The Difference a Class Makes

State education policies are rooted in the day-to-day operations of schools and the students that learn and grow in them. This is why Commissioner McQueen tasked each member of the department’s 20-person leadership team to go back to high school for a day and shadow a student. Individual members of the leadership team visited high schools in every setting: rural, urban, suburban, and everywhere in between.


By Mike Herrmann, Executive Director of Conditions for Learning

img_3579When the commissioner announced that every member of the senior leadership team would be shadowing a high school student for a day, I was torn between curiosity and anxiety. Curious about what I would find. Anxious about being a student again, even if only for the day. After all, school is a social experience, and I would be the ultimate outsider.

On the big day, I walk into the office and meet the principal. He introduces me to Nathan, my host student for the day, and we are off to our first class.

Nathan and I walk into class late. A room full of questioning eyes, lots of whispers. Who’s the old man with Nathan? We sit down in the middle of the room and class begins. The teacher refers the class to the objectives for this lesson which are posted on the board, provides a brief lecture, and then passes out a worksheet. The assignment requires us to think about the content and develop a written summary/response. The class grudgingly cooperates. I’m not sensing much excitement.

img_4313Next, we head to bridge math, an online, self-directed course conducted in partnership with Nashville State Community College. A teacher is in the room and available to answer questions, but we are essentially on our own. There’s a chart in the room showing everyone’s progress, and Nathan is very close to completion. He’s not in a hurry to finish because he’s afraid that he will be given an additional assignment or placed somewhere else if he finishes early. Looking around the room, it appears like he might not be the only one taking his time.

Nathan has to leave school early, so I am assigned another student. Keisha, who is a senior like Nathan. We again arrive late for class (I swear I was never late as a high school student). The class is in a circle, I’m hardly noticed, and I initially have a difficult time figuring out who the teacher is because students are leading the conversation. The discussion is rich, and everyone seems engaged.

img_4345As my day wraps up, I’m struck by the range of classroom experiences on the same day in the same building. It seems like there are two sides to this equation. The teacher and the student. As a state and as a department, we’ve invested heavily in improving the quality of instruction in Tennessee schools, and our teachers have risen to every challenge.

But, we also need to focus on the other side – the individuals coming into our schools everyday, ready (or not) to learn. Those students in the final class were engaged. They were motivated. You could sense that they were excited about their future and believed that school was helping them get there. How do we foster that hope, enthusiasm, and belonging in every student in every classroom?

The answer is not always a new program or requirement. Schools have lots to do already. Maybe the most important step is remembering that anytime we are thinking about improving our schools, we are thinking about interacting and growing individuals with unique needs.