Strategies for Continuous Learning in the Workplace: Part III, The Classroom at Thayer High

Tom Peters

Thayer High School’s (Winchester, NH) principal, teachers, parents, other community members, and students spent years hammering out their one-page “Philosophy and Goals” statement. Read the third and fourth sentences: “We want to develop the desire for and the skills necessary for continuous learning. We must educate our children in the most appropriate way so that they can become the best they can be.”

It wasn’t easy to write, but it was easier to put on paper than to execute. Especially when the 300 Thayer High students, in a community fast losing its industrial base, had the nickname “the animals,” a fair indication of their low discipline level and the very low level of self-esteem that went along with it. Teachers’ esteem was just as low.

But all that began to change seven years ago, when bushy-haired, bearded, energetic, tie-less Dennis Littky, Ph.D., became the local principal. Today, scholastic results are top drawer, and students are so well disciplined that they routinely leave valuables, such as a 35-millimeter camera, in hall lockers that have no locks. The Littky-led transformation of this hostile environment featured no baseball bats or walkie-talkies.

The Thayer classroom buzzes, a direct outcropping of Littky’s
philosophy of engagement: “The classes where the kids enjoy, there is
no behavior problem. And the kids enjoy when they’re involved. If they’re doing a science experiment, and they’re doing it because they care about it, then they don’t sit back and draw pictures and yell at the teacher.”

There is nothing soft about this. It’s not a reversion to the “do-whatever-you-want” philosophy of open classrooms of the ’60s. Littky and his teachers are rigorous and emphasize the basics in a set of precise “exit skills,” to be achieved in every course. But rote memorization is out, and essays are in. “You still need your timelines,” says one history teacher, “but they’re not an end in themselves.” Instead, the facts are always connected to something vital at Thayer High—applying the study of American history to the 1988 Presidential elections or a Gorbachev-Reagan Summit; employing the axioms of both a science course and a politics course in an analysis of the acid-rain issue, so important to rural New Hampshire.

Littky speaks about the four “Rs” rather than the characteristic
three. He adds responsibility (for self and for others) to reading,
‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Littky, ever so gentle, yet commanding more respect from students and teachers than any other leader I’ve observed, is masterful at engendering self-responsibility: “I’m in the bathroom with five kids who are hanging out. And I said, ‘Look at this joint.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, it’s sick, isn’t it?’ Even though they, probably, were the ones who put their cigarettes on the floor and knocked down the tiles. And I said, ‘What can we do? Would you guys be willing to paint?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Would you be willing to come in on the weekends?’ ‘Great’ ‘What color?’ ‘Er, ah, blue, I think, would be good.’… I went out, got the paint. They came in, boys who barely could come to school during the week came in on a Saturday, [and] we painted all day. They were proud of that place. So that’s the kind of thing that gets kids committed to something.”

Now the bathroom is their responsibility—not Doc’s (as Littky is commonly called), the teachers’, or the custodial staff’s. The process Littky undertook with teachers, oddly enough, is a carbon copy of the one he used with students. Teachers in America today, and at Thayer before Littky, are as demoralized as students. “The school was falling apart,” said one teacher, who went on to describe the absence of goals and the lack of respect (and self-respect) by student and teacher alike. So Littky urged autonomy. “‘Try it’ are his favorite two words,” one faculty member told me. Another talked about “the freedom to teach. … There is no set curriculum. You’re not required to cover material at a certain rate.” But, once again, that’s not a sign of laxity. Littky constantly nudges, pushes, and cajoles everyone to do more, to re-examine everything.

Another teacher readily admitted, “It’s exhausting, confusing, frustrating, but without it I’m not sure what I’d do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, except constantly evaluating and re-looking at what’s done, to try to make it better.” One of her colleagues exclaimed, “I enjoy teaching again. I love teaching again. There is a sense of … joy about it and there is hope.”

At Thayer High only 11 percent of students went on to additional education before Littky arrived. Now, 50 percent do. But, given the conditions in the surrounding economy, that’s not Littky’s chief success measure. He talks constantly about creating “choices.” He guesses (and school-board members, not always allies of the odd- looking principal, agree) that 99 percent of his students now have multiple opportunities—junior or four-year college, vocational school, a top-flight army-training program, several local job offers, or the chance, that some have taken, to start their own business.

More important still, he thinks that his graduates are learners, not just certificate holders. One teacher describes the transformation of Thayer High: “It’s not ‘teaching’ [anymore], but effective learning—a lifetime of learning.” That, and always action, more action. Littky concludes, “It’s the attitude of going for it, not being afraid to try, going for it with vigor … When I look at schools, it’s the teachers who are excited about what they’re doing that are the ones that kids flock to, it’s the schools filled with such teachers where the kids are successful.”

Next week: Building esteem.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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