The Most Essential School Supplies

My August memories include family vacations followed immediately by school supply shopping. As a student and then as parent, it seemed so critical to get everything on the list . . . pencils, notebooks, protractor, looseleaf paper, reinforcements, and on and on. Now, as both a child psychologist and Dean of a graduate school that prepares educators and educational leaders, I have a different perspective on what should be on everyone's school supply list.

What we need for a successful school year is both complex and simple. We need students ready, willing and able to learn and we need teachers ready, willing, and able to facilitate learning and growth for all students. For the student side of the equation, how can we support student readiness and motivation? The most important supply we can give students cannot be bought, or ordered online. It is the priceless and powerful commodity of belief.

Students need to believe in themselves as learners, as thinkers, and as doers. They do not become believers by our smoothing all roads for them, by helicopter parenting or by our lowering standards. They do not become believers when we fill their heads with sappy notions of easy success, or notions that everyone's a genius, a winner, the best. Believing in oneself means understanding that even when something is hard, even when we make mistakes, we can grow when and if we stick with it. Believing in oneself means we understand and accept that we may not be better than everyone else, but we know we can be better than we were yesterday, or last week, if we put in the effort. We grow believers when we say to the children in our lives, in our words and through our actions, that we believe in them . . . and we believe in what can happen when they try, when they fail, and when they try again.

As for ensuring that schools have teachers who are ready, willing, and able to facilitate learning and growth for all students, what critical school supply is necessary? Again, it is belief, but on two levels. First, we need teachers to believe in students' - all students' - ability to learn and grow. And we need teachers to believe that it is their responsibility to facilitate that growth. That means first and foremost that teachers know and understand their students as unique, developing beings, with strengths and challenges, with hopes and fears. It also means believing that when students struggle to grow and learn, it is a teacher's responsibility to try, try again, try something different, learn new teaching strategies, and keep trying to help students move forward.

But we also need belief in teachers, and for teachers to feel believed in. We need teachers who feel that parents, administrators, students, and our government and society recognize the extraordinary career they have chosen and the awesome responsibility it carries. We need teachers to experience our belief in their dedication through our commitment to offer educators respect, and the prestige and compensation they deserve for cultivating our future thinkers, do-ers, and leaders. We need to provide them with adequate educational experiences both at the beginning of their teaching careers, and for all the years after.

As August wanes, and schools open, perhaps we need to prioritize our school supply lists, and realize that the most critical supplies are needed now, and throughout the school year. On a personal level, while looking for trapper-keepers, we should look at our interactions with our children, and ensure we are raising them to believe they can learn, think and do. We can consider how our interactions with teachers communicate our respect for and belief in them. On a broader level, in our communities, and with our votes, we can consider how we allocate resources to education and educators that build believers. Schools and students will manage without perfect notebooks, but without belief in students and teachers, without a mindset that understands what is possible when we try, struggle, and keep trying, that values teachers and learners, schools will fail to supply us with the life-long learners and effective doers that our world so sorely needs.