There is nothing more refreshing to me as an educator than taking the time to reflect on why I got into the field. I remember being so young when I first chose my major. I was probably too young to be making such a life-altering decision. It’s really unfair to ask a 20-year-old to make a commitment to what she will spend the rest of her life doing. Fair or not, though, it happened. I became an educator. I thought I would be changing the world through education. I wanted to ensure that all students had positive learning experiences so that they could grow up to live happy, fulfilling lives and give back to others. I had no plan for how to really do this when I was younger, I just assumed that it was what I would be doing as a teacher.
I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life preparing to be a teacher and working in the field. Every time I have a hard day or feel like the pressures of teaching are just too great for me to face, I reflect on what motivated me in the first place. In my reflections, I always come back to one central theme: the whole child. The ASCD Whole Child approach establishes five whole child tenets: healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. As a veteran teacher, that theme means more to me than ever, and I am so thankful that I did choose education when I was younger. I’ve been able to witness some amazing and powerful success stories.
One of these success stories relates to the engaged whole child tenet. My school has taken on the mission of serving the whole child through arts integration as defined by the Kennedy Center. We began this journey by recognizing that our campus needed to be spruced up. Our school is the oldest in our district and has gotten run down in some areas over the years. We formed an arts team and began searching for funding to help us make some improvements and beautify the campus.
We implemented the funding we received by organizing outreach projects. The goal was not just to beautify the campus but also to involve all of our stakeholders in creating a learning environment for students that would support them as whole children. In other words, we wanted to “artsy up the place.” We began by organizing volunteer work days on Saturdays to revamp two outdoor learning spaces. Community members, parents, students, teachers, administrators, and even central office staff came to our school on Saturday mornings to work on various projects. We planted flower beds, busted concrete for removal, laid pavers for patios and walkways, and painted murals. We also began creating permanent artwork for the inside of our buildings as well as display areas for student-created pieces that could be changed throughout the year. We created a collaborative piece from an old window that a parent donated. We received a donation of old mirrors from a local department store that we painted with the help of parents and community members. The entire process took about three years to complete, because we have a rather large campus. However, it was truly a miracle transformation.
The success of this project is really two-fold. First, we now have a beautiful school. The artistic environment is overwhelming in a good way. We constantly get compliments from visitors about how beautiful our school is. One state official even bragged that the artwork in our buildings “took her breath away.” We have an amazing space of which to be proud. Anyone can look around and see that this is a child-centered school. Second, now that we have finally created the learning environment that we want for our students, it is much easier to focus our attention on teaching the whole child. We have a school environment that exudes the importance of the arts. We are able to use the arts in our instruction—not just in our arts classrooms but in our regular curriculum as well. We engaged our whole community in creating a positive and artful school environment, which has led to an increase in our ability to use the arts to engage students in their learning.
As I look back on my career so far, I am pleased to think about all the success stories, such as the one described here. When I first started teaching, I couldn’t articulate that I wanted to help ensure a whole child education for all students—I just wanted to change the world. Now, I can see that whole child theme in everything I do. Focusing on the whole child is changing the world. It changes the world one student, one classroom, one school, and one community at a time. I get to be a part of that every day in a school that has put forth every effort to focus on the whole child. We are working to ensure that all students have a positive learning experience so that they can grow up to live happy, fulfilling lives.
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Amanda Koonlaba teaches visual art in Tupelo, Miss., and serves as an arts integration instructional coach. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and just completed a specialist degree in educational leadership in December. Connect with her on Twitter @AKoonlaba.