It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this article that academic testing is a hotly-debated topic these days, but it was news to me that students in other countries are actually killing themselves over the pressure to succeed in school. An extreme example, yes, but then again the pressures to succeed in school are reaching a new and unfamiliar level.
I had never heard the term "Welcoming School" until we were fortunate to send my kids to one. To some, the name could sound a little hokey. To us, it is the difference between peace and happiness, and complete unrest in our family, long after the school-day is over.
Mesa Elementary in Boulder, Colorado, just became the first school in its region to receive the Human Rights Campaign Seal of Excellence Welcoming School recognition.
A welcoming school flips the current philosophy of "success = happiness" on its head. At a welcoming school "happiness = success." This is evident from the moment you walk through the door. Family comes first and homework and other school "stress," plays second fiddle.
"Back in my day," homework was required, but we didn't have a ton of it, and in fact I don't recall anyone from my youth complaining of "too much homework" like they do today. It was just that homework sucked in general. It wasn't taken to a level that has been reached today.
My daughter used to be frozen with anxiety, literally unable to speak because she was so upset and was too young to understand why, or how to express it. Some days, getting her into the school building turned physical. If we planned on going away for a weekend to do something fun as a family, everything was wonderful, until somebody brought up school. Anxiety and tantrums were the only way her 7-year-old brain knew how to deal with the myriad expectations. For 18 months it severely affected her view of school, and relationships, particularly at home. You can read more about that in a previous post here.
It wasn't easy to switch schools, but we are happy to say we started at Mesa three months ago, and it was the best decision we have made thus far in their schooling. They go to school in the mornings with no fear, no tension, and come home with smiles on their faces and pride for their school. Homework for them is still important, but it doesn't come first, and that's okay.
What's more important to the teaching staff is that students are happy and adjusted at school. They want students to trust their school, to see it as a place of solace where they are free to be themselves. They figure that a happy kid is easier to inspire than one who is given responsibility beyond their capacity, and clearly I'm not the only one who thinks they're doing many things right.
Each day on the way home from school we go over the "peak" and the "pit" of their day, and oftentimes they can only recall the peaks.
"I can't say enough about the quality of the Welcoming Schools curriculum and training we've had with HRC. The great thing about Welcoming Schools is that it's really about how we value and appreciate similarities and differences, so that it overlays everything from bully prevention to value for diversity, to how we interact with each other day-to-day." explained Mesa Elementary Principal, Josh Baldner.
The Welcoming Schools website explains their expectations to be considered for this honor, and one of the things I love most about their points is something a lot of schools miss.
When kids are truly happy, validated, understood, loved for who they are and those differences are appreciated... they perform better naturally.
Improved academic achievement and a better school climate are linked.
From their website, "Students who experience acceptance at school are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to school... Schools should be places where all children feel safe and secure." I think a lot of schools like to say they have an environment like this, but they don't walk the talk.
Whether thinking in terms of bullying or differences in learning ability, it seems many schools these days are more concerned with their students' performance on tests than their emotional well-being. With such focused attention on preparing for assessments and tests, it seems many schools are missing the central point of education - to learn. To paraphrase the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, a school is a group of scholars and teachers pursuing knowledge together... It's the 'together' part that resonates with me most in that definition. Mesa seems to get it.
So many congratulations to Mesa Elementary, Josh Baldner, and all of the teachers who have rekindled that spark of love in learning, and an appreciation for the community. Every school should aspire to be a Welcoming School, and I am grateful to be here and watch you lead the way.