Discovering what parents, business leaders, and teachers want from a school
“I firmly believe that the history and culture of any school-any organization-is largely grounded in teh combined histories and philosophies of the people who walk its hallways.” –p.19
A.B Combs Elementary school is a school like no other. It is a magnet school, which is not uncommon, however it focuses on leadership and the development of life skills in its students beyond simply academics. The school’s core is based on and has been developed around Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly effective people. Principal Muriel Summers absorbed Covey’s at a lecture during a critical period for her school. At the time she attended his lecture, her school was facing a radical restructuring or its termination. After hearing the habits, she realized that if these could be applied to children, they would grow into highly effective adults, so why not try to teach these habits as young as possible?
Before proceeding, I want to list Covey’s 7 Habits:
- Be proactive
- Begin with the end in mind
- Put first things first
- Think Win-Win
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
- Sharpen the saw
In his book, “The Leader in Me,” Covey tells the story of A.B. Combs elementary school and discusses how the habits have been applied and proven effective time after time through this small rural school. Covey discusses how all organizations are built not simply by the walls but by the histories and philosophies of those who walk its hallways. To some in the education sector this would simply mean the teachers and other faculty and to others it would mean simply the students. To Covey, and A.B. Combs elementary school, this includes ANYONE who walks the halls: teachers, parents, students, community members, etc.
All schools are designed to focus on academics, but if schools stop there, the students will stop there. If schools simply teach fact after fact, how can we expect students to become responsible for themselves in the ‘real word?’ When Muriel surveyed her community as to what they wanted out of a school, she received an overwhelming response indicating that “they wanted children to grow up and be responsible, caring, compassionate human beings who respected diversity and who knew how to do the right things when faced with difficult decisions. (21)” This sounds simple enough, but Muriel began to realize that if her school was going to provide this, its focus had to be on developing those skills, leadership skills.
For her research, she started by asking the key stakeholders (parents) what they desired out of their child’s school. The same response was echoed. Throughout the 90s, educational focus was shifted toward academic academic academic and away from any of the ‘life skills’ that some schools were teaching. After the tragic incident at Columbine, focus began to move back towards socio-emotional and mental health skills in addition to academics. By the end of the 90s, the world had become completely global and was only flattening more. Muriel researched how some of fastest advancing nations (Asia) were handling this shift with regards to education and found 4 key areas of emphasis:
- Global Skills
- Analytical and life skills
- Asian values
Not only were these schools focusing on developing their students to play on a global board, they were instilling in them the values of home and community so they would not get lost in the jungle of the world. Parents want their children to excel and grow and succeed in the world but they want them to remain grounded as to where they came from, well mannered, self directed, and honorable.
Muriel, and many other school leaders, found herself in a unique position because she realized the focus needed to shift toward life and leadership skills, but the current system was so focused on academics and test scores that it squandered out many of the soul-enhancing skills necessary to function.
Too often, I believe, schools and businesses completely separate themselves. This leaves schools frustrated because businesses have resources to offer the schools but they don’t. This also leaves businesses frustrated because the schools are essentially providing them their top resource (people) who aren’t always adequately prepared. What would the world look like if these two entities combined?
Covey suggests this is happening…
“For years, business leaders have been content to remain at arm’s length and merely point fingers, but that is another thing that is changing in the new economy. Invited or not, more and more corporate entities are getting out of their spectator chairs and becoming involved with schools.” (28)
While this is beginning to happen more, it has been over 25 years since the largest report on education completed to date, A Nation at Risk, was published and we are still stagnant in a halfway decent system. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a report on education saying, “The Chamber and its partners firmly believe that the traits that have long made the American private sector an engine of global prosperity-dynamism, creativity, and relentless focus on efficiency and results-are essential to tapping the potential of our educators and schools.” (29)
So what does this tell us about our current system? For one, it’s not working and people are beginning (again) to recognize this. This also tells us that those in the highest positions are beginning to realize that the education sector cannot exist wholly separate from the sectors it feeds students into.
A.B. Combs surveyed business leaders about what qualities they looked for in new employees and used this as a guide to frame what to teach their students. Below is a brief overview of those findings:
- Communication skills
- Teamwork skills
- Interpersonal skills
- Self motivation/initiative
- Strong work ethic
- Analytical skills
- Technology skills
- Organizational skills
- Creative minds
Muriel realized that these skills are not only essential to the development of a great employee, but of a great student, a great individual, and greatness in itself. Companies that have transitioned from Good to Great have done so by increasing their focus on character attributes (32).
A natural instinct would be to assume that teaching leadership skills would just be ‘one more thing’ for teachers to teach. Many assumed this about A.B. Combs and their revolutionary approach. After visiting, though, it was shown that the classrooms were simply, “a place where students could thrive and where teachers’ creativity was unleashed while doing the same types of activities and the same amounts of work as any other typical teacher. (34)” A.B. Combs’ approach to teaching students about these leadership and life skills is not to teach less about core skills, but to integrate the core subjects with other topics relevant to the 21st century (Life/Career skills, learning/innovation skills, technology skills). Teachers who teach at A.B Combs have begun to feel like a family, a community working toward a common goal who all believe in the leadership potential of students. When this happens and with correct hiring practices, students will see a community of educators who believe in them and begin to believe in themselves and their power to change the world.
It has been addressed, already, that students are holistic beings and should be treated as such in all aspects of their lives. Students need to feel connected. Students need to feel nourished in their four key areas (mental, intellectual, socio-emotional, spiritual). Students need to know they are cared about and be able to see that in those who say they are investing in them. The school needs to be student focused. For more details, please read “The Holistic Student.”
So How Does A.B. Combs Do It?
A.B. Combs has an individualistic view of its students; it believes in developing leaders one child at a time and making it clear to students that they are more than simply a test score or a warm body in a classroom. This involves focusing on integrating their past, the present, and their future with the past, present, and future of their environment and creating a situation where all talent can flourish and be properly nourished.