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The critical power of role models

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

The adage, “it takes a village to raise a child” has rarely been more apt in its application to an educational setting than it is today. With schools more influential in the social development of children than ever before, the need for powerful role models both inside and outside of the classroom is of critical importance.

This is not news to anyone who has worked in schools in recent years, and yet, it remains an area where opportunity is so often lost. For years, experts have extolled the benefit for students of all backgrounds to be able to connect with adult role models in a school setting who can relate to their own unique circumstance, whether that is something as complex as an adult who understands cultural nuances, or something as simple as someone who simply looks like them.

And yet, it remains a rarity for many students to see themselves in the leadership of the schools that they attend in many states across the nation. Where does the young black boy see himself in an elementary school where faculty diversity is virtually non-existent and almost exclusively female dominated? What of the bilingual Hispanic children looking to see themselves on school leadership teams? And the children, who have questions about their own sexuality or faith, who are unlikely to find adults who believe it is in their best interest to admit to “being just like them when they were growing up.”

Perhaps, even more important than providing encouragement and hope for students who feel marginalized, is the need for those students who are not classified in such a group, to see strong and professional role models who do not look like them! As the next generation of leaders, it is vital that they bear witness to adult interactions that represent the greatest diversity possible — that they see the value of those who play different roles in the school, and that they learn as much from the examples of those classified employees as they do the certified ones. In other words, yes, it is important for teachers to be good role models, but children will learn just as much about life from people who work in the office, on the playing field, in the lunchroom and even on the school bus.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day in Whitson Elementary School in Topeka, Kan. I saw many really good things that day — teachers excelling in the classroom, coaches striving to solve problems, support staff patiently helping their students and all of the interactions that you would expect in a truly good school. I left that day, however, awed by a very different type of excellence.

It was at lunch that I met Jessie, Rose Kay and Derrick. Jessie is the team leader and resident grandmother, and she was masterfully navigating the chaos that is a school lunchroom while mentoring and caring for her coworkers — Rose Kay and Derrick are adults with disabilities.

They were serving lunch, as they do every day, with a positive and upbeat attitude that surpassed just about all whom I met that day. They could not have been more professional, could not have been more helpful or courteous and could not have been better role models to the students that they served.

In combination, their professionalism spoke so clearly to all who met them – allowing a group of students to see themselves as adults — with and without special needs — and to feel pride and worth. My only regret that day was that when I was a principal I never had the forethought to see that such wonderful human beings could teach powerful lessons to all that they touch without ever stepping foot in the classroom.

If you are ever in Topeka, stop by and say “hi” to Jessie, Rose Kay and Derrick. They will always have a smile waiting for you! And, while you’re there, take a moment to reflect upon whether or not your school is using a “whole village” to raise its children.

Adam Holden has been a school administrator in both the private and public education systems of Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. Adam is a two-time recipient of the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence, is a qualified IBO Head of School, an authorized Google Education Trainer and now heads the, nationally ranked, Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. Adam is a proponent of innovative, creative, culturally diverse, and blended educational experiences.

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