This past weekend, I attended another fantastic Educon, held annually at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  Education folks- Administrators, Ed Tech people, teachers, people from public and private schools, authors, publishers, parents, and even political folks attend, making it perhaps the biggest cross-section of stake holders under one roof, attending any particular conference very year.  There were teachers and administrators I met from Russia, Norway, and Canada; everyone is dealing with similar issues across education, and across the globe as digital technology continues to transform education as it transforms the rest of society.

I go to Educon every year because it’s always inspiring.  You hear what’s happening in other school districts, and realize both how much more you could be doing and how far along you are, as well as how common and universal certain problems seem to be. Resources, even in well off school districts or private schools, seems to be an issue, even the ones issuing kids laptops and ipads simultaneously.  People are nervous about making a decision and spending money that might look wrong headed three years from now, but also know in their hearts that if you wait for the perfect answer, or the most convincing data, the road to the future will be even more steep and unwieldy than it seems now.

Regardless of the uncertainty of it all, the people at Educon are optimists.  They’re optimists because they are betting on the kids they see every day,  betting on the kids’ creativity and promise, despite the obstacles that often leave them drained at the end of the day.  These are educators who realize that technology is a tool to open up the world to kids in ways we could only dream about a few years ago, while realizing that the most important thing that happens in a classroom doesn’t involve electricity at all.  The most important thing about school is community.

Inherent in the purpose of school is bringing a group of people together every day in the classroom to learn with and from each other.  It’s about creating small families that may meet for all or part of the day, and that learn, over time, to leverage their strengths and weaknesses so all boats rise.  It’s about seeing kids as individuals, not just within your classroom, but as whole people with worries and even troubles that can effect everyone.  It’s about trying to teach and model resilience- how you get through challenges and come out the other side better for it.  The best teachers are wizards at turning a group of kids into a learning community- one that has its own ups and downs, but centers around mutual respect and common goals.

This is something you can’t buy from any business or publisher.  It’s not for sale, but it’s probably the largest predictor of whether the education in your schools is working or not.  It’s the common thread that the folks at Educon share, and talk about with passion and feeling.  It’s what moves them and keeps them in teaching every day.  It’s the chance to care and effect kids and help them learn as much about life as about the subject matter at hand.  It’s mentoring and nurturing and caring, and from that core, all other decisions are fairly clear.

One principal shared a story of having one of those dreaded moments of imposing clear line discipline with a student that violated the fundamental rules and trusts.  As he returned to his office, he saw a group of students there waiting for him.  He expected they would be mad, need to talk, or otherwise have an “us vs. them” conversation, but instead, one of the students asked him “Are you all right?  What can we do for you?”  They knew imposing this penalty was a hard for the principal as if he was doing this for one of his own children, and it still brings tears to my eyes as it did to almost everyone in the room.  It demonstrated that when you show real caring and empathy for the folks you deal with, you are in turn, understood and treated the same way.  this is the way discipline and learning should happen everywhere.

Instead, I worry that in too many schools, the caring is slowly being beaten out of everyone, students and teachers alike.

We all know and say this- but the best things in life are free.  They don’t come out of a box and they are unscripted.  But they do require an awful lot of time invested into community, common purpose and mission, and caring about everyone as people first, and people that are imperfect, changing, developing, and doing their best every day.  If we can start to humanize our schools, to lead with empathy, caring and understanding, we’ll have truly transformed schools without spending a dime.  But it will take the biggest commitment of all- one that begins and ends in our hearts.