students politics change

In a shaky political climate, here’s why students are more important than ever

Why changes in education due to students' needs are eclipsing the political quagmire that generally maintains the status quo.

Politics is a funny beast. Being a journalist, I watch the gyrations and positioning with interest. When I was coming up in the business, I used to cover town council and school board meetings. It’s amazing; even then you could go to any town council or school board meeting anywhere and find remarkable similarities. With all the changes in the world over the last 30 plus years, politics still look the same to me.

Because I’m staunchly southern, one of my restaurants of choice is my local Waffle House. I remember a recent conversation I had there over a cup of coffee and hash browns, smothered, covered and chunked. My companion and love of my life, Kristy Holloway, remarked that you could go to any Waffle House in the country and see the same customers, same waitresses and same kitchen staff. The same well-defined personalities playing the same roles. And the same holds true for politics—the big-time politics you see in the news and the politics you don’t see in every school district in America.

Education Bigger than Politics

There are big changes afoot in education. So big in fact, that these changes are eclipsing the political quagmire that generally maintains the status quo.

In my conversations with teachers, principals and supes, I am sensing a realization that there is a better way forward. The encouraging part is that everyone seems to be seeing and saying the same things.

From our southern outpost in Gastonia, North Carolina, I am regularly on the phone with education-types from sunrise until well into the evening. We have some very engaging conversations, often getting into the weeds about some very common themes.

What I find is a remarkable passion among these educators. What I find encouraging is that almost everyone not only sees the same problems, but they see the same solutions to these problems. What I find even more encouraging is that they all seem to be at the same place: it’s time to act and get this thing done.

Hopefully, I’m not being overly optimistic. We southerners tend to look at things differently. We are very polite, and perhaps there is a bit of Pollyanna in us (it may be a result of all the sweet tea we drink—which we simply call tea, since drinking unsweet tea is akin to southern treason and unthinkable in polite society). What I see through my tea-soaked journalistic lens is a nation of educators and administrators who are ready to turn the education ship around, away from politics and the status quo and towards a new education reality, one in which summative testing and federal funding and district requirements take steerage and the abilities and needs of the learners are now in first-class.

Virtually everyone I talk to is on board. Republicans, democrats, independents, teachers, principals, superintendents and parents. Feelings are very strong and the realization is that we have been so focused on the business of education that we forgot to focus on our learners—the very reason we do all this in the first place. The simple truth is that our jobs don’t matter. What the federal government thinks doesn’t matter. What the unions think doesn’t matter. What the school board thinks doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, and the reason we’re in this business at all—is that each and every one of our precious children can learn and flourish and be the best version of himself or herself that they can be. It is not about the aggregate. It is about the one.

True Change is on the Horizon

If we understand that, and from my conversations I think we do, then we are truly at the place where wholesale changes can and will take place.

Learners today are very smart. They understand their place in a global society of learners. They have an innate sense of community, and a real desire to give back and make their global community a better place. I hear that from my conversations, and see the evidence in the work that they do and the incredible things they can accomplish when they work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.

I have believed for a long time that learners are much smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. Generally, when we lose students it is because they are bored and not because they are incapable.

There are some amazing tools out there that can meet kids where they live and take them to great places in the learning journey. My friend Gina LaMotte is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called EcoRise. Gina worked around the world in places like Brazil, India, Nepal and Guatemala, as well as Harlem and Taos, New Mexico before finding a very southern home in Texas. Her organization, EcoRise, teaches learners about sustainability through a project-based curriculum that has the kids working together to help their districts become energy independent and environmentally sound, saving districts like San Francisco and Austin millions of dollars that can be directed back to the kids for education.

What Gina knows, and what all the educators I talk to around the world seem to know as well, is that the future of education lies in the strengths and abilities of our students to direct their learning, to work with their peers and to fix a system you and I have perpetuated for far too long.

The world looks different now. It is so much larger and so much smaller at the same time. The traditional roles we play in our town council and school board meetings are giving way to a new environment where territorial land-grabs and ego power-plays will be replaced by the satisfaction of accomplishment and the elimination of the fear of change.

30 years from now, I won’t look back and see the same politics and the same players. My (hopefully) still keen journalistic eye will see a very different scene. Learning will be a self-directed and collaborative exercise, jobs will be for the most part global and done by a remote workforce, and educators, students and industry will work together to advance the quality of life for everyone.

And God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll still be in Gastonia sipping my tea.

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