Like many of you, I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s wonderful new book, Becoming. I wanted to read the book for many reasons: I have degrees in history and American Studies and love first person accounts; I’m an admirer of Obama’s work, particularly her emphasis on youth leadership, healthy eating, and expanding opportunities for girls; and I’m a Washingtonian who frequents the same exercise classes. What surprised me was that I should have gone into reading Becoming with a different primary purpose: because of her self-reflection on her time as student, as a mother of two girls, and as a First Lady who spent as much time as she could with kids. Michelle Obama might not call herself an extraordinary educator, but she is.
I’m not going to detail every lesson for educators in Becoming, in large part because I think that everyone should read the book. Instead, let me reflect on two themes that come back time and again.
High Standards and High Empathy
Obama’s first teacher was her great-aunt, Robbie, an exacting piano teacher who lived downstairs in their house. Robbie made the young Obama study piano by-the-book, in a way that drove Obama crazy. In spite--or perhaps because--of that, Robbie also instilled in Obama how hard work and dedication led to success: “As much as I found Robbie to be snippy and inflexible, I’d also internalized her devotion to rigor” (Obama, Michelle. Becoming, Crown. p. 15). And, Robbie was there in moments of need: “With a tight throat and chugging heart, I looked out to the audience, trying not to telegraph my panic, searching for the safe harbor of my mother’s face. Instead, I spotted a figure rising from the front row and slowly levitating in my direction. It was Robbie… But here in my moment of comeuppance, she arrived at my shoulder almost like an angel.. Without a word, Robbie gently laid one finger on middle C so that I would know where to start. Then, turning back with the smallest smile of encouragement, she left me to play my song” (Obama, p. 16).
Later, Obama would notice this same level of high expectations and care throughout her own schooling at Bryn Mawr Elementary, Whitney M. Young High School, and Princeton; and in other educators she encountered, noting educators at inner-city Chicago high schools who extolled positivity and championed their students who were facing extraordinarily hard odds (Obama, p. 385).
The best teachers know that students need both high expectations for success and a deep empathy to understand when help, support, guidance, and exceptions to the rule are needed. I’ve been talking with my colleague Lisa Damour a lot this fall, as we prepare to offer a course about her upcoming book Under Pressure next year. Lisa reminds me often that high performing students and particularly high performing girls (like Michelle Obama was) hold themselves to extraordinary expectations -- a perfectionism that can never be reached but is sought. Teachers working with these students must be particularly empathic to situations when those students need an excuse from holding themselves to that high standard -- to those moments when they try to lean in, and either can’t or shouldn’t. As Obama said recently to an audience in Brooklyn: “that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Battling Impostor Syndrome
Throughout the book, Obama repeats a question that has nagged her throughout her life: am I good enough? The first time she asks this question is in high school, attending a top-flight magnet school in the city of Chicago. As educators, we know that even our top students have impostor syndrome (and that this is particularly prevalent among high-performing girls, as Lisa Damour reminds me). Obama kept asking that question throughout her time as First Lady, though by then she was able to recognize it as an expression of our society’s assumptions about women and people of color. With her new platform, she was determined to help the next generation understand their intrinsic power and potential--to stop asking the question, and to know the answer instead.
"I wasn’t fully prepared, though, to feel what I did when I set foot inside the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School and was ushered to an auditorium where about two hundred students had gathered… There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves. They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color… Looking up at the girls, I just began to talk, explaining that though I had come from far away, carrying this strange title of First Lady of the United States, I was more like them than they knew.. Speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you" (Obama, pp. 319-320).
Our students, perhaps most especially our best students, ask themselves “Am I good enough?” all the time. Obama reminds us that we can’t remind our students enough that they are. “I’d been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter. As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation” (Obama, p. 383). Teachers express this to their students all the time. And, more and more schools are teaching students about imposter syndrome and its nefarious related cousin, stereotype threat, in order to help arm students with the knowledge to combat these thoughts and understand their significant worth and value.
Last month, I wrote about our core competency of academic maturity. An effective online school builds a student’s ability to connect with their teacher and classmates, and operate efficiently and effectively in the online space. We focus on connection, choice, and comfort to help students find success in the online space.
But, some students need more. And, that, of course, is appropriate for a new experience, like learning online. So, how do you help students who need extra support? Let’s explore this. I’ve asked Liz Katz, our Director School & Student Support, to describe how this works at One Schoolhouse.
Connection with Teacher
Just as at your face-to-face school, the primary relationship and communication is between the student and his or her teacher. Teachers work immediately from the start of class to build strong connections with students. They start with a one-on-one video discussion (Skype, Hangout, or Zoom) to create goals for the year and develop a rapport. If a concern arises—say, repeated missed assignments, or a lower-than-expected score on an assessment, the teacher contacts, the Director of School & Student Support and shares the details. When I receive that information, we want to make the support web a little bigger by bringing the Advisor into the picture.
Role of School Advisor
At that point, I reach out to the student and copy the School Advisor on the communication. Usually, my note includes the teacher’s concern, the student’s current average in the course, and suggestions for getting back on track. Most often, the next step is for the student to set up a face-to-face meeting with the teacher—just as he or she would do at a face-to-face school. Depending on the challenge, other recommended courses of action may include creating a plan to make up missed work, revisiting a topic or an assignment, or creating a study plan for an upcoming assessment.
When a School Advisor gets this update, it's also a signal to get in touch with the student. They make sure that the student understands what the best next steps are, and helps the student set an action plan, as necessary. The School Advisor also communicates back to me any additional information that we might need. We work with extraordinary students, and so often the reason for challenge is overcommitment at certain times of the year -- perhaps the student was recently the lead in the play, or just competed in a state championship. Occasionally, we work through challenges related to student health or mental well-being. The School Advisor helps us understand essential information that can be used to offer more effective support.
Bringing Parents into the Fold
Sometimes, when the stakes are high, a student needs a bigger net. When that’s important, we consult with the School Advisor whether it makes sense to contact the student’s parents so they can offer additional support at home. Our goal is always to have the right team in place to help our students achieve success in their courses.
The systems we have for creating support look a lot like the systems you see in face-to-face schools. That’s by design. On top of those supports, we use the reflections and goals students develop with their teachers to align our feedback and make sure that students receive the help they need to grow and gain academic maturity in a new learning environment.
As educators, one of our primary jobs is to create environments that challenge students, encouraging them to step out of their comfort zones and then providing the help, support, encouragement, and guidance they need to find success. That’s true for both the English teacher who assigns a Dostoevsky novel for the first time, and the swim coach who challenges a student to compete in a 400 yard individual medley for the first time.
It’s also true when we ask students to take an online class for the first time. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, this discomfort manifests itself as the student saying, “Online classes aren’t for me.” What they are really saying is that they need help navigating an uncomfortable experience.
Just as the English teacher doesn’t assign Dostoevsky right at the start of the year (let’s ease into Russian literature with some Pushkin, maybe), and the swim coach doesn’t challenge the student to swim a 400 IM (without having done a 100 and 200 IM first), online teachers can’t start with the assumption that students are ready for an online class just because they signed up for one. So, how do you prepare students for this new type of learning? There are three key elements: connection, choice, and comfort.
Immediately, an effective online course connects students to their teacher and to their classmates, in order to build trust and break down any preconceived notions that the online learning space is impersonal. This happens in a number of ways. Students and teachers alike create a graphic journal to introduce themselves and share their personalities (think pictures, favorite YouTube clips, songs, text, etc.). They see each other in video discussion boards. Most importantly, they meet one on one with their teachers.
When students meet with their teachers one on one, they have a conversation about the student’s goals for the year, immediately giving students a way to choose their own path to grow. Students also talk with their teachers about their learning profile, noting strengths and areas of challenge and discussing approaches for learning and applying course content. In collaboration with teachers, students learn about sustaining a growth mindset and the power of “yet.”
Another purpose of students meeting with their teachers is to become comfortable with their teacher. We create other elements in the orientation and first week of the course to help students become comfortable in the online space: student expectations are clear and explicit; course modules follow a regular and reliable flow, ensuring that students can’t “get lost” or miss an assignment; help and instructional videos abound; support and help are always visible for students, both from their teacher and for any technology needs. We lead students through a series of opening assignments, allowing them to “get their feet wet” in the online space when the stakes are low, to prepare them for the work ahead.
Focus on connection, choice, and comfort does not mean that every student will feel that she is ready for the challenge of online learning, though. There are extra supports necessary for some students regardless of how we prepare them for the experience -- just like there are at a face-to-face school. I’ll write about that next month.
I love August because we get to be problem solvers for schools at One Schoolhouse. As schools get ready for the academic year to launch, challenges bubble up. Issues arise with student schedules. Students return from the summer with new passions they want to pursue in the school year. Students need greater flexibility than a traditional school day would allow for. Teachers leave unexpectedly or have unexpected constraints on what they can teach. And, in a final review of course offerings, schools sometimes realize that they are better served by not having low enrollment courses on campus.
August 1 hits and we have conversations with schools and parents about these issues every day -- just yesterday I had four such conversations. The exciting thing is that we can help schools solve problems, while giving students the high quality, high touch academic program that students and parents expect from their schools.
Let’s hear from some of the students who we helped in these situations last year:
Allow an athlete to pursue her passion
“My entire life since elementary school, I've been balancing,” says Katie, an elite skater and high-achieving student from Miss Porter’s School. In the fall of 2017, she decided to devote more time to skating, traveling to Dallas to train intensively. “It was an incredible experience… I never had the opportunity to test out what that lifestyle would be like. Doing the One Schoolhouse courses and having that flexibility gave me the opportunity to try that out.” By taking three courses with One Schoolhouse while she was away from school, Katie says, “I found classes I was really interested in and passionate about.” Her AP Comparative Government class inspired her to take an international relations course at Miss Porter’s after she returned to campus. When she got back to a more typical school experience, we asked her, ”Would you take another online course?” Absolutely, says Katie. “You can learn anywhere and connect with people around the world--that's the future.”
Make room for everything in a student’s schedule
When Lauren looked at her senior year courses at The Madeira School, she knew she wanted to challenge herself by taking AP Latin, but she didn’t have enough room in her schedule. Taking AP Latin online with One Schoolhouse let Lauren pursue her love of classics without giving up any of her other goals. While she describes herself as a “face-to-face learner,” she sees how online discussions and collaboration “stimulate my brain in the same way.” Lauren says her “phenomenal teacher… is dedicated to anything I need,” but learning online has reinforced her independence as a learner: “I know in college the classes will be much larger and the professors aren’t going to be making you do the homework or making sure you’re studying. It’s up to you how you do. You have to be that person for yourself.”
Offer flexibility when the unexpected happens
The summer before her senior year, Amelia moved from China to Puerto Rico, and became a student at SESO, a co-ed independent school on the island. She and her school discovered One Schoolhouse when she was searching for a program that would let her continue studying Chinese. What she didn’t expect was that a few weeks after the start of the school year, two major hurricanes would sweep across the island, upending life for the entire community. “I’ve been in the middle of a hurricane and trying to work through that,” says Amelia, and her One Schoolhouse class has “been very, very, accommodating.” When she looks back at the experience, “The best part has been the interaction with my teacher… I just feel like she’s a constant resource.” The flexibility and independence of learning online has helped Amelia continue to excel in her AP Chinese class: “It’s more focused, more personalized… and I think that’s been really useful for me.”
Earlier this week, I went with friends to see the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” about the life and influence of Fred Rogers. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. My mom reports that when Mr. Rogers came on at 5pm on CPTV, I’d sit quietly and listen, transfixed by Make-Believe and the man who made sure that children knew they were special and valued, no matter who they are.
The theater was packed, mainly with people my age, alternately laughing and crying through the movie. It is a beautiful film that reminds you of the good that one person can do and the power of those who speak quietly, listen carefully, and smile effusively. As we left the theater, a friend said to me, “Can’t we just stay in that theater, in Mr. Rogers’ world, for the next couple of years?"
Revisiting the world of Mr. Rogers years later, as an adult and as an educator, his insights struck me in a different way. In his time, Rogers’ belief was groundbreaking: children have feelings and opinions and voices that should be listened to, cared for, and nurtured. His understanding was radical then, but it’s common now. All of us in education today know we do better when we listen to our students, support them, and value them.
Other parts of the movie caused me to pause. As told, Rogers was conflicted later in his life, wondering whether he was making the difference he hoped for, as he saw chaos around him and the medium of television creep farther away from the purpose he held dear. And, whereas Rogers daily reminded each child of their inherent self-worth and power of uniqueness, he actively encouraged a colleague to remain closeted. That’s problematic, and also emblematic of his time.
At One Schoolhouse, we create some of our courses to respond to the issues that are emblematic of our time. This past school year, we ran a new course, “Gender and Sexual Identity in America.” Students explored the changing nature of identities over time, including efforts to expand and restrict identities in cultural, religious, and political forms. Students research initiatives such as gay marriage, gender assignment, reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, HIV/AIDS, heteronormativity, and more.
Near the end of the course, a student reflected upon their journey and brought up an area in which One Schoolhouse could value more the uniqueness of our students’ experiences: “In our ever-changing society, it is important that we be open to and inclusive of all genders, both within and outside of the gender binary. I think it is especially important to foster open-mindedness in a school environment, as this is precisely the place in which we, as students, begin to form our own opinions on the world around us. By changing ‘co-ed’ classes to ‘all genders’ classes, One Schoolhouse would welcome individuality and promote the acceptance necessary to create a supportive community of unique thinkers!
The student is right. We’ll make that change.
It feels like each day, we learn more about the complexities of identities that make each person unique . And, as we learn and grow, we interrogate our understandings and beliefs (and, yes, word-choice) to be more open to differences in experience. That makes the messages of Mr. Rogers -- to listen to children and to value the special qualities we bring to this world -- more important today than ever before.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO