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Alan became the Valley School's Head of School in 2014, bringing with him extensive experience as an educator and administrator. Prior to joining the Valley School, Alan spent 23 years at the Northwest School where he served as the Assistant Head of School for 12 years and as Middle School Director for ten years. His teaching background includes five years teaching fifth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and three years teaching middle school classes at The Northwest School. Alan received his Master of Education degree at Harvard University where he concentrated on teaching, curriculum, and learning environments. He brings to Valley deep expertise and local educational connections as well as a passion for the holistic development of children, the professional development of faculty, and the building of community.
 

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THE BENEFITS OF A SMALL SCHOOL

By early October, I know each of the children at my school. As Head of The Valley School in Madison Valley, I get to greet our students by name each morning at the gate and ask questions that let them know I care about them.  With just over 100 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, our school provides the close connections and sense of belonging that increase a child’s engagement in learning.

Schools come in all types and sizes, but increasingly teachers, administrators, and researchers in the field of education are recognizing the advantages of small learning communities.  

Smaller schools foster a greater sense of connectedness among children, teachers, and families. Effective learning communities, at all levels but particularly in elementary schools, are based on empathy.  In small schools, where every child is known and no one can fall under the radar, empathy can flourish more fully. 

Smaller schools have the flexibility to adapt more quickly to new learning opportunities. With fewer teachers and fewer scheduling constraints, small schools can respond quickly and nimbly to new topics and areas of student interest.  Pulling the whole school together for a performance by a visiting musician is easier in a small school.

In small schools, teachers know all of the students at all grades more personally.  As students advance from grade to grade each year, children enter a new classroom where they and their parents are already known by the teacher. 

In smaller schools, with smaller staffs and fewer layers of administration, parents have closer contact with all members of the faculty, thus allowing for quicker, more timely communication and collaboration on strategies.  Relations between parents and school people tend to be more personal and informal, thus leading to trusting, close relations. Research has shown that strong home-school relations are one of the key predictors of a positive learning experience for children and of academic success.

At The Valley School, like many small schools, we pride ourselves in providing a positive family-like school climate where children can be themselves, can take risks safely and confidently, can engage in their learning fully, and grow into thriving members of a healthy school community. 

DEFINING AND EXPANDING OUR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIVITY

I’m like most people, I guess, in that my early experiences in schools, with teachers, and with classmates inform much of how I see education.  The son of medical missionaries, I lived in Ghana from birth until I left for college in the United States. Attending Ghana International School, with classmates from many different cultural, religious, and political backgrounds, left me with an enduring and inspiring vision of the diversity of people in the world.  I went into teaching because I wanted to help introduce young people to the world beyond our national borders and contribute to schools where students of different backgrounds learn side by side in classrooms and school yards.  A similar set of values about education permeated much of the discussion about our future that took place in the spring of 2016 in the context of Valley School’s Strategic Plan.

 

In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the benefits of classrooms with children from diverse backgrounds are indisputable.  A diverse mix of classmates increases the likelihood that children will develop empathy, critical thinking, and conflict resolution skills. The things that we value at Valley, such as creativity, collaboration, and inclusiveness, are more likely to emerge and grow when children interact with other children with different perspectives and experiences.  Our ability to navigate nimbly across cultural and ideological lines forecasts our success both in the workplace and in our civic lives.  Diverse classrooms make children smarter and ensure that students will acquire the skills needed for life-long learning.  At The Valley School, our commitment to diversity and inclusivity is therefore grounded in our commitment to doing what’s in the best interests of children. 

And yet, we have significant work ahead to make this vision a reality.  The articulation of purpose and the alignment of resources and aspirations reflected in our Strategic Plan provide a roadmap into our future.  One essential step along the way is to define what we mean by diversity.  We define diversity broadly, thereby acknowledging that the differences that make a richer, more vibrant community reflect a multiplicity of human attributes. At Valley, these attributes include color, culture, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, family composition, learning styles, religion, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status.  As we move forward, this diversity of people needs to be experienced and seen at all levels – among students, parents, faculty, and members of the Board of Trustees. 

While the term “diversity” points to the people who make up our community, the term “inclusivity” points to the experience of belonging and the sense of emotional and social connection to the school.  In order to thrive in schools, children need to be recognized for who they are and to see themselves reflected both in their classmates and in the content of their learning.  To this end, much of our work in building a more diverse, inclusive Valley School community will focus on enhancing the day-to-day experiences, thereby increasing the engagement in learning of all children.

At the end of year one of our Strategic Plan, we can cite major accomplishments in this area:

  • We held our first dinner for parents of children of color, a well-attended gathering facilitated by Families of Color Seattle.
  • All faculty members participated in an in-service workshop on identity development in children and on micro-aggressions, led by Rosetta Lee, a national expert on anti-bias education who works at Seattle Girls School.
  • The Board of Trustees created a standing Diversity and Inclusivity Committee, including Board members, parents, teachers, and administrators, that will steer and coordinate all the school’s activities in these areas.
  • In the context of our first community survey, we gathered demographic data about the socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds of our families and received feedback about the sense of connection to the larger community, both for children and parents.
  • Teachers added new units to their curricula, particularly in social studies and the arts, with a greater focus on global education and the experiences of traditionally underrepresented groups in our society.
  • The Community Alliance of Parents launched a Parent Diversity Committee that will support the school’s efforts in building relationships within our community, in reaching out to prospective families, and in expanding the experiences our students have with performers, artists, and speakers from diverse backgrounds.
  • We expanded our book collections to better reflect the multicultural and family richness of our society and our world.
  • We increased our efforts to diversify the applicant pools for hiring new faculty members.
  • We increased representation within the Board of Trustees, adding people of color in leadership and membership roles.
  • The school has engaged Patrice Hollins, of Cultures Connecting, to facilitate diversity, equity, and inclusion training with Board members this fall and to support our ongoing work in building a more inclusive and welcoming community.

In the years ahead, we are committing to increasing the representation of students and families of color within The Valley School community.  At present, 20 percent of our students are children of color, and we aim to increase this percentage to 35 over the next four years. Strategies include improving both internal and external communication about the benefits of a Valley School education, connecting to local and community organizations engaged in the work of equity and inclusivity, and increasing Valley’s profile among diverse populations in Seattle.  We also aim to expand our socioeconomic diversity in upcoming years, by steadily increasing our financial aid budget allocation, currently at 13% of our operating budget.

Our aspirations in the areas of diversity and inclusivity are ambitious. Our success in building a diverse community of children, each with a strong, secure sense of self and connection, will determine our viability as a thriving elementary school. There are many conditions that indicate the strength and sustainability of a school – the quality of teachers and leaders, the clarity and consistency of purpose and mission, the integrity of financial management, to name a few – and yet each condition matters because it ensures that each child can grow confidently to become an active, engaged, creative member of our increasingly diverse society.    

FORTIFYING COMMUNITY RELATIONS AND COMMUNICATIONS

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside, someone with an objective mind and fresh perspectives, to remind us of what we’ve got.  In early May, a teacher trainer from the Bridges math program spent a full day at The Valley School, observing math lessons, giving feedback to teachers about their teaching, and sharing strategies for implementing our new math curriculum. At the end of the day, she remarked at how strong the sense of community and the ethic of care and kindness were among Valley children, something she sees only rarely in the many schools she visits each year. She knows – as we know – that a strong sense of connection and relationship among kids provides the foundation for successful learning. 

In two recent surveys, the first done as part of the Strategic Planning process last year and the second, our own community survey this spring, we examined that sense of community and connection at all levels, within the current parent body, the faculty and Board of Trustees, and alumni families. Both sets of results point to the strong sense of community here. And still we know that there is important work to be done to create stronger connections internally and externally in the broader community. We captured our aspirations for an even-stronger community and more effective outreach in one of our five Strategic Plan areas, called Fortifying Community Relations and Communication

This year, we have already achieved some of our goals in our efforts to “Improve Upon Internal Communication.” We published our first-ever curriculum guide, thereby giving us a valuable tool for communicating about the progression of learning that takes place each year at Valley. We completed the community survey to help gather feedback about the learning and community experiences at Valley. Going forward, the school will conduct community surveys every two years, thereby building our capacity to track trends, gauge levels of satisfaction, and monitor progress in key program areas. 

The strategies we identified to “Enhance Messaging and Storytelling” include focusing more of our messages in our communication tools, such as our newsletters and website, on the benefits and features of a Valley education. This year, the school’s use of social media, particularly Facebook, has reached a new level, giving our community more real-time stories and images of the activities of our Valley children. When our fourth grade class invited Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner of the Saanich First Nations of Vancouver Island to an All-School Sing to share his heritage and culture, it was quickly shared on Valley’s Facebook page.

This kind of outreach and the effective use of communication tools also support our strategic goal of sharing our “good works” in the community. More community outreach in our marketing efforts and through engagement with local organizations aligns with our strategic goal to “Strengthen our Enrollment Management and Outreach.” As with all small independent schools, our financial strength and sustainability depend on steady enrollment at all grades. Our hope is to increase the number of people in Seattle who know about Valley and are inspired by what they learn so we can add families who are committed to our mission and educational program. Recent changes in how we do tour days, such as giving visiting parents a chance to talk with current parents, reflect the school’s commitment to meeting the needs of a more competitive admissions landscape.

As we look outward in marketing and communication, we are also looking inward to “Create a Culture of Generosity.” Engagement in The Valley School community can take many forms, from reading in classrooms during lunchtime, sharing an area of professional expertise during a science unit, serving as a class representative, or helping organize our Fall FUNdraiser. Just as kids learn better when they feel a connection to their school community, parents also support the educational experiences of their children when they feel the same connection. Last spring, the school administration was reorganized, and a new position, the Director of Admissions and Community Relations, was created to bring focus and expertise in the areas of development, communications, and relationship-building. This year, Lora Kolmer spearheaded the creation of a new Philanthropy Committee. This committee has been active this spring in setting the stage for a revival of our annual giving campaign. The Annual Fund will allow parents, grandparents, and members of our extended Valley community to support our strategic commitment to building a more diverse school community, particularly through support for financial aid and for a more culturally-rich learning experience for children. A “culture of generosity” also means giving back to our community. The Philanthropy Committee is also planning school-wide community service projects, such as this fall’s “gleaning,” when families will be able to harvest produce at a farm in Snohomish to give to local foodbanks.

The Valley School’s strategic planning process last year gave our community the occasion to pause and consider what matters to us most. Our decision to include community relations and communication as areas of strategic focus reflects our shared knowledge that good people are at the heart of good schools. But keeping our community strong and connected requires effort, resources, and planning. In the years ahead, I look forward to joining all members of the Valley community in telling the stories of our school and in building the relationships that will ensure a vibrant future. 

ENHANCING OUR LEARNING PROGRAM: A Strategic Plan Initiative

On most days of the week, I carve out time in my day for a “walkabout,” my tour of the Valley campus and of each classroom. Always my favorite part of the day, this tour lets me see for myself what kids are learning.  I am always impressed by the engagement, comfort, and energy of Valley kids, whether they are seated around a table working together on math puzzles or constructing an obstacle course on the playground.  Learning is what we do in school, and so a school’s strategic plan, on some level, has to consider the quality and the development of the learning program. 

During Valley School’s Strategic Planning process last year, I participated in a six-person task force that also included two teachers, our librarian, our Curriculum Coordinator, and a Board member who is both a parent and Seattle Public School administrator.  Over the course of several months, we considered those elements of our program that needed to be preserved and those parts that needed enhancement.  Many of our “Enhance our Learning Program” goals have already been met:

  • This year, we increased the frequency and breadth of formal evaluations by adding a mid-year report in first and second grade and two progress reports in pre-K and kindergarten. Including the fall and spring parent-teacher conferences, we now provide four touchpoints for sharing our assessment of student learning with parents.
  • We developed a framework for the Board’s oversight of the learning program. Although leading and assessing the learning program is the responsibility of the Head of School, in collaboration with teachers, our Board has an interest in knowing that our students are being well served by our curriculum.
  • We are enhancing the use of the Valley School playgrounds as our “second classroom.” One of the main trademarks of The Valley School, our playgrounds have long been the setting for rich learning and growth.  This year, a Playground Committee has been introducing different elements to spark the creativity and exploration of children at all grades.
  • We have also made changes to our curriculum to reflect more cultural diversity and a growing commitment to our goals of inclusivity and equity. Whether it’s a new unit on the Underground Railroad in second grade, a unit in third grade on the international character of Seattle, or an examination of Washington state history in fourth through the lens of “counter narratives,” our students are gaining a sense of the complexity and richness of the human experience.
  • In keeping with our goal of identifying and addressing areas for improvement, this year we adopted the Bridges math program in grades one through five. Using Bridges ensures a consistent scope and sequence across the grades and an integrity of instruction in helping our students develop numeracy skills and a math mindset. 

We’ve made progress in this first year of our Strategic Plan. And over the course of the next several years, this plan will continue to provide a catalyst and framework for our efforts in solidifying and strengthening our learning program. Specific future projects include:

  • Examining our use of digital technologies, in the context of both our school philosophy of child-centered learning and current research, and articulating our goals for appropriate digital literacy and citizenship in elementary education.
  • Articulating the benefits of heterogeneous classrooms as a dynamic environment for powerful learning, while taking measures to ensure that we are, in fact, meeting the needs of students within a broad range of development. 
  • Gathering data and testimonials from alumni about the benefits and outcomes of a Valley School education.
  • Continuing to develop All School Sing as an extension of our curriculum and a place where we celebrate our community while learning in ways that reflect and extend the classroom curriculum.

In looking ahead to my “walkabouts” in coming years, I anticipate walking through classrooms that will look and feel very much like the ones I walk through today.  And yet I anticipate seeing new activities, new teaching methods, and new educational tools that point to a dynamic and responsive school that reflects both changing times and a long-standing commitment to the wonder and distinctive experiences of childhood. 

STAY PUT, STAY SMALL, CELEBRATE WOODCHIPS

During my time at The Northwest School, I knew lots of Valley graduates.  I always admired the fondness they had for their elementary school. There was something special about Valley that always led them to consider this their favorite school. 

During our strategic planning process, we spent hours considering the “irreplaceable characteristics” that are vital to our identity and culture. The Aspirational Future Work Group, made up of Board and faculty members, alumni, and parents, looked at how we could preserve these qualities, amplify our impact, and spread the message about the wonderful things that take place at Valley.  Of the five strategic areas – also including Learning Program, Diversity and Inclusivity, Community Relations and Communications, and Campus Plan – this was the group that looked most expansively and broadly at the purpose and future of the school. 

To preserve the best of Valley and to enhance our impact on future generations of Valley kids, and families, we committed to the following strategic initiatives:

  • Increase the standing of The Valley School in our area by further outreach with other schools, particularly through more involvement within the Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS).
  • Continue developing our assistant teacher program. Already an obvious asset of the school, it can become an even more prominent destination for people exploring careers in early childhood and elementary education.
  • Expand our summer camp offerings over the next several years. A larger summer camp will enhance our outreach in the community, meet the needs of current families, and support our financial sustainability. It will also provide professional development opportunities for our teachers.
  • Continue our sensible and careful financial management practices that allow us to offer a successful learning program for our students while compensating our teachers and staff fairly and competitively.

Part of what makes The Valley School special is our campus.  In the literature I read about effective schools, I increasingly see education experts citing the importance of school climate.  The climate of a school is based on many elements.  The human element – the community, kids, teachers, parents – has a profound impact on school climate.  But the environment also plays a significant role in building school climate. 

The Campus Plan Work Group focused intently on the environmental and physical dimensions of The Valley School.  We love our campus, with its open spaces, with its classroom buildings scaled to the size of neighborhood homes, with its woodchips, animals, trees, and gardens.  The Board’s Strategic Plan recommitted to our size and grade configuration, with one section at each grade, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. And we committed to preserving the geographical features of the place and enhancing the child-centered dimensions.  In essence, we said, “Let’s stay put, and let’s stay small.” And, like homes, our school buildings require regular maintenance and upgrades, and our budgeting for the future ensures that we maintain the financial reserves needed for wise maintenance and smart enhancements.

As Head of School, one of my goals is to ensure that our kids graduate from Valley with big, kind hearts and active, curious minds – and a fondness for Valley that, years later, will still keep their elementary school ranked as their favorite school.

Kids and the News

The topic of how kids respond to the news keeps coming up. A recent faculty meeting, a lunch for Heads of School at the NWAIS All Schools Conference, sidewalk conversations with parents – these are all settings where conversations have turned to the anxiety and confusion about the impact of news on our children.  An unusually contentious and uncivil presidential campaign is certainly one catalyst for these discussions, and librarian Marilyn Nicolai’s recent article in Life at Valley does a good job of exploring how parents and teachers can help children understand this election. But after the election is over, the challenge of knowing how to help kids make sense of the world will remain, and one of their lenses on the world is the news.  It’s one of our more challenging balancing acts: knowing how to both shelter a child from the world and bring a child into the world. 

Here are some thoughts for your consideration:

  • A child’s ability to understand and give appropriate significance to news depends on his or her age, maturity, developmental level, and personal experiences and temperament. What a fifth grader can handle is very different from what a child in kindergarten can handle, and we need to adjust our approach to a child’s stage in life.
  • The very nature of news media, especially in an age of non-stop, 24/7 coverage, is to over-dramatize and sensationalize what’s reported. Statistics show, for example, a decrease in the incidence of crime in our country, and yet reporting of crime has increased dramatically.  Natural disasters, wars, acts of violence, and scandals take up a disproportionate amount of time and space in news coverage, while, in reality, these are rare occurrences.
  • When it comes to the news, parents need to serve as filters of information: some news gets through, and some news stays out. Parents should make thoughtful choices about the presence of news in the lives of our children.  We need to think carefully about whether we listen to the news while driving to school in the morning, for example, or whether TV news is on in our homes.  When my kids were little, I made a practice of looking carefully at the pictures and the headlines on the front page of the morning paper before leaving it on the table. 
  • Experts in child development and psychology are weighing in with greater clarity now about the need for parents to limit the time children spend on digital media, or “screen time,” but I have yet to see specific guidance relating to exposure to the news. For our younger kids, especially pre-kindergarten, it may be that “no news is good news” is the right approach.  For older children, there are good web resources that present news at an age-appropriate level, including Scholastic Magazine and Time for Kids.
  • Parents should answer a child’s question about the news truthfully, but only with as much truth as the child can handle. As adults, we often want to answer what we think underlying questions and concerns are, but what a child usually needs is a direct, simple answer – and little more. When it comes to questions, we are wise to lean towards following their lead rather than leading them in directions they may not need to go. 
  • One key to helping children understand the news is to reassure them of their safety and to remind them that both home and school are safe, dependable places. Kids need to know that you, as parents, will be there for them.  Reassuring words and the physical proximity and intimacy of family members can help mitigate the emotional distress caused by the news. 
  • Children take their cues from the adults around them. How we react to news and what opinions we express about people and events in the news both send powerful messages to our children about how they should respond.  Our openness to conversations and questions about the news also tells kids that, as adults, we are also inquisitive, engaged in the world, and committed to our civic responsibilities. 
  • As parents, we need to be available to talk about the news and to help them make sense of often confusing messages about current events. These conversations allow us to lessen the negative impact of news and to reassert the values of kindness, compassion, and respect for others that Valley School families believe in and work to promote. 

Our job, both as parents and teachers, is to shepherd kids into the world, shielding them from harm while introducing them to experiences that build resilience and equip them for what comes next.  In this digital age, where communication about the news is rapid, frequent, and ubiquitous, our roles as parents and teachers are more complicated and confusing than they used to be.  But a thoughtful, balanced, attentive, and age-appropriate approach to the news can help our kids feel safe and make sense of their world.  

Why A Strategic Plan?

“If I were to ask you to describe The Valley School using single words or short phrases, how would you do it?”  Back in January, during the first stage of our strategic planning process, 144 members of the Valley community – parents, faculty, alumni, and Board members – were asked this question.  The most frequent words were “creative,” “child-centered,” “supportive,” “playful,” “caring,” and “community.”  The resulting “word cloud” graphically illustrates the frequency of these words, with the biggest words in size being the words most commonly used in the interviews.  

One reason to do a strategic plan is to understand what makes us who we are and to identify those steps that will preserve what’s best about us for future generations of Valley children.  A vibrant school is a school that is constantly learning, a school where all members of the community, children and adults, actively experience the wonder and the challenges of growth and change.  Like all institutions, schools are complex, multifaceted organisms, and, for institutions to remain healthy and sustainable, they must know where they’ve been, where they are, and where they are going.  Doing a strategic plan ensures that a school reflects on its past, present, and future in a thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive way.

In the research stage of the strategic planning process, which involved surveys and interviews conducted by Ian Symmonds and Associates, our consultants, a handful of themes emerged.  These themes captured both the wishes, concerns, and visions of The Valley School community.  Borrowing from the work of Wiggins and McTighe, creators of the Understanding by Design method of teaching, we can think of this stage as defining the “Essential Questions” for The Valley School.

  • Who are we, what do we stand for, and how can we preserve the best of Valley while remaining vibrant and responsive to a rapidly changing world?
  • What defines the educational philosophy of Valley, and how do we ensure that every child benefits from the learning program at our school?
  • As a community that values inclusiveness, do all members feel connected, known, and included?
  • What steps must we take to ensure that our relationships, practices, and policies support a diverse community and that our curriculum reflects this richness of backgrounds and experiences?
  • Do the stories we tell ourselves about Valley match the “word on the street?”
  • What strategies and steps can we adopt to broaden our reach to more families in Seattle and to people of more diverse backgrounds?
  • To deliver the highest quality Valley School education, are we the optimal size and do we have the right facilities?

Five Strategic Planning Work Groups tackled each of these questions.  These five groups – Aspirational Future, Learning Program, Diversity and Inclusivity, Marketing and Communications, and Campus Plan – developed action steps that we will implement in the next five years. 

When successful – and I’m confident ours will be – a strategic plan brings about a positive shift in focus, a thoughtful allocation of resources, and a galvanizing of collective energy.  Our first-ever Families of Color Dinner in September, for example, was early evidence of the action and momentum sparked by the discussions about diversity and inclusivity this past spring.  A public version of the Board’s Strategic Plan will be unveiled at our Curriculum Night on Thursday, October 13.  I will also update our community about our progress through my Head of School blogs this year and at “Coffees and Conversation with Alan.”

The ultimate goal of The Valley School’s Strategic Plan is to ensure that generations from now – 20, 30, 50 years in the future – the parents, kids, teachers, and graduates of Valley will create a similar “word cloud” and still describe our school as a “creative, child-centered, supportive, playful, caring community.” 

SNOW WHITE, MARSHAWN PINCH, AND THE ANIMALS AT THE VALLEY SCHOOL

For the most part, I knew what I had signed on for when I took the job of the Head of The Valley School – except for the animals. On my first day on the job, July 1, 2014, I listened to a phone message from a neighbor who reported that she had “one of our chickens.” She had “rescued” Snow White, who was being “henpecked” by the other two chickens. This moment marks the start of my education in animal husbandry at Valley. I was vaguely aware that the phrases “henpecked” and “pecking order” describe real social dynamics among chickens. Now I know the truth. In the last year and a half, my appreciation for both the complexities and benefits of having animals in an elementary school has only grown. And now, I am clear that the benefits significantly outweigh the occasional dramas, kerfuffle, and mysteries.

According to my recent animal census of The Valley School campus, we have:

Three hermit crabs named Startle, Swirl, and Marshawn Pinch

One hamster named Humphrey

One guinea pig named Squeakers

Two classroom mice named Popcorn and Brownie

Three egg-laying chickens named Snow White, Sassy, and Red

One rabbit named Sir Flops-A-Lot

One white French bulldog named Gus

Countless slugs

Countless snails

Itinerant squirrels and birds

135 human beings, give or take a few, depending on the day

Having animals around means that we never want for stories. There’s the recent story of Humphrey, the kindergarten hamster, who went AWOL in December. After searching high and low for Humphrey, we determined that Humphrey had “gone on vacation.” In mid-January, a month later, Humphrey turned up in the classroom recycling bin, looking very healthy and not too pleased about his return to a cage. How he got out of his cage in the first place and what kept him plump and healthy for a month remain mysteries – and inspirations for imaginative stories by kindergarten kids.

The pre-K children build elaborate homes for our three hermit crabs, including one named Marshawn Pinch, after the Seattle Seahawks running back. We keep looking to see whether he/she imitates “Beast Mode.” The hermit crabs thus provide a context for imaginative story-telling, construction projects, and play-based research. Every year, our younger kids show an almost insatiable interest in slugs and snails, and they spend considerable time examining the habits and habitats of these little critters. All the while, they develop their powers of observation and gain an appreciation for the natural world. The animals at The Valley School therefore play a vital role in an emergent curriculum that draws on the natural curiosity and passions of children.

The emotional and psychological benefits of having animals in our lives are well documented. Juvenile delinquents show tremendous progress when given responsibility for caring for pet dogs. Elderly people show cognitive and social growth when caring for animals. A recent article in the New York Times magazine described how parrots are used in helping patients recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have none of these populations, and yet we know from experience, for example, that holding a guinea pig can help calm a distressed kid. Taking care of animals brings a sense of responsibility and empathy. As part of their afternoon chores, fourth and fifth graders clean the rabbit hatch and the chicken coop. Classroom animals need care over weekends and vacations, and, when children take care of a classroom pet, this responsibility gives them real-life lessons with far-ranging benefits.

Having animals in our classrooms and on our campus also puts Valley School kids in contact with death. Animals die, and, since I started working at Valley, we’ve lost five animals. These events put kids in touch with the arc of life and with the realities of loss. In these situations, classroom teachers spend time helping students sort through complicated emotions. Kids will have a wide range of reactions to the death of an animal, and, with help from our teachers, Valley students learn that there are different ways, all natural and authentic, to respond to loss.

Learning takes place on multiple levels and through multiple interactions. The interactions between Valley kids and Valley animals are one of the many experiences that make this a special and engaging place for young learners.

THE COURAGE TO TEACH

My favorite book about teaching is Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. It’s been my favorite exploration of what it means to be a teacher since it was first published in 1998. Despite reading many other books about teaching and education since then, it’s the one book I go back to, again and again, for insight, wisdom, and rejuvenation. I recommend it frequently, to both new and seasoned teachers, and to anyone who wants to understand the complexities, joys, challenges, and rewards of this important work.

The subtitle, “Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,” gives an indication of the focus of The Courage to Teach. Palmer’s premise is that good teachers choose a vocation more than a profession. The word vocation shares the same Latin roots as the words voice and vocal. A vocation therefore is a calling: it is an activity that gives voice to who we are as individuals and helps integrate our identity, purpose, and life work. In Palmer’s words, good teachers teach from “their hearts – the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”

Good teachers don’t fit a single mold. Good teachers come in a myriad of styles, backgrounds, and personalities, but they share certain characteristics. They are “truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subjects.” They have a high degree of self-knowledge and the resilience to navigate the complicated “crossroads of personal and public life” that all teachers encounter. For good teachers, teaching is “an act of generosity,” and, when we are effective, our work brings a sense of “deep gladness.” 

One of Palmer’s most powerful insights is in identifying the place of paradox in a teacher’s life and the need to hold opposing forces in balance. My own view of teaching has expanded to incorporate this idea of paradox, “a view of the world in which opposites are joined,” thus forming a deeper and truer appreciation of the work we do with children. There are many powerful paradoxes in teaching:

  • Good teaching requires predictability and order; good teaching requires flexibility and openness.
  • Teaching is a very public activity, with one’s actions on display daily; teaching is a very personal activity that involves great vulnerability and frequent isolation.
  • Good teachers exercise authority to make a classroom work well; they relinquish authority at times to allow children to grow.
  • Good teachers embrace the magnitude of their power and influence, they are keenly aware of the limits of their impact.
  • Good teachers focus on the needs and growth of individuals; good teachers focus on the well-being of the whole group.

Both research and experience tell me that the quality of a school depends on the quality of its teachers more than any other single factor. At The Valley School, we are blessed with dedicated teachers who have chosen teaching not as a profession but as a vocation, where, each day, they bring their identity and integrity to the sacred work of helping children find their voices and speak their truths. I work with people who have the courage to teach.