by Charles Debelak
This article was written for the community by Birchwood’s Head of School Charles Debelak and appeared in the December 2020 Westlake Neighbors magazine. Mr. Debelak’s writing provides parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.
After almost 50 years of working with children and young adults in education, this statement is the most important advice I can give to parents. And, in the midst of the current pandemic, when the process of schooling has been thrown into turmoil, it is a maxim.
What I have discovered through my years of experience is that the quality of education can vary from school to school or district to district. Even year by year, parents may find their children are assigned to poor teachers, mediocre teachers, or great teachers. Yet the one constant for student success and growth is engagement. I have witnessed so often that if a student is engaged in their learning, no matter what school they are in or what teacher they are assigned, they thrive and flourish academically.
This means a student arrives at school ready to learn. They take responsibility for their learning. They are industrious. They are responsive to their teachers. They value learning, growing, and succeeding. The result is intellectual and academic progress.
I still teach mathematics and writing to elementary and middle school students. I consider myself a good teacher (I better be after all these years!), yet in my classroom a student’s level of engagement is the most significant indicator of their progress. Whether a child’s intellectual capacities are great or small, engagement determines the speed and quality of their intellectual growth. I honor and respect each of my students, and I do my best to make them feel safe and secure. But if I have an engaged student, the ceiling for their development and progress is limitless. I become much more than just a teacher. I become a coach, a guide, an advisor, and companion.
It is understood that engagement can be inspired through good schools and good teachers who create meaningful lessons and powerful pedagogy in the classroom. Furthermore, it can be energized by peers who themselves are engaged in schooling. Then social camaraderie itself produces further engagement.
But the most potent agent for engagement is the home. As noted, schools can play a role in nurturing these characteristics. For the most part, though, these attitudes and behaviors are shaped at home where fundamental values are instilled on a daily basis. Engagement is a value. Taking responsibility is a value. Doing one’s best is a value. These attributes can be nurtured at home – day by day, week after week, and year upon year.
Even during this pandemic, as children are at one time assigned remote learning, and another time hybrid learning and eventually a return to in-school learning, they can grow in their awareness of and their commitment to educational engagement.