Everyone experiences those coveted moments in life when they realize, “Yes. I did it!” It’s a moment of blissful satisfaction when the hard-fought battle is won, a challenging goal achieved or a long-standing dream realized. As teachers, these moments often accompany that instantaneous spark in a child’s eyes that says, “Ah, now I get it.” We feel pride that we helped lead the child to understanding and are buoyed by the success of our efforts. But just how much credit can or should teachers actually take for student learning? Are we really doing what we think we’re doing? Do our students really need us in the classroom?
This September when I met with staff to talk about the year ahead, I reminded them that we are a lucky school, filled with lucky students who generally come from lucky families that lead lucky lives. Our students are blessed with opportunities, with support and with life experiences that set them up for success now and in the future. Knowing the positive relationship between socioeconomic status, parental education levels and academic achievement in children, the vast majority of our students are destined to fare well regardless of who is standing at the front of the classroom. I know this to be true having taught Junior Kindergarten to similarly lucky children many years ago, and I can tell you with certainty that while I would like to take credit for each and every one of those students who began reading at the tender age of four, quite frankly, I can’t. Many of them just figured it out with seemingly no effort and very little need of me. They were, to my point, the lucky ones. And I was most definitely their lucky teacher.
So what does that say about our value as educators in lucky schools? Do we really make a difference? Or would many of our students fare just as well if they found themselves in any old school with any old teacher? I argue that we have a great deal to offer all our students, but we must understand what it is and be deliberate in achieving it. And I can tell you with certainty, it isn’t plain old classroom instruction. Anyone can do that.
What we offer in our lucky schools is the “value added” – the relentless going above and beyond to reach the struggling child who might become discouraged without our gentle support; the desire to challenge the highly precocious and therefore potentially bored learner who’s at risk of tuning out; the commitment to work as part of a school-wide community to understand and nurture the whole child (and her whole family). We are there to ensure that no child in our school slips through the cracks or fails to have her talents or leadership abilities recognized and developed. That’s what makes a lucky school superb. That’s what makes a lucky teacher formidable.
This September, I challenged each and every one of our faculty and staff to identify and commit to our value added. Whether it’s ensuring that instructional practice effectively targets every learner every day, or finding new and better ways to encourage healthy eating at lunch, or simply deciding that every visitor who comes through our doors will be greeted with a warm smile – these are the simple but important things we are committing to as a school. Some people call this school improvement; I prefer to call it adding value – a semantic distinction perhaps, but one that reminds us that improvement is not something undertaken by an institution, but rather something achieved by individuals working together to build a better community.
 I give credit to my colleague and friend Dr. Steven Katz for sharing with me his notion of the “lucky school”. He is a constant partner in thought-provoking conversations about education and leadership.