What About the Whole Child?

Here is a question we often hear at our institutes:

“All of this attention to academic achievement is a case of misplaced priorities. We need to address the needs of the whole child. What about the emotional needs of our children? What about their artistic side? What about developing their character? This is just another example of the fixation with test scores and trying to reduce a child to a statistic.”

In Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (1997) identify the characteristics and qualities that differentiate organizations that were able to sustain high performance from their less-successful counterparts. They discovered that ineffective organizations succumbed to the “Tyranny of Or,” while their extraordinary counterparts embraced the “Genius of And.” Low-performing companies created false dichotomies: “We must be either this or that, but we cannot be both.” High performers recognized that such perceptions were needlessly limiting and, instead of choosing between A or B, figured out ways to have both A and B. They note:

We’re not talking about mere balance here. Balance implies going to the midpoint, fifty-fifty, half and half. . . . A highly visionary company does not want to blend yin and yang into a gray, indistinguishable circle that is neither highly yin nor highly yang; it aims to be distinctly yin and yang—both at the same time, all the time. (pp. 44–45)

Schools are particularly prone to the Tyranny of Or. Educators often assume they must choose between strong administrators or autonomous teachers, phonics or whole language, emphasis on core curriculum or commitment to the arts, leadership anchored in the central office or site-based management, and so on. One of the most damaging examples of the Tyranny of Or is the belief that a focus on academics leads to indifference to all of the other factors that constitute the well-being of a student.

Thomas Lickona (2004), director of the Center for Respect and Responsibility and noted author on character education, calls for educators to create “schools of character,” which he describes as:

A community of virtue, a place where moral and intellectual qualities such as good judgment, best effort, respect, kindness, honesty, service, and citizenship are modeled, upheld, celebrated, and practiced in every part of the school’s life—from the examples of the adults to the relationship among peers, the handling of discipline, the content of the curriculum, the rigor of academic standards, the ethos of the environment, the conduct of extracurricular activities, and the involvement of parents. (p. 219)

Lickona recommends three resources to help educators create such schools, and Professional Learning Communities at Work™: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement (DuFour & Eaker, 1998) is one of those resources. Clearly he does not believe that a PLC’s commitment to the academic achievement of students interferes with the development of the whole child. In fact, when he and Matthew Davidson (2005) identified 24 diverse high schools in the United States that demonstrated a commitment to promote character, they included Adlai Stevenson High School, one of the nation’s best examples of a PLC, as one of those schools that fosters both “excellence and ethics” (p. xv).

The culture of excellence created in the exemplary schools and districts featured on this site is not limited to a few students or to the core curriculum. Among those schools are recipients of state and national recognition for the arts, athletics, and community service. We contend the students in these schools have a more positive attitude about school than most of their peers around the country because they are successful and surrounded by people who demonstrate they care about them through their collective efforts to support every student. We concur with Lickona and Davidson that those who contend schools must focus on either academic achievement or the well-being of students are presenting a false dichotomy. They should let go of the Tyranny of Or.

Adapted from Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek)

© Solution Tree Press 2010



So many schools are teaching to the test. Most students do well academically and don't do well on test. Test are important, but shouldn't be the main focus. We shouldn't label our students with a number. Academics, building a child's self esteem, and ensuring they become life long learner are most important.

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It is true, in order for students to succeed, they need to feel like they are part of a place where moral and intellectual qualities such as good judgment, best effort, respect, kindness, honesty, service, and citizenship are modeled, upheld, celebrated, and practiced in every part of the school’s life. If we want our students to succeed, then commitment starts with us the educators.

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Some students fare well under the stressors of standardized testing. Others do not. We cannot use state tests as the only measure of the child. On the same token, I do not think that academics are the only thing that should be focused on in schools. What about character traits like excellence, integrity, and team work? For example, what good are stellar writing skills if one cannot adequately work in a team to get their work published? Everything we aim to teach them is worthless if they do not also have the skills to apply it in the real world.

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I was reading a interesting article that so accurately claimed that students pro-social skills reflect upon the students ability to learn and be successful in school and therefore their futures. This important component of a child's social and emotional behavior needs to be nourished alongside their academic development . Hence let us never lose site of the whole child for it's our peers that help us to build or destroy our self esteem, and without positive social skills our students will suffer.

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Testing a learners' academic ability on the curriculum is important. However, in order to really measure a learners success emotional,psychological,and difference in learning abilities must be taken into account. Not all learners learn at the same rate or have the same abilities and therefore standarized testing does not give an accurate measure of success. For example,what about the 1st grader who understands when he is spoken to in English but cannot read well enough to understand and answer the question on paper? Should he just continue to fail because of administrative testing policies? As teachers and administrators we need to look at how these types of issues affect learners self-esteem, create a lack of motivation and ultimate failure of the child.

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I teach in a large public school that has just recently adopted PLCs. We are currently in the process of taking our large class A school and converting into 3 class C schools (SLCs). We are adopting the idea of an advisory period twice a week. We have a lot of students that are school of choice and only attend our school because of the electives. We are a big proponent to developing the entire student. Moving to the small learning communties and adding the advisory are key steps into our personalization plan to help develop the entire student. I like where my school is heading and like the conversations that are taking place on this site. Very valuable.

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Rick and Becky DuFour


We couldn’t agree more – that is exactly why teams in schools that embrace the PLC concept not only clarify the essential knowledge & skills of each unit of instruction in each course/subject, but they also articulate the essential dispositions, including those you have listed, that each student must acquire.

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There was a previous post by Dawna wondering how to get their administration to embrace PLC's (Professional Learning Communities). While it can be very difficult, it can be done. If the teachers begin to dialogue and have conversations, then administration will begin to inquire about the close collaboration that is going on in their school. Principals in my opinion, do not like to feel that they are left out of the loop. They will either join or not. However, it may be hard not to join what is working. Dawna, be encouraged and start to inquire to other teachers about collaborating more and see where it goes. I hope this helps.

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Tweets that mention AllThingsPLC » Blog Archive » What About the Whole Child? -- Topsy.com

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eric Hileman, ASCD Whole Child. ASCD Whole Child said: Are schools prone to the “Tyranny of Or?” We must embrace the “Genius of And” to educate the whole child http://bit.ly/caoQMs [...]

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Erdmine Fabien

I have finally been successful.I believe that education should not be only based on the mental aspect of an individual but the total development. The mental, social, spiritual, moral and emotional aspects should all be catered for. Today an individual who is mentally strong but weak in the other areas can be a menace to an employer. Therefore teachers should do all what is possible to develop students who are critical thinkers and are morally and ethically sound. Students are being prepared for the world. Lets do the best for our boys and girls.

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I agree completely with the opinions of this article. As a teacher in an urban setting, I am trying hard to create an environment where the student is learning. When test scores seem to be the only thing that matters,not student learning, it gets frustrating. At first I tried to do this by making the "ying and yang" equal, now I think I will reevaluate my approach. I found this blog very insightful.

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It is so nice to read and see all of you teachers out here. I am new to blogging. I was tired of not being connected. I strongly agree. I think that we need to look at the whole child. I am tired of PLC's that don't address everything about the student. It is all data, data, data. I would like to see a PLC that looks at data and also talks about why the student is not achieving, or even why one student is achieving over another. I think that the schools are heading in the right direction.

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I agree that we do not have to give in to the "Tyrrany of Or." I work in a Discipline Alternative Education Program. In this program we are responsible for educating the students and for trying to help them to change their lives for the better. I have seen several students who have had their first dose of success by being in our program. For some of these students, we are the first teachers who have ever believed in them.

At a recent PLC Coaching Academy, I was asked by a team from one of our high schools why our students would rather be at DAEP than in their home campus. I told them that I believe that it is because we work with the whole student, not just choosing to either focus on academics or focus on improving behavior. We assign each student a mentor who meets with the students at least once a week to discuss anything that the student or mentor is concerned with.

The high school campus took a great interest in our program. We will be meeting in the future to help them establish a mentoring program of their own. Hopefully, together, we can design a program in their school that will help all of their students find success not only in school, but in life.

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I agree that the whole child has been forgotten. With so much emphasis being placed on the politics of education how can the child be the main focus. Since we know the child has been forgoton, the next step is trying to figure out how to remember the child? This question puzzles me on a daily basis. As an educator I have to make sure that I meet so many requiremnts that will not benefit my students. At times I do find it hard to make the child the priority.It is hard making the child the priority however, I do and consider the consequences later. Ultimately, I am there to teach not for the politics of education. I hope this inspires other teachers to do the same.

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I appreciate the thoughts behind your writing. I think that when we educate children, it is not just about academics. We need to teach them to make sound decisions in the real world, to have balance in their lives, and to be lifelong learners. Collaboration is the only way that we can accomplish this goal. We have to learn from each other and assist our colleagues with methods that work. If we can be successful with this, the students will grow to be productive, confident members of society.

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As several of you stated I agree. But worse I am one of those that puts too much emphasis on the wrong kind of responsibility. How do I begin to change my be hahvior as well as that of my collegues and school?

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I completely agree with what has been said. Students have multiple intelligences but we seem to only have time to focus "teaching the test". We don't have the time to activate other skills fully because our main goal is to cover all the curriculum before the big test and pray they pay attention during the test to bubble in the right answers. I teach first grade and I feel that I have more time to allow students to think creatively compared to the upper grades where the weight of passing the test is the heaviest. We are teaching future leaders of our country. I want to be a part of shaping well rounded citizens and not just test takers.

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Teaching the whole child is really hard when all the emphasis is put on getting the child to pass the test. My students have very diverse backgrounds and need to be nurtured in all aspects of learning. They need to learn to be lifelong learners not just learners who can take a test.

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This article is exactly what I am feeling regarding my school and the efforts it is making in helping students become successful. It seems that all of our interventions are simply academic and none seem to address the emotional and social issues that keep our students from being motivated and self respecting learners. I appreciate the comments from others that address the same frustrations in feeling so forced to "teach to the test" that there is rarely time for us to address our student other strenghts and weaknesses that may not be directly related to the test. In my six years of teaching, I seem to only realize more and more everyday that the students we label "at risk" or "low achieving" are only staying that way because we are simply trying to find a trick or shortcut to get them to pass the tests they need to pass instead of addressing all aspects of what effects their learning. How can I expect a student to want to complete their homework when home is not a safe place for them? How can I encourage a student to stay awake and focus on work when they are homeless, or they have to work a job to support their family, causing them to lose sleep? If we do not address the whole child, then we cannot succeed in making our students truly successful.

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Your posting on the whole child was reassuring. I strongly agree with the article. The needs of our students today are not met and this is why I believe that we face many other struggles with motivating and discipline the students. I work in a district that has transitioned from what was considered a rural district to urban. The admininstration and veteran teachers in the district are at a lost in trying to close the academic gap among the students. I am a teacher who try to address the whole student. I am also a strict disciplinarian, but I build strong relationships with my students. It even more of challenge to teach a child when they have no self-esteem, motivation, or concern for themself. Building up a child character will allow him/her to be able to absorb and take on the challenge of anything we try to teach.

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I have to strongly agree with my fellow educators. Its seems like schools have become so focused on teaching children for the purpose of passing a standardized test. Education has become focused so much on the "Standards", and not the whole purpose of education. Are we working to develop just good test takers? Or are we here to create life long learners? Who is going to offer our children knowledge about emotions, morals, empathy, and teaching children how to make positive decisions? If there is no one at home to make sure children are taught these characteristics, where else will they learn them from?

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I strongly agree. As educators it is our job to help students build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses both in academics and socially. Through this practice, students will gain more confidence in themselves and their work, which will cause them to be better well rounded students. As teachers we need to be aware of the fact that we are preparing our students to excel in life, not just in our classroom. We need to help hone their problem solving and critical thinking skills, along with their communication skills and we need to help them understand that life is a process of continual learning. Students of this generation rely too much on technology, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, and social networking sites to contact their friends. Although technology is great, it is hindering students in developing their greatly needed communication skills. By focusing on the whole student, teachers can help address this issue. A great way to model this for our students is to participate in professional learning communities. If teachers are working collaboratively for the same goal, students are aware of this hard work, and are aware of the fact that they too will need to work collaboratively with others one day. As teachers we want students to leave school confident in themselves and be comfortable with who they are.

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Thank you for posting about the whole child. I teach kindergarten, but before I taught fifth grade and I see how much responsibility and creativity that has been taken from children of all ages. Children no longer have imaginations or problem solving skills. I blame this on standardized tests and lack of funding for music, art, or extracurricular activities. There is so much pressure on teachers to "teach the test" and so much pressure on the students to "pass the test." Because of this, our students, and future leaders, lack creativity and the ability to problem solve, or think for themselves. It is the job of all adults in a childs world, at school and at home, to prepare them for life- to build character, to satisfy emotional needs, and to give them intellectual skills to be life long learners, not just pass a test.

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So much rides on standardized test scores that it has changed and shaped the current educational world. When schools and districts are getting funds and judged from student scores on a test it adds a level of pressure and puts our emphasis in the wrong place. Academics are highly important but when we are just teaching to the test we lose the authenticity of learning. Students get bored and teachers get bored. How do we break this cycle and create a balance between preparing students for these tests and teaching authentically?

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I completley agree with this article. Academics are incredibly important, but we are doing a diservice to our students if we are not developing them as a whole. The school that I teach as incorporated character education into our curriculum, devloping the child as a whole. In addition, we help use character education in conjunction with school pride by incorportating the acronym of WILDCAT (our school mascot) into everything we do. To be a WILDCAT, one must exibit: willingness, integrity, loyalty, dedication, compassion, achiever, trustworthy. Working at an inner city school where bevaior problems are on the rise and students character is certainly lacking, I have seen tremendous improvement through the implementation of these taks. Our children need the ability to develop positive character as they are certianly not seeing positive role modelling at home.

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I am in agreement with the article. Academic is very important in a child's life, however, that is not all. The other aspect of a child needs to be developed also. Classes other than the academic classes should be offered, art, music etc. develops different parts of their brain and is critical to their wholesome development.
A school cannot do it all! Parents need to pull their weight in developing their children and not dump in on others (teachers). Moral and ethical values should come from home that teachers should be upholding in their classes.
In my school district, we have big problems with discipline and behavior that I cant imagine how PLC can be introduced. Unless, ofcourse the Administrators brings it in; common planning is being encouraged even though a lot of time is merely spent in just posting the report.

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In reading the above blog post, I agree that the needs of the whole child are not being met in our students today. One part of teaching the whole child, which I wanted to comment on is the part of a student’s character. I am a firm believer in character education in schools and that the foundation of schools is more than the academics that are taught; but the values as well. My school’s motto is known as the 3 R’s, Respect, Responsibility, and Ready to Learn. Yet, even with this strong motto on the characters needed to be a successful student, I wish that more was done at my school to promote and reward the positive choices and behaviors that students do exhibit. I feel that it takes the effort of the entire school to change the negative culture that permeates some schools. I have come to realize that much of this negativity already exists in many of my students as they have difficulty working with others, following rules, making good choices, and being team players. I consistently find myself helping my students to make better choices, but I do not mind this because I feel that it is important and I want to help make them realize what it means to be a “good” person. I am preparing my students for the future and I want their future to be bright. I want them to become strong, fulfilled, kind-hearted, and successful adults. I feel that change can start with one teacher and one classroom of children to bring about a positive culture in schools to promote strong values and this will in-turn help to meet this part of the needs of the “whole child.”

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Mr. and Mrs. DuFour,
I am currently in my second year of teaching in a small, rural school in Georgia. I have struggled with the issue of how to address the whole child (emotions, intelligence, health, homelife, etc.) when it seems the administration is just telling me to get them ready for the big test at the end of the year. I am very close to my students, and many of them do not have parents who make sure they have their homework done, much less if they've had a good night's sleep and breakfast before the end-of-the-year test.
Your article struck me as interesting because you shared my frustration at how today's students can take a test, bubbling in answers, but they can't write a paper, they can't get along with others, and they don't have many good role models at home. It is our responsibility to help these students. We can be their role models, and we can encourage them to shoot for the stars. My only fear is that we'll be forced to spend all our time preparing them for this test, and we won't have time to get to know them as people.

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I agree 100%. I teach Pre-K but I am surrounded by the older grades and see them forced to put pressure on their students, especially around TCAP time. The principal sends home notes and has announcements about being quiet and not marking random answers, I even saw here pull a child into the hall before class and give him a lecture about not distracting others. It seems that we have lost the connection to our students, all we seem to care about is test scores, and I shudder to think what this will mean for our future!

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At the school that I teach our mission statement describes students as an artist, athlete and scholar, and we commit to making decisions on providing opportunities for children to develop themselves in each of these areas. Overlying all of our actions is the belief in "be helpful, not hurtful, do the right thing." In this day and age of eliminating specialist teachers at the primary level, I am proud to work where I do. Full time physical education,art and music specialists are important members of our learning team. If we do not engage children in school, we will not engage them in education. If Johnny attends because he loves phys.ed. that's great, if Sally attends because she really is an artist, how can we call ourselves educators if all we really provide her is arts and crafts time. When will educating the Whole Child be recognized as a worhtwhile endeavour, worthy of not only government support, but community support?

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This is so true! I think that every school in the country struggles with this issue. As a teacher it is sometimes overwhelming trying to get everything in "for the test". I think that teachers loose sight of why they became a teacher, to help others, and to make a difference in someone's life. We must hold on to "the whole student"! It is our job and moral obligation to produce quality members of society, not, as someone mentioned earlier, robots.

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I would also agree that we need to make sure that the needs of the whole student are met. I am an art teacher and without my class some students would not come to school, or would struggle in every other classroom. If all we do is focus on academics, we will soon have a world without creativity and reflective thinkers.

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Jenn Brown

Students today are taught how to take a test and make educated guesses to score proficient on standardized test. The core of education is to educated the child and not test taking strategies. Kids today struggle with social skills due to increasing technology that allows communication without the presence of a human being in front of them. If we, as educators, don't encompass the whole child, then we are doing a great dis-service. Students in socially disadvantaged communities struggle to survive each day, mostly on their own. Parental guidance is lacking due to financial burdens and lack of support. The need for strong role models is great. Teachers can be that role model and guide the child's education as well as their character through enriching the curriculum and embracing the culture of community.

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My school's motto is "Laugh Together, Learn Together". I believe this encompasses having a balance between academics and the whole person. Most teachers at our school work hard to demonstrate a loving, respectful environment in which the students feel safe. We try to give them experiences intertwined with their learning that will be exciting and different. We have great specialists for Library, Music, Humanities, etc. that are wonderful with the students and give them many creative outlets for them to find who they are as people.

At the same time, there is a climate of academic success. We strive to be excellent teachers and do our best teaching all differnet types of students the necessary skills and standards they will need to do well in the next grade and, of course, on standardized tests. I truly believe that the students know that they will have opportunites to do the kinds of activities they desire at school; however, they also know that there is a time to work hard, and purposefully, on other things that may not be as fun or interesting.

We now have a new administrator with us. There are many teachers and staff that are concerned our beloved motto is going to be oushed aside and not be what drives our school anymore. Hopefully, if we can continue this conversation of balancing academics with the whole person instead of choosing just one, there will be some satisfaction and understanding about what we believe. The new principal does have an "open door" policy and maybe this is te topic that needs to be brought up so that we can reunite together and do what is best for the students.

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I believe that I am experiencing the Tyranny of Or at my school. Our administration created a "Freshman Academy" in which all freshman are separated from the remainder of the student body. The reasoning behind this move is to foster positive learning traits and hopefully lower our increasing drop out rate. The last period of the day for the freshman consists of "leadership" classes. These classes focus on manners, study skills, ethics, etc. The ultimate goal is to help students become well rounded learners. Unfortunately, this academy has met resistance not only from parents, but faculty as well. Many teachers resent the academy and feel that they are coddling the students too much. I have heard several upperclassman teachers comment, "this is not the academy.... no fluff here". When students enter the tenth grade, they are faced with harsh dictates about test scores and the leadership classes cease to exist. I teach tenth grade and have seen many students decline due to the intense focus on standardized testing.

Furthermore, I invite a working artist from our local art school to my classroom to create scrapbooks with my class. This activity takes around 7 days to complete and when finished the students have a book to place writings, poems, photographs, and artifacts in as a family heirloom. This project is a semester long piece and counts as part of the final exam for my class. I have met strong opposition about this project from several teachers and one administrator. I was told that it took too much time from class and that it was useless when the students could just go buy a scrapbook. My administrator even stated that none of it really mattered and the students would probably throw the books away once they got home. What these people do not realize is the bonding the students share with the instructor from the art school as well as myself. We paint together, sew together, and realize that each person has a special talent that many did not know about. Several students have received art scholarships for summer programs at the art school due to this project. Sadly, I have attended several funerals of former students and have been brought to tears to see their scrapbooks sitting beside the casket.

Schools need to emphasize academics, but do not need to sacrifice the whole person to do so. Life is much more than numbers on a scoring chart. We as educators need to help students become well rounded individuals, not just academic machines.

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I find myself agreeing with your article. I think we have become a nation of politically correct robots and have forgotten that our children need role models who are morally and ethically motivated. This generation of video game children will find it hard to survive in the real world without guidance from the people they trust. As teachers, we need to make sure we set good examples for our students. We need to make sure we are highly educated and motivated to help them succeed. I know it's hard to be an effective role model, but we need to strive for the top. Our children deserve it.

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As a teacher how do I help change the culture from isolation to collaboration within the entire school? I know the importance of collobaration and have seen first hand the miracles that can happen by working as a community, but what do I do when the adminstration does not embrace and fully understand what it means to utilize PLCs the way it was intended?

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I believe true education is more than academics: Education has to take into consideration the physical, mental, social, and spiritual dimensions of a child. The students of today need to learn how to think critically, make proper moral decisions, learn how to interact with people from diverse backgrounds,and cultural experiences. In our world today, employers are not just looking for intelligent employees but employees who are respectful, have good moral principles,diligent, and has respect for time.

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I completely agree. I think that there is much more to education than simply passing a test. As an educator you are responsible for helping the child develop who they are and what they are good at. It is our job to ensure that these children are developing their whole selves and learning about their strengths and weaknesses academically, and socially as well. Although we want them to leave school with more knowledge, it is only appropriate that we help them develop other aspects of themselves and their personalitites as well.

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