Selling the Qualitative: Independent Schools... Showcase Your Teachers

What does it take to sell a progressive, independent high school when AP and SAT scores don’t tell the whole story? And how do nontraditional middle schools – which don’t even have such data points (and can’t tally college admissions) – demonstrate their worth and success?

As schools migrate to “21st century instruction,” in which soft skills and project-based learning are foundational, accessing a school’s merit becomes more challenging to quantify. Parents debating hefty tuitions for their children’s education want to know their investment is sound. They may intuit that preparing their kids to flex and pivot in the messy career world requires more from schools than antiquated drill-and-practice – but their own experiences in traditional institutions may cloud their abilities to judges what matters now.

One of the most actionable ways in which schools can convey their qualitative worth, and ultimately sell the value of their unique educational offerings to families, is to showcase its teachers.

Extraordinary teachers don’t just clock-in for nine months of the year. They train constantly, via self-study, advanced coursework, and fellowships, and they engage in their careers by publishing and presenting at professional conferences as well as mentoring others. Extraordinary teachers adjust and adapt their curriculum and instruction to connect with the actual students in the room, and they make their instruction relevant to recent events in the world around them. One administrator with whom I once worked marveled at an English teacher who, “had every minute of her day-by-day curriculum mapped out from September to May.” But while detailed planning is admirable, an inability and unwillingness to pivot and update, irrespective of subject area, indicates either a lazy teacher or a static content field. (In either case, there’s no need for a human at the helm: a robot is coming for that job.)

Extraordinary teachers also work to build in their students the skills and habits of adult professionals operating in the real world, adjusting to meet the age-appropriate needs of their learners. Herma de Ridder, a science teacher instructing early elementary students at the Alexander Dawson School (Las Vegas), coaches children as young as age five to keep a lab notebook tracking every experiment and observational study they conduct. She helps her students learn and use new vocabulary in context; plan their work by writing logical procedures (lovingly correcting their “kid spelling” in the margins); draw diagrams of lab setups; attach and label photos and collected samples; and draw conclusions from their findings. In short, she trains them to behave as scientific thinkers.  Saying that Herma teaches science is insufficient to capture the full story, but seeing is believing: Dawson showcases what that entails by regularly bringing parents into her lab, inviting parents on field trips, and sharing those lab notebooks with them throughout the year.

While years of teaching experience and degrees can contribute greatly to developing quality teachers, non-teaching career experience matters, too. Our high school technology lead, Leon Wilde, is a former pilot, Evernote entrepreneur, and lifelong tinkerer. The authenticity of those skills goes a long way in coaching our students to innovate in the Adelson Startup Incubator. In recent years, I’ve witnessed him guide high schoolers to build and fly UAVs, construct a chair befitting Marilyn Monroe, and design and fabricate a “volcacho” (solving the bare nacho problem with a volcano of spewed toppings). Who Leon is as a person and a professional, not just his curriculum delineated on paper, are vital value adds which shape the learning experience for his students – value adds we actively showcase beyond the Incubator. That showcasing consists of welcoming visitors, meeting with collaborative partners and vendors, representing the school in external events and contests, appearing in virtual tour videos, and working with parents on Dine and Design nights – all events that go beyond the “typical” teaching duty.

Don’t cloister your teachers in their classrooms, trotting them out before parents only on back-to-school night. Don’t sell your curriculum as though it can be divorced from instruction, with “just any teacher” operating interchangeably in your teaching positions. Human capital matters. Showcase your teachers to parents, and potential parents, frequently. In the end, connecting the dots among students, teachers, and parents will help the adults making the financial investment appreciate the value add of the guides mentoring their children… and continue to do so long term.