Amish Teachers Visit “English” School

The Amish School teachers visited New Holland Elementary School on February 16, 2011. They requested to observe 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade students learn and to eat lunch in our school cafeteria. At noon, Rachel (Teacher), Mamie (Teaching Assistant), Amanda (Rachel’s sister), Katie (Rachel’s mother and former teacher), and Grace (the “English” liaison), arrived at our school. I welcomed them and spoke with them for a few minutes, giving them an overview of our school. They were grateful for the opportunity to visit as they had never been inside an English school before. The first thing that I felt compelled to explain was that it was “Comfy Sweats Day” in preparation for our awesome Jump Rope for Heart Day, which was the reason for the casual attire. The comment was an ice breaker! I knew that I was conversing with special people; they were warm, open-minded, gracious, kind, and curious to learn everything they could from our time together.

Rachel is a 19 year old teacher of thirty-one students, ages 5-14 years old. I liked her instantly and respected her courage for acting upon her curiosity.

Mamie is a 15 year old teacher’s assistant with Rachel. She was quiet and reserved, but when with the students she established an easy rapport.

Amanda is Rachel’s sister and had been a teacher for “two terms” (I assumed this meant two school years), but she had stopped teaching because she found the students’ behavior too challenging to navigate.

Katie is Rachel and Amanda’s mother, who was a former teacher in an Amish school, and was amazingly liberal and supportive of the visit (risk-taking) and of sharing ideas (collaborating).

And, Grace drives Amish teachers, has grandchildren in our school, and has a great deal of respect for educators – Amish and English alike. She made this special opportunity plausible and I am very grateful to her.

The little group circulated through three classrooms and the teachers and students welcomed them enthusiastically. First graders read their writing to them and were warmly complimented by our visitors. Third grade students allowed each visitor to join a different table and enlisted their skills as a group member during their brainstorming session for writing. Our visitors were introduced to the fifth grade class and observed intervention groups in math and then whole group science instruction. As expected, our students demonstrated the utmost respect and our teachers were extraordinary.

Katie made a fascinating comment to me while we observed fifth grade, she said, “Although our teaching methods are completely different from this, I can see clearly that the children are learning this way too.” Katie was clearly observing the LEARNING that was occurring – a true 21st century teacher – focused on learning. I then took the opportunity to tell Katie how interested and excited I was to visit Rachel’s school to learn and share with her. She nodded approvingly and promised to be there during our visit to help explain things.

The cafeteria was overwhelming to our visitors and they smiled in amazement at 200 students being served the school lunch within a six minute timeframe. Our guests took several minutes to decide between the Max Stick or Rib Eye BBQ sandwich, but soon made their decisions and brought their trays over to eat with the beckoning first graders. They spoke with the children, with the teacher and with me throughout the lunch time. They were overwhelmed with the concept of organizing a school of 600 children and the task of ensuring that each child learns.

In return, I was overwhelmed with Rachel’s poise and professionalism at a tender age of 19 years old. I admired Katie’s liberal attitude and her focus on life-long learning. I was hopeful that Amanda would gain enough confidence from the visit to perhaps go back to teaching. It is clear that Amish teachers receive very little preparation to be educators. I believe they learn while assisting in the classroom and have some workshops over the summer to prepare for the job.

I asked Rachel what resources she had. She didn’t understand the question. I rephrased the question by asking her what she would do if an 8 year old student was having difficulty learning how to read? Rachel said she would speak with the parents of the child to request their help and support, but hadn’t experienced that problem yet. She continued to explain that her school had a “Board” made up of five parents who supported the teacher when a child’s behavior became overly disruptive, but she hadn’t sought out this type of support either. I surmised that Rachel’s best resource is Katie at this time and I am certain that we can forge our relationship so that New Holland Elementary educators can also serve as a resource in the future.

Rachel explained that her students finish school in May and she would like to spend time in our school from May until June observing and learning. Of course, I welcomed her with open arms. She reciprocated with an open invitation to visit her school any time, which I will arrange and write about soon.

As I reflect on this day in my career, I can truly say that it was one of the remarkable moments. I don’t yet know exactly why this relationship is so important – but I am certain that it is. The Amish rely on children to teach their children. Parent support is crucial to the running of the school. They clearly have a focus on learning and are able to accomplish a great deal with few resources. This is all I know for sure at the moment, but I hope you will help me to find the epiphany in this endeavor by continuing to read.

February 16th was our guests’ day to observe, learn and reflect…I am looking forward to our day to learn more from our Amish colleagues and their students.

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Will Looking Backward Help Us to Look Ahead?

Photograph by Irving Rusinow from Wikipedia Commons

So I am preparing myself to go to my first Educon weekend and I receive a phone call from a parent. The parent requests that a group of Amish school teachers be permitted to observe a 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade classroom at the school that I serve. New Holland Elementary School is one of three elementary schools in Eastern Lancaster County School District. It is majestically located across the street from a beautiful farm, where sits a quaint Amish school house.

When I arrived in August 2010, I personally committed to making contact with the school across the street, but understood the inappropriateness of walking up to the front door and knocking. How to make contact without invading the privacy of a very private people? I decided to tread gradually, simply being outside at the right place and time, to smile at the multi-aged students as they walked or rode a scooter to school. I smiled, waved and said “Hello”. A more adventurous boy met my eyes more frequently and for longer durations on several occasions, so I introduced myself to him by saying, “Hello, I am the principal at this school.” pointing behind me. He looked confused with the expression, so I clarified that I was the “head teacher” and he smiled with understanding.

I asked the boy if he could give his teacher a message. He agreed and I proceeded to ask him to convey the following message, “I want your teacher to know that she may bring the students at your school across the street, any time she wishes, to use our playground equipment and ball fields.” A small olive branch, but one I had hoped she would accept. Several weeks went by and one morning prior to the start of school, I saw the Amish children playing on the playground. I was thrilled.

Later, I offered the boy some books that our school no longer needed by asking him to bring them to his teacher. “To keep?” he asked. I replied, “Yes, to keep”. And, so the quasi-relationship continued to develop and the phone call from the parent, who drives Amish, came to me with an unprecedented request. Of course, I agreed to the visit, but I posed a condition, “May I come with some teachers of English students and observe how the Amish children learn?”

I believe the following occurs at an Amish school, though I don’t know for sure, because they are such private people. I believe that students ages 6 years to 14 years of age are all instructed in the same classroom [Differentiated instruction is mandatory]. I believe that when children master competencies, they move on [No matter how old they are]. I believe that the schools are under-resourced, teachers are paid very little, and the goal of the school is quite focused on education [No state mandates, no responsibility to social amelioration, no free and reduced lunch, no IDEA…]. Obviously, the teachers perceive themselves as learners [They are coming to observe and learn]. Children come to school no matter what the weather and they end at various times in the afternoon [When students finish their learning for the day, they go home to their families]. These are the few things that I believe to be true, but I am honestly not sure.

At this point, some of you may be asking why is this visit necessary? I am a principal, headed to Educon, trying to embed 21st century skills in our instructional practices? I want to connect with principals from around the world through professional networking, I want more students to blog and skype, I want to see differentiated instruction in every classroom and want to ensure that ALL children under my watch learns! What could I possibly learn from a one room Amish school house? I am not sure, but I will let you know when I find out.

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