September 20, 2021

When I was a teacher, a group of my teacher friends and I organized 2 field trips a year for our 7th and 8th graders. Every Fall we would take a day trip to New York City. In the Spring we would rotate destinations between Washington DC, Baltimore, and Boston. We raised money for the trips and it was a real community event.

On one of the trips to New York City, I remember something that happened that changed my outlook on education forever.

The busses had stopped at a fast-food restaurant for breakfast. As the kids lined up to place their order, one of my kids was sitting alone in the corner of the dining room. I was worried that he did not have the extra cash to get the meal. His family was very poor and I know that he had never traveled more than 50 miles from his house. In a lot of ways, he represented our learners in the school district. At the time, our school district was the 10th poorest school district in Pennsylvania (out of 501 school districts at the time) so we did not have a lot of wealth in the district.

I slid in next to Joe and asked him why he wasn’t in line to get breakfast. Not waiting for an answer, I told him that he could go up to the counter and order anything he wanted to and not to worry about money.

I will never forget what he said next…

It changed my life…

Joe looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Mr. Butler, I can’t eat right now. I am so excited…this is the best day of my life.”

I was floored…

Full stop.

You see, what Joe taught me is that experiences are what matters in life. Joe probably remembers less than one-tenth of what I “taught” him in Geography…but he has that trip to New York City as something he will always hold on to. 

As Learner-Centered Leaders, we must remember that this whole schooling thing is really about experiences for learners. It is not about academic standards (I wonder which ones we would have used to justify a trip to New York City in today’s world?), it is not about “meeting kids where they are” for instruction, and it is absolutely not about what a kid gets on a test. New, novel, experiences are what matters for our learners. 

Creating experiences is more important now because there is so much information that kids can learn from Google or watching a YouTube video. Placing context and nuance around a learning experience is what makes it valuable for learners and it is what teachers are good at. 

Some things to think about as you encourage your staff to create learning experiences that are more creative than something that happens in a classroom.

  1. Bring your community into your school. When I was a superintendent we had a “farmer day” in the cafeteria. For that one day, all of the food served to the kids came from a local source. We coupled this idea with farmers conducting presentations about what they do to kids throughout the school day. Butchers and gardeners also came into the school and talked about their jobs. I learned from this experience that in rural Pennsylvania there were still kids that did not know where milk came from! YOU CAN DO SOMETHING THAT BRINGS YOUR COMMUNITY INTO THE SCHOOLS…NO EXCUSES!!
  2. Challenge your teachers to learn more about project-based learning. Specifically, encourage projects that will connect the school to what is happening in the real world. Teachers need your permission to go beyond the boring, standards-based instruction they were taught in college. Give them that permission along with the tools to accomplish it.
  3. Change your mindset. A mediocre leader looks at classroom instruction as a series of techniques or a checklist of activities that must occur in a given class period. Although this is important, IT IS NOT THE WAY TO CREATE THE BEST LEARNING EXPERIENCES! Have a mindset that is uncompromising toward creating learning experiences that can change the life trajectory of a learner. Your job is to have a positive impact on the learners in your school, to do this, you have to develop your thinking beyond the traditional classroom instructional model.

Go out and create “the best day of their life” for your learners.

P.S. On that trip to New York City with Joe, I will never forget his face as he stood on the sidewalk on a clear September day and looked up at the Twin Towers. The year was 1997. Do you think the events of 9/11 resonated more with him because of that experience of standing at the foot of the Twin Towers or sitting in a room and learning about the geography of New York City?

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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