Joellen Killion is the deputy executive director of the National Staff Development Council. She is the author of numerous books and articles about effective professional learning, evaluating professional development, coaching, and teacher leadership.

Whose child is this?

As I walked down the hall of the bustling middle school with young people scurrying through the halls dashing from room to room to get to their next class, I heard a female adult voice rise above the din call out, “Whose child is this?” Puzzled, I turned toward the voice to see an adult standing next to a thin, perhaps 6th grade, student. The adult had a firm grip on the backpack strap that hung loosely from the young man’s back. Around the pair students flowed like water around rocks in a stream going about their business of getting to their next class.

I hesitated wondering if another adult might be needed and prepared to provide some back up. The female calls out again raising her voice above the noise and this time addressing the student directly, “Whose child are you?” The sheepish student, looking uncertain, was speechless. The adult leaned down, said something to the student, and the student hurried off toward the closing door of a nearby classroom.

She glanced up, caught my eye, shook her head from side-to-side, and muttered, “Guess that one didn’t belong to anyone,” as she turned and heading in the opposite direction. I continued on too toward the observation of a demonstration math lesson. Sitting in the class, I mentally reviewed the scene I witnessed. The question continued to echo in my head. “Whose child is this?”

In schools, teachers tend to work in isolation with their students. Students are traditionally the responsibility of their teachers, identified by their grade, class, course, or club. Plain and simple, meeting the needs of students is hard work and requires tremendous effort. It is unimaginable for teachers to assume responsibility for more students than on their current roster. This basic premise contributes to the fact that within a school some students excel academically while others lag behind. Directly or indirectly, however, every student in a school is the responsibility of every adult in the school.

Breaking through the insular, siloed structure of schools and pooling the collective expertise of educators increases the likelihood that every student will succeed. Isolationism within a school builds competition and unevenness in instruction. When the teacher who knows the most about a particular subject fails to share what he knows with other teachers, he denies his colleagues and their students opportunities to excel. When experienced teachers hoard their wisdom, they limit the potential for that wisdom to influence other teachers.

A breakthrough such as this requires teachers, principals, and educational support personnel to learn collaboratively; engage in professional conversations about teaching learning focused on student data, instruction, and student work; and reflect on their practices. These interactions build collective responsibility among educators for the quality of their work and student success. Whether a student is in one teacher’s class or another’s should not determine the academic potential of a student. When teachers pool what they know, every student benefits from the expertise of every teacher. I am reminded of Roland Barth’s inquiry: “I wonder how many children’s lives might be saved if we educators disclosed what we know to each other.” What might we discover? What intractable problems might we solve? How many students might benefit? Collective responsibility breaks down barriers of isolationism within schools and exponentially increases educators’ expertise to meet the learning needs of every student.

Whose child is this? The answer: Ours.

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6 Responses to “Whose child is this? by Joellen Killian”

  1. Diana Autin on 5/18/09 7:40 PM US/Eastern

    Imagine being that student – first, being embarassed in front of his peers, then essentially being told that he did not belong to anyone, and thus, that he did not belong in the school. How might teacher-student interactions be changed if teachers could understand – and deeply care about – how what they do makes students feel, and how powerful they are in the lives of the students with whom they interact.

  2. a zimmer on 5/19/09 11:28 AM US/Eastern

    I so enjoyed the article. We do need to change the culture. I was especially impressed with the following comment you made, “When the teacher who knows the most about a particular subject fails to share what he knows with other teachers, he denies his colleagues and their students opportunities to excel. When experienced teachers hoard their wisdom, they limit the potential for that wisdom to influence other teachers.” Wow! What if we unleashed all that wisdom, what if there was an venue and way to share and build that community? We all need to be a community and each nugget of wisdom should belong to the whole. But, again, does the system support that kind of collaboration? In some places we are making advances with PLCs and PLTs, but in far too many places, we remain tied up in silos. Hopefully the voices will continue to put out the word and join us all.

  3. Leah on 5/28/09 11:51 AM US/Eastern

    When I think about isolationism I am reminded that what many of us fear most is our own power. Imagine if, as teachers and administrators, we embraced our power AND shared it collaboratively. The face of educational reform would look quite different, I suspect.

  4. Frank Horstman on 8/27/09 8:03 AM US/Eastern

    You are on target about the need to break our silence, to collaborate, to engage in professional learning, and to reflect on how well we are serving each and every one of our children. From those activities, we can resolve to change and together actually change our profession, one collaborative group at a time.
    I am reading your blog as I begin the new school year. Thank you for both your reflection and your call to action.

  5. Cynthia Mousa on 9/25/11 11:44 PM US/Eastern

    I agree that students benefit when teachers work together collaboratively. Every teacher has his or her own talents and to not share that with other teachers when given an opportunity limits theirs and others potential for growth. When I feel stuck and out of ideas I search out other teachers on my campus for help. Their ideas not only give me another perspective, but helps inspire my own creativity. In addition, teachers need to be good role models in this area for their students as well. Being a good team member and listening are sought out skills in the job market. Who better to model and teach these skill than today’s educators.

  6. jamey on 9/30/11 12:27 AM US/Eastern

    I enjoyed reading this post but it bothered me to think of how the student must have felt. He must have been so embarassed. I keep wondering what he must of done to get that adult’s attention and even more i wonder why she did not just address what he had done instead of making a scene and then it still not getting dealt with… Hmmm interesting.

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