It's the kids, stupid.

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The right focus for educators is as hard as it is simple. 

Halfway through his 29-year term leading the award-winning alternative education program he developed in the late 1970s, Alan Lantis borrowed a line from the 1992 presidential campaign. After strategist James Carville hung the poster in Bill Clinton’s headquarters to keep everyone on-message about “the economy, stupid,” Lantis began to use a paraphrase to remind colleagues about what matters in school. “It’s the kids, stupid,” he often said. (Imagine “stupid” pronounced with an avuncular twinkle in Al’s eye. Nobody took offense!) 

The team of teachers working in Project ‘79 serves a population of students with average to above-average academic ability who, for a variety of reasons, have not found success in a traditional school environment. There is no standard “type” of Project '79 student, but many kids who thrive in this innovative learning community contend with personal issues or family pressures that make it difficult for them to prioritize schoolwork. 

As a member of the teaching team for over a decade, I can attest that working with Project '79 students is as demanding as it is immensely rewarding. In those afternoon meetings when we were ready to tear our hair out, Lantis would listen patiently, and then remind us who we were there for: It’s the kids, stupid. Teachers will get our egos bruised from time to time, but it’s not about us. In recent years, Project '79 staff have taken to advising new team members, “Check your ego at the door.” 

While there’s no excuse for disrespect, certain student behaviors become easier to handle when we make a continuing effort to understand students as individuals. That kid I have for 43 minutes of English III is a whole, complex person who lives the other 1397 minutes of his day with a full complement of pressures, pleasures, anxieties and dreams. The young woman who doesn’t feel confident writing essays probably feels plenty strong in some other place; if I figure that out, I can help her leverage her other strengths to face challenges here. It’s the kids, stupid reminded me to try to show each student The person that you are is at least as important as the subject that I teach.  

With different phrasing, other remarkable school leaders also memorably emphasize the central role of students. Martha Group, a superintendent from Upstate New York, has said that she scrutinizes organizational diagrams and charts that present plans for teaching and learning without any reference to kids. “Where are the students in this picture?” she always asks. Duval County (Fla.) Superintendent Dr. Patricia Willis has made it a priority to coach staff about responding to and caring for students as individuals. “If they didn’t get it, I would help them out. If they repeatedly refused to get it, I would help them out.”

 

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed. D. Image by the author, from the annual Project '79 retreat at the Princeton Blairstown Center.]


 

Peter Horn