After working in Oklahoma City Public Schools for two years, we interviewed teachers, administrators and community members about their work with The Learner First. This is part one of our interview with Laura Morris, an elementary school principal. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
As a principal, how has the overall experience of working with The Learner First been?
Working with The Learner First has been really good for us. It has helped us refocus on our initial ideas about what we wanted our school to be like when we opened, six years ago. We had this great big, huge, idea about what we wanted it to be for kids, families, and teachers. We kind of got away from that because all of the outside pressures that come into schools from legislation, testing, school districts, etc. and etc.
When we became involved with Learner First, we were able to refocus and get back to what we really wanted our school to be, which was a place where we recognized individual kids for who they were and what they were bringing to us. How we could capitalize on all of that to make the learning better for the kids, and then increasing our understanding of their parents and their expectations. What we could do for them, and how they could help us. That’s kind of what Learner First brought to us.
How have you seen The Learner First process impact teachers? What are some of the stories they shared with you?
I think the teachers have become more open to the idea of who their kids really are and how important building those relationships with them are. Trying to figure out just what it is that helps each child [become] not just a better learner, but a better person.
I can give you an example from Friday. We have a little guy, and his home life is just horrible. We are in the middle of test season. Testing in our building takes us about three weeks. Because we take advantage of every possible small group/individual accommodation that you can give a child. So, it takes us a long time to get them done. Because of that the children are not in their routine, and our kids need that routine, especially kids like this little guy. He has certain “anchor” people in the building and he hasn’t been able to be around them because of testing. And, he had a major melt-down Friday.
So, we got him in the office, and I got one of his anchor people in the office. We found out that one of the things he was really upset about was not being able to play soccer. His brothers and sisters had taken his shin guards and soccer socks and hidden them. And he can’t find them and so he can’t play, because he doesn’t have the proper equipment. So we went and got him new equipment.
So that is just one story about knowing our kids and understanding that sometimes there are things we can fix, and we need to when we can.
What would you say are some aspects of this process that have resonated or had the biggest impact?
I think from the very beginning, the thing that Joanne always says, “No one is coming.” I think about that every day. No one is coming so it is up to us to figure out what needs to happen and to do what we figure out.
I think the other thing is really the whole idea of “one size fitting one.” When we talked about making our school, six years ago, we talked about that. We didn’t use those words, we talked about how it needed to be a place that was all about kids and all for kids and that we need, as adults, to do everything we could to make sure that that’s why we are here every day. I think that that one little term, has helped some of my teachers. Even though a lot of them were already relationship focused, and grounded in that, and knew the power of that.
I think starting to talk about root causes with Leslie [Learner First Change Catalyst] and her guidance in that area has really helped us too… and it’s really opened up the eyes of teachers. They knew that relationships were important, but until they really started digging deep… It wasn’t part of who they were and it is starting to become part of who they are.
Can you elaborate on that? Maybe provide some conversations you may have had?
We have a teacher in third grade, and she is kind of hard assed, you know? She just started last year. She loved her kids and everything, but didn’t really ever take the time to get to know them at a really deep level. This year she had a couple of little guys that were especially challenging.
She came into my office probably around October, and she said, “I think if finally figured [this student] out.” She started telling me this big huge story. She had decided that the only way to reach him was to sit down with him at lunch and really have a conversation with him and figure it all out.
Until she did that, she never really knew how important that was, and how crucial it was to success. It made her feel like she was such a better teacher now. It had changed her way of thinking about all of her kids. And that she had really felt like that had opened her eyes and she was going to make sure that [the student] was successful this year. Since then, she has been a totally different person. She is more approachable. She seems happier. It has been interesting watching her transition.
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