Doug Magee is the Dean of Curriculum, Innovation and Design at the Church Farm School, 30 miles west of Philadelphia. It’s a boarding school for boys with the mission to really close the opportunity gap for low income students in receiving a college preparatory boarding school experience. So it’s an independent school. I had the opportunity to sit down with Doug during FUSION and discuss classroom challenges and opportunities.
Q: How does the culture of community impact the classroom in terms of students owning their educational path and feeling empowered to make a difference in their own education?
Doug: I think two things really about that. I think, first is that we’re human beings and so we’re relational creatures. That’s like how we were made, right? So anything educational is primarily about relationships. I think high school teachers in particular often times think of themselves as teaching content and sometimes forget that they teach students first. That was really my approach when thinking about teaching History.
For me, it was always about the people and History was even about that story so it’s probably why I gravitated towards it. The second part of it, I think is, there’s a great quote that I often times tell the faculty that I work with. It’s a quote by Roland Barth who said, “When it comes to learning, teachers and students go hand in hand or they don’t go at all.” And I think to reach populations of students that have perhaps typically been marginalized in the educational process is really about fostering those collegial relationships in order to foster the student-teacher relationship.
And who’s winning in this situation? I think if our kids are winning, then we’re all winning but we have to create healthy positive relationships across our communities as a whole and I think that notion still holds true that it takes a village, and schools are communities.
Q: In thinking about lessons from your own classroom or from any classrooms of any of the teachers that you work with, what do you think is kind of that secret sauce in a classroom environment that encourages or motivates each student to stay engaged in their education, to be active, use their voice, and be active in their own learning journey? What is that ingredient that encourages that cultural behavior?
Doug: One of Steven Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is seek first to understand so as to be understood and any teacher that I’ve seen that’s highly successful with their students in the classroom has a relationship with their students. And I think that’s really one of the key things for growth, because students trust the adults and so when you have that trusting environment in a classroom, students are really able to take risks academically, socially and it’s a safe space for them to do those things.
So I think teachers that are highly effective in their classrooms they understand their students in a relational way. There’s healthy boundaries, there’s safety, there’s security and if you have that type of right mixture, then the content pieces are easy because the students are willing to follow you.
Q: So what happens with your students when they’re involved in setting their own growth targets and goals?
Doug: So I think that’s probably one of the areas that we’re really trying to drill down on a little bit more. We recently went through an accreditation process. Actually, one of the reasons why we began to work with NWEA is because we weren’t happy with the current assessment practices and wanted to create a culture of assessment for growth. And so, I think from the first moment a student steps foot on campus to the moment they graduate, and even really beyond, we want our students to be thinking proactively about their future, really from that growth mindset position. And so, I think the healthy level of transparency that we have with them, and also the insurance that the effort that they put into their educational opportunity, and also the support that we provide them, can help them reach those growth goals.
You know, it’s a tremendous opportunity that they have, and I think, not that we want to…We certainly don’t want to hold that over their heads in anyway, but we really want them to be able to not only maximize the opportunity that they have at Church Farm School, but really maximize any opportunity that comes their way in the future, and insures them that they have the ability to stand and deliver when needed.
Q: If you were to be able to look into the future, 5 years or 10 years, given everything that’s in flux and constantly in flux in the education landscape, what are your hopes for the future of education?
Doug: My hope for the field of education and schools in general, I think, is about providing students a greater degree of equity and access to quality experiences that are going to shape their lives, transform their lives, and hopefully transform the world. I don’t think it should be dependent on the zip code that you live in. It shouldn’t be dependent on the color of your skin. It shouldn’t be dependent on your socioeconomic background.
I think schools, in general, regardless of if it’s a public school or a charter school or an independent school, I think all of our schools have a responsibility to find ways of engaging all students all the time. It’s probably going to look very different in a variety of different places, but I don’t think that we can continue to operate in this one size fits all approach to educating our students, and the better tools that we have available to us, through technology, allows us to understand many different things about the student experience. And my hope is that educators can leverage some of those things that we’re learning to improve the designs of schools and the designs of communities.
Q: What do you think needs to happen in our schools to ensure that each student is growing and thriving in their own personal journey?
Doug: I think it goes back to first seek to understand so as to be understood. If you really understand the unique needs of each student and realize that students aren’t just a demographic number, or some point on a scatterplot, but each student has a unique set of gifts, talents and abilities, and they also have a unique set of dreams. And so, finding ways to engage them in both of those things, and to find a pathway where they can utilize their gifts, talents and abilities and realize their dreams, I think students will enjoy the process of learning, right? And if they enjoy the process of learning, they’ll enjoy school. But I think it’s kind of in that order.
Thanks to Doug and all the attendees of FUSION for great educational dialogue!