Guest Spot: Building for the future of our community

I am convinced that the foundation of good education is about the concept of building — building a school, building community, building relationships and building a sense of self. 

This belief started to form in me as a young teacher, a teacher who began his career working in a school for incarcerated students. I remember being alongside students whose life story and life trajectory left little hope for the future. I recall wondering as a young educator — what can I do to alter their story, their path in life? The idea that we can help shape or reshape what seemed to be a child’s destiny represented a challenge for me, both personally and professionally.

School “works” for many students to provide a pathway into the future, a foundation of rich experiences that inspire and form the basis of their life stories. I wondered: Why not with these students?

I realized that many other factors conspired to bring them to this point. Education and schools can never be fully responsible for the outcomes that our students achieve; yet I wondered, what could be a key ingredient to reshape their view of the world? What could be something so powerful that it could reboot the system, rewire the hardware, stimulate a new emotional connection to the world around them?

I thought that having them build something, having them make a physical change in their environment, would change them as well. This, I thought, could reawaken their spirit; they would imagine themselves rebuilding their souls while rebuilding their surroundings. Shape the world around you and you shape yourself in the process.

Tending a garden offers students a chance to shape their environment and participate in the natural transformation of seed to plant. Building a greenhouse teaches students all subject areas, including math and science. Creating a gallery or museum display involves a student in a real process of honoring history and art. Putting on a drama or musical production shapes the experience of others, as the audience becomes the beneficiaries of our students’ talents and contribution to the larger community.

Over the years, I wondered if those early thoughts about shaping the physical space still have bearing upon the outcome for any learner — whether a kid in jail, a gifted and talented student, a struggling child, or anyone in the situation of learning. I am convinced it does.

What about our students?

What about students who are not in need of rebuilding their worldview?

The challenges faced by many young students of all backgrounds have in fact become quite real. While the life experiences of our students may not be as intense as those I’ve described above, there is a sense that many young people today face a growing list of pressures, both real and imagined. We should take note of the state of mental health and substance abuse issues and concerns now reaching crisis levels throughout the country.

What about our schools?

So how might this personal journey that I’ve described relate to our schools?

I believe that we can honor the place where we work and live: The North Fork of Long Island. We can enhance it, and in doing so enhance each other, our community and, ultimately, ourselves. We can always build upon what we have and be committed to the process of continually rebuilding our vision and our school.

Is this relevant?

Elon Musk stated his view that learning should happen in the context of solving a problem. Too often we ask students to learn something as a way to develop a skill or possess knowledge that can be applied later on in life. Musk thinks learning should have immediate consequences.

“Learning should be focused around solving a specific problem, such as building a satellite or taking apart an engine …Then students will encounter and master subjects such as math or physics on the path to solving their problem. Understanding how to use a wrench or screwdriver will have a clear purpose.”

Here’s how I see it.

Let’s make the process of learning and what takes place in school so compelling that it can’t be replaced by a robot, that an algorithm is not considered a suitable, more efficient means of educating our students, that the experience of learning in our school is of such value that abandoning or reducing its scope is inconceivable. Let us ensure that our students continue to be great problem solvers, fearless learners, courageous citizens and creative thinkers who contribute greatly to the world around them.

What do we need to do?

Ultimately, whenever we are faced with the challenge of engaging our students in the process of learning, we are building their skills, building a sense of community and helping each student to build a sense of self within themselves.

Let us not forget that no matter how schools are set up, it is the human condition, the relationship between child and adult, that stands at its center. From that center we can work together to impart lessons, build understanding and build capacity.

I believe that with each passing generation we inherit a space, along with a covenant to uphold the values and principles of those who have come before us. We have an opportunity to build upon their contributions while we forge our own.

Is it not true that at all times we stand on the shoulders of others? Let us work together to build upon the opportunity that has been given to us.

The author is the superintendent of the Southold and Greenport school districts.