The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Principal Has to Be Tough to Do a Good Job

on January 24, 2020

Todays post describes my experience as a teacher and a school principle. It also explains why some school practices work well and others do not. I hope it helps parens to understand school changes.

When I first became a school principal I quickly gained the reputation of being a “witch.” My problem was that I wanted to form classrooms for students who were having trouble learning, while parents wanted to have only the best teachers for their children.

My position was not a matter of showing parents that I was the “boss,” but my conviction that carefully constructed classrooms are the best places for students to be successful and happy learners. Fortunately many parents finally realized that I was right when their children were doing well in the classrooms I had chosen for them.

In order to plan for placing students, I met with teachers of each grade level near the end of every school year. Our task was to decide where students should be placed for the following year. We considered not only their abilities but also their interests and behavior, because we believed that when kids are similar in those areas, none of them would be isolated or unhappy. Instead they would find partners for learning, playing games, and taking care of each other.

In contrast, many elementary schools today work to establish ability-based classrooms throughout their buildings without any concern for students mixed personalities. They believe they can do a good job of teaching if all students in a classroom have similar learning abilities and meet the same work level. 

My experience taught me that teaching to the presumed ability of a whole class never works because even the best students have differences in their work habits, learning paces, social interests and personal experience outside of school. But there is also a more serious problem: Kids placed in low-ability classrooms know why they are there and deeply resent it; while kids in regular classrooms are also aware of the situation and label it. So in the end, low-level classes can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Since everyone thinks I’m here because I’m dumb, I’ll show them just how dumb I can be!”

Do other types of mixed ability classrooms also create problems? Not when they are structured like a symphony orchestra, or a professional sports team. When kids are placed in classrooms that have supportive and harmonious structures, each one plays his best role and learns successfully.

In contrast a significant number of public schools across the country have decided –in respect for the “Common Core State Standards”–to form classrooms where all students are of similar ability, because that makes teaching easier. But even if classrooms are not marked for their teaching levels, students quickly figure them out and then recognized by which room they entered, who were the “smarties” and who were the “dummies” Although the system of separating students by ability is still common in schools it is not popular with most students or their parents.

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