2 min read May 2023 — Joan Buchanan Hill, head of school at The Lamplighter School, is working to revitalize the School in the wake of COVID. A fully operational school year has brought physical and educational changes. Hill talked to Invest: about those issues as well the role of technology and the impact of teacher shortages on the school system.
What are your biggest recent accomplishments?
This is the first ‘normal’ year since COVID that the school has experienced since 2019. That’s exciting. It lets us get back to business as usual with teaching and learning. To have started this year without masks and returning to a very strong curriculum was exactly what we needed to do as a school.
What changes have been made?
Last spring, we did a complete campus refresh. That involved taking everything out of the building and having everything redone: new carpet, new paint, new lighting, new cabinetry, and new furniture. We also built an outdoor learning center that opened this year and it is phenomenal. We worked with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh of New York, who has done major city playgrounds. We were the first school playground in the country that he’s done. Our play elements were custom-made by Denmark-based MONSTRUM, a designer of unique playground equipment. Award-winning architect Marlon Blackwell of Fayetteville, Arkansas also did several of the additions. It has been a busy year with construction and now that’s coming to a close.
What is the role of technology in education for young children?
The impact of technology continues to change teaching and learning in major ways. During the pandemic, we learned that many of our many students didn’t have access to the proper technology to take advantage of online learning. We all had to ramp up very quickly but we had the pandemic time to do that. What I would tell you is that the impact of technology continues to be felt, even with a Pre-K program. Students have a keen interest in all the STEM disciplines. They love learning to code and they love learning to apply some of the new things that they’re learning as a result of having more access to technology. Technology has become even more accessible for the youngest kids.
Since we learned about ChatGPT in November, our team is still trying to make sense about what the impact of that will be on the youngest learners. I know that the high school and college marketplaces are concerned about students not writing their own papers but I take a decidedly different attitude toward it. I think that there will be opportunities that we haven’t explored yet, because this technology is just coming to us. Over time, we’ll find the strength of ChatGPT and AI. We’re using VR and teaching that to our fourth graders. They have Google Glasses and are getting a sense of what virtual reality is. Of course, they have it with their games at home but how can it be useful in an educational setting? We’re at the beginning stages of pushing that through and understanding that more.
How are you addressing challenges with student behavior?
There is an awareness that mental health concerns are real. For many years, it was given short shrift, unless there was something really bad going on. With the proliferation of school shootings and things that are happening in this country, we’ve seen that mental health is a real issue. Making sure that we have trained professionals, that we’re good observers, learning to look and to develop sensitivity to one another are vital. Our faculty has been engaged in creating strong teams, so that if something is going on with someone, someone else knows. Rather than being siloed, we should focus on finding ways to collaborate and work together. Otherwise, I think that will reward mental health issues that are unchecked. If those things are in place, the ability to slow things down a little bit in our fast-paced world allows people time and space to collaborate and work together.
What is the teacher market like?
A lot is being done to attract teachers. A close relationship with universities goes a long way in helping with recruiting because you just can’t pluck a teacher out of thin air. If we can develop strong relationships with universities that will be beneficial. We have a partnership with Southern Methodist University. Being able to recruit is based so much on relationships.
The teacher shortage goes back to how we value education in the country. Universities can place more emphasis on departments and schools of education within the university setting and colleges of education. On the back end, schools need to be providing professional development and doing things to retain teachers because education changes all the time. One of the strongest ways to retain a teacher is to offer professional development because it changes constantly. Teachers shouldn’t be financing their own professional development, that should be a combination of the school and the teacher.
What are the school’s goals for the near term?
Lamplighter is engaging in a strategic planning process now. We’re looking to see where we want to push out in the future and what partnerships we want to double down on. I maintain that new knowledge comes out of universities, foundations and museums, and the Pre-K-12 market is a delivery system. We deliver education; we’re not the researchers. As a strategic move, we want to create stronger and more robust partnerships because that brings new knowledge into the school. That’s one strategic conversation we’re having. The second conversation we’re having is whether or not there’s a way to continue to deepen the curriculum. In Pre-K classes, you can only do certain things because the kids just developmentally are not further along. But is there a way for us to accelerate that through the use of technology? How can we continue to push out smart, sound curricular decisions based on the new technology that’s being developed every day? Those are questions we are working to answer.
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