Growing Student Agency, Understanding, and Independence
Providing support to students is one of the hallmarks of a Churchill education. As the high school principal, I witness this support in dozens of different ways every day. Our teachers manifest this support through patience, knowledge of learning issues, and flexibility. At other times support is delivered through the services that are provided by our team of specialists including our mental health and Speech and Language teams. As students get closer to graduation they and their families receive a tremendous amount of support from our guidance office. Underlying all of the support our students and families receive at Churchill is a deep understanding of learning differences and the impact they have on the individual and family. In short, support is a cornerstone of Churchill because our students and families need it.
As important as providing support is to Churchill’s culture and ethos, it is not sufficient. Indeed, in the worst case scenario, support can be a corrupting force if not provided thoughtfully and with intention. Sometimes the net result of too much support is that students stop feeling ownership of their work. Instead of engaging in a difficult task on their own they can simply wait until a well-intentioned person comes along and rescues them. As a division, we talk about the difference between helping and rescuing quite a bit. Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, as the lines are not always clearly defined. Particularly in the heat of the moment when a student is experiencing what feels like a great amount of stress.
Over the years, especially at our annual Churchill student alumni events, our former students have been fairly clear about the importance of being allowed to fail. While it has taken some time for us to heed their message, we have certainly begun to listen more closely. What do our alumni mean though? And why has it been so difficult for us to start moving in the right direction? I believe that what our students are asking is more independence and agency. They want to achieve on the merits of their own efforts and not because their success was pre-ordained or guaranteed by an army of well-intentioned teachers, expensive tutors, or concerned parents. They want to have agency and they want to own the results of that agency. They were telling us they were too coddled and protected from their own efforts.
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Now we shouldn’t mistake this feedback for some great awakening or epiphany on the part of our current students or parents. Let’s remember that the feedback I am discussing came from students who were currently in college and looking back at their time at Churchill. For current students and parents, the task is a more difficult one. They are fighting for college placements and struggling in the trenches against what seems like a never ending list of demands on their time and effort. For current students and parents, the thought of students being asked to work more independently and take greater ownership of their education can be terrifying. This is one of the many reasons that moving to a system where failure was more possible took a lot longer than one might suspect. That is, everyone can agree in the abstract that such a goal is both appropriate and important. However, when our students are in the midst of a challenge or struggle and their grades are being impacted, it is a more difficult for parents, students, administrators, and teachers, to resist the allure of the rescue. After all, who can afford a bad grade on a transcript, or a call from an angry parent, or watching a student flounder in their class. So what do we do? We jump in to rescue the student, to create a plan in which everyone but the student is taking ownership. Each of us scrambling to provide support in our own way. In the end, leading to a student who is either propped up by the efforts of others, or forced to complete work that would otherwise go uncompleted. In either case, the students come away having learned very little about the connection between their own agency and their success.
One of the ways that alumni feedback has helped to shape our program over the course of the last few years is we now have a program that does more to promote student agency and independence. Through structural changes including a later start time and the addition of Zero and flex periods, our aim has been to create a better learning environment so our teachers can begin to swing the responsibility for doing work and seeking out help back to the students. This is where the onus for learning should rest. By providing the space for students to seek out help when they need it, we encourage advocacy and ownership which often gives birth to greater independence. Yes, our students typically need more structure, guidance, encouragement, and support than their mainstream peers, and we will need to continue to provide a program that emphasizes such traits. However, students also need to understand that their achievements at school are uniquely theirs. They also need to understand that if they do not use all of the resources available to them to achieve and grow, the failure to do so will be theirs as well.
High School Principal
The Churchill School and Center