My favorite moment during the summer is when I think, “Is today Saturday?” only to discover it’s Tuesday. That’s when I know I have finally erased the frantic pace and obsessive nature of working in a school. That feeling enables me to return to school with renewed energy and a mind ready to embrace creative ideas on how to deliver quality education. Unfortunately, those thoughts and feelings can fade with the first day of classes and the onslaught of a school’s demands. So, the question is, “How can we capture that feeling and mindset and make the most of it?”
If you could give a teacher one gift, it should be “time.” Teachers never have enough time to complete everything they would like to complete. Therefore, reducing the number of meetings a teacher must attend before school begins should be a priority. Let teachers organize their rooms, plan their lessons, and speak with colleagues. Recognizing that some meetings are necessary, they need to be meaningful.
Our first International Baccalaureate (IB) faculty meeting after the summer inevitably includes the results from the IB diploma program (IBDP) May exams. It’s important to unpack the results as they allow us to evaluate how we might approach certain components differently, but it’s more important to set a tone for the year and reiterate our principles. I begin our first meeting by saying, “Results do not necessarily represent achievement.”1 For me, our focus should always be on honing our craft and enabling students to feel a sense of achievement while developing their love of learning. I often say I’d rather hear a student say, “I love this class,” than receive a score of seven.
Regardless of the agenda, I begin every faculty meeting with an example of good teaching. I ask one teacher to share one activity that they have used in their classroom that they have found effective. This allows teachers to acquire good ideas, it increases the value and respect we have for each other, and it develops a more cohesive community.
This year I am trying to organize an off-schedule meeting in September for Theory of Knowledge (ToK) teachers from Athens area schools to discuss the new ToK titles and how to teach them. I have done this at another school and It’s a good way for area teachers to connect and build local contacts while also getting new teaching ideas. Ideally, I would like to see all departments do this. That could be our first professional development of the year.
The majority of our students take either the IBDP or some combination of IB courses. I like to meet the Year 1 students on the first day of school to, again, set a tone and provide them with a focus for the year ahead. Students want structure and they want to feel that they are cared for. My initial message is that there is no reason to feel stressed. There is too much anxiety surrounding the IB program, even before students begin it. Yet the vast majority who have taken the program do quite well, so why shouldn’t you? The first month of school should be about becoming comfortable in classes and understanding the expectations. I encourage them to find a rhythm and learn to plan, ask questions, develop relationships, and always know that they can ask me if they do not know something or if they are encountering difficulties. I will find a solution.
The Year 2 students are more experienced, but they return from the summer with a high level of anxiety. They have internal assignments due, and they are preparing university applications. A significant step in their future is upon them. It’s also important to reduce their stress. My messages to them are, “Slow and steady wins the race” and “Don’t Panic.” However, in order to achieve this, I remind them to:
- Be organized
- Ask for help
- Keep things simple
- Focus on what you need to do today
Students are going to become stressed regardless of what you say, but you still have to keep saying it and then demonstrate that a missed assignment or a difficulty in high school is not a big deal. Few people look back on their life and see a late assignment or a poor grade on an assessment as the defining moment in their life.
I have separate online meetings with both Grade 11 and Grade 12 parents in September because they do not always know the finer details of their child’s program and they want to feel part of the process.
For Grade 11 parents, I share the slides I have shown their children in our meetings, as I want to be transparent and consistent. I remind them that our goal is that every child feels successful, and that success is measured differently for each student. It can be academic success, social success, personal satisfaction, development of skills, feeling more informed and knowledgeable, or simply enjoying and appreciating their education. The school’s role in achieving this is:
- Knowing every student
- Tracking their progress
- Speaking with them.
- Speaking with their teachers and
- Speaking with the parents
Parents also have a role. They must:
- Allow their children to take responsibility for their education
- Be aware of their assignments
- Discuss their courses, progress, and future goals with them
- Trust us, especially their teachers
- Work with us to find solutions when their children are struggling
- Ask questions
The message is similar to Year 2 parents, but I make them aware of the assignments the students have and the pressure they will be under. I ask them to help reduce that pressure. I encourage them to make sure that their children get a good night’s sleep and that they eat well. Communicate with me if they have concerns. Everything gets done.
Schools are high-pressured environments. It’s important to minimize our contribution to that pressure. It starts at the beginning of the year and should continue throughout, and it’s achieved by reiterating and demonstrating what is important: teachers enjoying the creativity of their lessons and students laughing and appreciating the acquisition of knowledge. Perhaps a sign that this is happening is if we catch ourselves asking, “Is today Saturday?”
1. This saying is based on the IBO's Principles into Practice, 2015, p.48. “Students should be expected to take subjects and levels that provide an appropriate degree of challenge rather than making choices to maximize grade results. It does not always follow that a higher diploma score represents a better level of achievement.”
Mark McGowan is the Director of the IB and Advanced Placement programs at the American Community School of Athens.