcome. I was, for the first time, interested. I lost myself in the evolving events, and likewise found myself, attentive and alert even beyond the scope of this one experience. Initially this change manifested itself in the context of desired longevity – I wanted to live. Soon, however, I made the connection that knowledge, in addition to increasing my chances of survival, would also enrich whatever time I had left.
Interest alone, however, is not enough. Interest is the spark, a personal connection to a topic or subject matter that goes nowhere if not developed. Once there is interest, focused hard work and self-discipline, subordinate but co-dependent skills, are necessary to develop that interest into education. The military provided the perfect conditions for such development, with the necessary organizational structure and circumstances readily at hand. This is the critical difference between my schooling and my education, and the basis for my belief that teachers are responsible not only for providing the structure and regimen necessary for education but also for helping students become genuinely interested, intellectually connected to something, so that the work has purpose. Only then will students progress toward becoming the self-directed and lifelong learners we all wish for them.
My shift in educational outlook coincided with a change in career aspirations. On December 31, 1990, while watching the sun set from a sand dune in the middle of the Arabian Desert, I decided that my service in the military, of which I was and continue to be very proud, was not contributing to creating a better world – admittedly idealistic. At that moment I chose to change my path and to plan a career in education. Since that day, I have adopted a more realistic vision of the world and my role in it. Still, I have never wavered from my intent, however idealistic, to spend my life making a difference through education. This central belief initiated my career in schools, and my experiences since have strengthened and refined my conviction and have guided me on the path to school leadership. As one may expect from an understanding of my educational beginnings and transformation, the leadership of schools has developed as my central focus, a focus to which I have given considerable time, thought, and attention.
As school leaders, we must continually increase our effectiveness and that of our teachers in helping students become interested in their own learning, without which we fail at truly preparing them for a fulfilling life. The initial thing that grabs a student’s attention will differ, because interest is subjective, but once initiated, the interconnectedness of subjects and disciplines offers a vast matrix of paths and opportunities for a student who has become engaged.
We must meet the social, emotional, and educational needs of our students as we understand them. Our commitment stems from our belief in the pivotal role teachers play in the lives of children, and the enormous responsibility inherent in that role to support the growth of healthy individuals and healthy communities.
We must model in our daily behavior, in and out of school, that which we would expect our faculty to emulate and our students to learn. Foremost in this responsibility would be the leaders’ interest in learning and their willingness to question current expectations themselves by being self-reflective and self-motivated learners, open to ideas for improvement, and flexible in facilitating positive change.
We must commit to acting in all circumstances toward an outcome that is believed to be right and morally justified, realizing the complicated nature of ethical decisions particularly when the decision is between two ‘right’ and opposing choices. No two decisions will be the same, nor will the weight or priority each individual assigns the criteria for making the choice. These decisions, however, should be made with the thoughtful and thorough attention and calculation they warrant and always with the intent of weighing what is best for the individual and the community.
We must engage in a productive, meaningful discourse about the school community and its members, seeking to praise where applicable and inquire where helpful or necessary. School leaders should directly and tactfully address others when there is a concern and be open for others to do the same, always maintaining the highest level of honesty and integrity in all dealings with members of the school community.
We must facilitate a learning community where it is not only acceptable, but favorable, for all members to seek self-improvement with the support of their teachers and colleagues. Factors contributing to this end should not only include equitable and reciprocal evaluation of work, but also encouragement by school leaders to continually seek new ideas and information crucial to continued interest and constant improvement of the teaching and learning experience for all.
We must help our students’ parents understand their critical school-role in the education of their children. When parents try to solve their children’s problems for them, they rob them of the opportunity to learn self-reliance, self-advocacy, and resilience – necessary skills for a life of independence. When parents can respond to a child’s problem by saying “how can I help you figure out how you will solve this problem” instead of immediately calling the school to solve it for them, they create for their children an invaluable learning opportunity.
We must balance compassion and consequences. Without both in carefully considered amounts, any response falls short and is unlikely to generate the desired effect. Our compassion must stem from memories of our own journeys, the resulting connection with the similar plight of our students, and our commitment to helping them learn from their mistakes through thoughtful and natural consequences. This approach has the best chance of creating a lasting connection with students and a caring and structured environment for them to learn.
I’ll never be able to recover the lost years of my early education, absent as it was of interest. That is a shame and a tragedy from which many of us have recovered and we can all learn. What we can do, what we must do, is focus all our efforts as school leaders to prevent our students from suffering the same setbacks. Interest is the catalyst for the learning we intend to foster, and it is our job to create the conditions for that interest to engage our students with the world around them.