Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Power and Promise of Needham's Teachers: Learning and Serving with Students in Florida

Over the last week I was again reminded of the power, promise, and role of great teachers in our schools.

Traveling to Palm Beach County, Florida I was privileged to join 20 remarkable Needham High School students and their four teachers who were serving and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to help build a new home for a young mother named Yolanda.
Needham High Students with Yolanda
It was an honor for me to work alongside our students who were diligent, enthusiastic, respectful, and, well, just fun to be around. Without a groan, the kids were up at 6 every morning and piled into vans headed for a sweaty and grimy day building, digging, and landscaping. They never tired or complained, and they were always looking forward to the next task or chore as if it were a gift. They smiled, joked, and took care of one another like brothers and sisters (including one or two arguments over tuning the minivan’s radio station!).

The students were led by four superb members of the Needham High School faculty and advisors to the Habitat Club: Emily Will, Peter Arsenault, Diana Parkhurst, and Bill Goldman. Not only did these teachers give up their vacation time and many weekends and evenings earlier in the year to help students raise money and to organize trip logistics, they ensured everyone was safe, well fed, and on time to the worksite. They insisted that everyone work hard (no problem with this crowd), have fun, and learn about Habitat’s mission and the people they serve. Everyone, including the teachers, ate the same peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slept on the same cold tile floor at the local YMCA; everyone pitched in to build, plant, and rake. The teachers were immensely patient, flexible, and often quite humorous, especially when they could poke fun at the superintendent.
Needham High Teachers Peter, Diana, Bill, and Emily

I watched proudly as our teachers assisted individual students, encouraged them, offered a suggestion, or, once or twice, even provided a stern look at just the right time. The conversations held in the van, on the job site, during meals, and even late into the night were wonderful opportunities for our high school students to interact with and learn from their teachers in ways that go far beyond the standard classroom routine. The teachers were incredibly enthusiastic and made it a priority to connect with and care for each student, including a late night run to the grocery store to buy a birthday cake for one of the boys who turned 18.

Throughout the week, no doubt the teachers learned many new things about these exceptional young people. I am also certain our students learned much from our teachers about what it means to be a caring and conscientious adult in a culture that sometimes underestimates the value of compassion and responsibility. Emily, Peter, Diana, and Bill were selfless and tireless on this trip, and they—and all of their Needham colleagues—are exemplary role models for young people.

Recent classroom visits in the Needham Schools and now last week’s experience on this service trip reinforce my belief that no single policy change, technology innovation, or curriculum update alone can improve and inspire students as much as a well educated, creative, dedicated, and joyful teacher. Without the presence of a caring adult who can guide, nurture, and personalize the educational experience for young people, inside and outside the classroom, learning will suffer and the hopes and aspirations of the individual child—indeed the entire community—are diminished.

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