Letter: School Board, district, could learn a lot from ‘Sesame Street’

To the Editor-

Leave it to the producers at “Sesame Street Workshop” to offer up a well-thought-out project illuminating pivotal societal issues and supporting our children’s development. “The Power of We” is a production promoting an “open conversation” about racism. Let’s take the central objective of “open conversation” and reflect on recent observations and opinions related to the Stevens Point Area Public School District.

A one-sentence lesson plan might look like this: Learners will be able to witness respectful, open conversations by watching familiar and engaging puppets modeling respect, active listening, empathy, assertiveness, and inclusivity so they will be able to apply these skills in the school community and in preparation for 21st-century career and college readiness.

When puppets talk, children engage, laugh, and learn. Teaching is not indoctrination; good teachers set the table with a main dish of curriculum, heavy on teacher/learner creativity with ample space for critical thinking. Students naturally reflect on lessons and compare the fit with their own unique way of being and family upbringing. In fact, to educate means to bring out the truth in the learner-this is a far cry from indoctrination.

Recently, Mr. Kontos notes that school district administration and board leadership have an enormous responsibility and impact on our local community. Mr. Somers provides a picture of the landscape of school board processes. The school district administration sets goals to work through siloed dynamics and offers an annual theme of “Better Together.” There has been a district emphasis on curricular objectives that promote the core 21st-century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

True organizational expertise embraces the social technology of the future. Leadership shifts from a hierarchical and “absencing” model, whereby leaders are dismissive of others, to “presencing”, characterized by mutual responsibility, trust, and respectful listening to diverse viewpoints. Authentic 21st-century educational leaders form relationships that inform and serve to transform.

School board committees have been extinguished. Mike Somers steps forward as a citizen and provides a robust review in his Dec. 5 column. There is ample research noting that high levels of relational trust among staff and stakeholders in a school and school system fuels school improvement and importantly, student achievement. Here is the crux of the matter; trust erodes as absensing prevails. Educators that are dismissive and disinterested in others’ viewpoints are not role models for 21st-century education. Absencing tendencies are demoralizing to teachers seeking to find hope in their chosen careers and longevity in the district.

When educational leaders maintain a walled silo system, silencing the voices of those who do not think like them, bring up topics that are difficult, or take time from their agenda, what is being modeled? The outcome: A culture of people who fail to learn to pause, connect to each other with humility, receive the other, and act with civility. We avoid risk, questioning norms, innovation and change. The silos of groupthink provide the illusion of safety and masquerade as power.

Five years ago, the United Way of Portage County offered the Born Learning community forum on childhood trauma and related mental health needs. The endnote: A call for the necessity of breaking down silo systems and systems working together to better serve our youth. Perhaps recent ESSER funding can be applied thoughtfully to rebuilding trust by working smarter, not harder, together.

We have experienced an extremely challenging time with the added stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic and divisive public discourse. Before the public health crisis, former UWSP professor Kym Buchanan, Ph.D. in Learning, Technology, & Culture inspired local educators with his triangle model of learning. With an objective of stretch2grow he passionately inspired local educators to 1) Take risks, 2) Admit ignorance, 2) Own mistakes.

Dismantling school board committees is a mistake. Dismissing the voices of school staff and citizens is a mistake. Failing to value the “power of we” is a risk-avoidant and cavalier approach.

How can the school district leadership stretch and hear the call of the future when absencing speaks so loudly and reverberates through the community? How can a culture be created whereby hierarchical and silo walls are dismantled to incorporate the many varied voices to help students be successful?

Some reading this may now delete “Sesame Street” from their children’s diet as “too liberal.” I shake my head, smile, and remember those engaging and entertaining puppets modeling and teaching the value of open, honest, and difficult conversations.

As for me, and the Power of We…..can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Oh, but wait. What to my wondering eyes should appear? The word “stakeholder,” which has been absent for too many years.

Cheryl Geske
Retired educator