Kids and families are scurrying to get ready for the beginning of the school year. Back-to-school preparation spans stocking up on the typical school supplies, arguments about what backpack to buy, fretting over whether it’s time for a tablet or laptop and clothes shopping. For some parents these are also difficult financial decisions, trying to separate the nice from the necessary. For children with special needs, there are the inevitable parental negotiations with school leadership to ensure the best accommodations possible.
Indeed, for so many, the beginning of school is an exciting new opportunity: a reunion with missed friends, a first meeting with new teachers, and hopes to wind up in the homeroom of choice. For others, the anticipation is measured with various anxieties. Beginning as a student and throughout my career as an educator, the day after Labour Day has always been the “new year” without the champagne. And as we ponder the many ways students and their families are getting ready for school, we should also ask: how are schools getting ready for the students?
Naturally, teachers in every school in Ontario are also in high preparation mode this week, organizing their classes, getting their curriculum plans in place and working with school leaders on student orientation strategies. For those of us who teach at the post-secondary level, it’s pretty much the same as we look forward to new and returning college and university students. As well, my colleagues at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have the privileged role of providing leadership opportunities for the next generation of educators for pre-school to post-secondary institutions. Many of us at OISE spend a good deal of time thinking about school readiness when it comes to the varied needs of students. What follows are some key ideas regarding getting schools ready for the kids.
While it seems obvious, one of the most important practices of great educators is the time and energy they put into getting to know their students on an individual basis, believing that strong relationships generate the kind of trust and understanding that allows teachers to adapt to the individual differences of their learners. Some believe that class size is a roadblock to achieving those deep relationships. But as one of my colleagues argues, actually suspending a week or so of lesson plans and replacing the time with ways to get to know your students will pay off in terms of their success.
Hand-in-hand with deeper knowledge about our students is the need for educators to ensure active respect of the cultural, racial and linguistic differences among our students. Our rich diversity can and should be an opportunity to make our educational environments catalysts for creating a more respectful society. On the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, we have a critical responsibility to ensure we all understand the consequences of the residential schools for indigenous people and Canada’s moral responsibility to chart a better course going forward. Our curriculum and pedagogy must truly reflect and honour diversity in all of its forms, including issues relating to racialized and LGBTQ communities.
Still, with the notion of getting to know the “whole student,” many students will arrive with individual education plans, arrangements that have already been established to provide accommodations for learning disabilities of various sorts. We need to ensure these plans are properly and thoroughly honoured.
As well, there are students who arrive or continue on with undetected learning disabilities. While we don’t expect all teachers and professors to be special education experts, the many excellent educators pay close attention to the progress of their charges. Class participation, essays and tests are opportunities to pick up on more than just “performance” and raise useful questions for discussion with students and parents. A timely referral for diagnostics can save time, reverse issues of self-esteem and provide a foundation for student success. At the post-secondary level, some students experience mild to more severe mental health issues, anxieties exacerbated by the stress of high expectations in a new environment. While our institutions need to ensure the best possible supports and interventions, what takes place in the earliest years and beyond to identify and support these challenges is key.
On a personal level, when I prepare for a new class coming to a course I teach, I always try to do something different, to focus on a new way of dealing with the intent of the course. I will often throw away my notes when the class is finished and then start fresh next time around. Why? Because I don’t think there is anything more effective in promoting the success of my students than having teachers who are excited about their subjects, always learning new things and being seen to be doing so. And learning from all that our students have to offer as we collaborate on their success is what it’s all about.
Indeed, it’s all about learning. Learning about our students and who they are. Learning from them and their progress, and then intervening in a timely manner to learn more if things aren’t going well. As educators, creating the conditions for student success is our main pre-occupation. For me, getting ready for students is exciting, daunting and so wonderfully rewarding. I remain so proud to be part of Ontario’s remarkably dedicated educators who, along with students and their families, are frantically getting ready to meet up next Tuesday.
Glen A. Jones is dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
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