Tuesday, October 9, 2018

See children for who they are

By Mark Heintz

It sounds like an easy question to answer: What's the purpose of school? Yet, it might be one of the hardest questions to answer.  I started reading Timeless Learning and the brief history of schools is fascinating.  Even when you look at the origins of public education, there were very different reasons for it to exist.  Fast forward 150 years, it's purpose is still being debated.

So, what is the purpose of school? Are schools institutions of learning? Just academic learning? Are they solely there to prepare kids for the workforce, college, or the military?  Are they there to socialize or norm behaviors?  Are they there to inspire or open kids minds to possibilities? Are they there for self-actualization?  Are they all of those things?  Even if you can answer the question, do you live it? Are all of your actions aligned with what you believe about schools?

This post isn't going to answer the question directly or get to my beliefs.  But, rather bring up one point that might be missing from most of the questions above. It's simple. Clear. And very difficult to do on a daily basis. See children for who they are.


the different, not the deficit knowledge.

their interests, not mine that I hope they find interesting.

their passions, not mine that I impress upon them.

their hopes, not mine for them.

their pathways, not the ones I wish they would take.

their journeys, not the ones I push on them because it worked for me.

Children are unique, incredible individuals that add so much to the already amazing world.  Yet, in a school setting, it can be difficult to always value what they want and allow them to pursue their interests.  Like I said, it's hard.  I'm fortunate to work in a district that offers so many opportunities and teachers are willing to make changes to allow children to be themselves.  It's hard to make changes.  Still, the district and the schools in the district continue to make conditions that serve children and see them for who they are.


  1. Seeing kids for who they are has always been difficult for many teachers. It is almost as if we put on our teacher hat and the love, understanding, patience, acceptance and encouragement we have as parents goes out the window. We have a tendency to frame our new persona as part of our high expectations and yet is it? We talk about not viewing children through a deficit model but do we allow ourselves to see children through the gifts they bring to the table?

    A few years ago I did a course at Harvard for Urban Leaders. One of the presenters talked about the power of language and how we make assumptions about children from the moment they enter Kindergarten based on the way they talk. Imagine being 4 years old and being branded the minute you enter school because of the way you talk or don't talk. How did we become so judgemental as educators?

    I think one of the most difficult things for us to do as teachers is to let go of our own middle class bias and work to see children for who they are. All teachers have their own personal stories and sometimes we allow our stories to colour what we think children should be able to do or not do. "I overcame challenges so why can't they," but that thought process is completely tied up in the current paradigm of schooling and reflects the belief that children need to adapt and fit in to the current expectations we have for them. To abandon this way of thinking is hard, it is very hard, but it is also necessary.

    When children enter school they are full of hope and excitement. Their imaginations are in full flight and frankly it is impossible to assume what they will or will not be interested in. My favourite story is of a Kindergarten class who the teacher thought would be interested in learning about Spring and analyzing the changes taking place all around them. The teacher took them out for a neighbourhood walk expecting the children would be curious about the bulbs coming up, the trees budding and the gradual awaking of nature. Instead, one little boy was perched over a sewer grate staring. The rest of the class gathered round and the little boy pointed and said to the teacher, "What is that?" The sewer inquiry was born. The teacher hadn't planned that inquiry, she hadn't even anticipated such a thing but she listened to the voices of her students and followed their sense of wonder.

    I often hear teachers say, "Oh that is fine in Kindergarten but you can't do that in the upper grades. We have a curriculum to cover," but do we? Is the concern students have about climate change less important than whatever else is in the science curriculum? Is their concern about gun control, political leadership, the cure to cancer, indigenous peoples issues, equity, gender, the attack on the press, disappearing and murdered reporters, etc., is all of this less important than the content issues currently contained in the curriculum? I would argue no.

    We need to listen to kids. We need to wonder with kids, and we need to foster their ability to make a difference. Letting go will be hard, giving up power always is, but we need to believe in and trust the voices of our learners.

  2. I can't agree with you enough. Seeing kids for who they is tough! And I agree that our expectations for them blind us to what they have. I continue to strive, not successfully everyday to be like your sewer inquiry story. I am working towards, but what a great place that would be if we could get there.

    There is this sense that high school has to be more serious and curriculum is the serious business. If we listen to kids, the seriousness will be there. It will be rigorous. But, like you said, we must believe and trust in our students.

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