“Inclusive learning environments” With Penny Bauder & Janet Wolfe

Young women tend to let self-doubt impact their career decisions early on in their education, often leading them to choose paths other than in STEM fields. A diverse workforce in STEM fields is critical to a team’s creativity and success in problem-solving. More women in the STEM workforce will also help to increase funding for […]

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Young women tend to let self-doubt impact their career decisions early on in their education, often leading them to choose paths other than in STEM fields. A diverse workforce in STEM fields is critical to a team’s creativity and success in problem-solving. More women in the STEM workforce will also help to increase funding for research projects related to women’s health and development. Finally, STEM majors often yield high paying job opportunities, and it is important that women have equal access to these positions.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Janet Wolfe, Head of The IDEAL School of Manhattan.

The IDEAL School of Manhattan is a K-12 independent inclusion school for both typically developing students and students with disabilities and special needs. Prior to joining The IDEAL School of Manhattan, Janet Wolfe spent 13 years at St. Paul’s School for Girls, a fifth through twelfth grade all-girls day school in Maryland. She began as an English teacher, then English Department Chair, then Academic Dean and Associate Head for Academics. She joined IDEAL in 2016 while also being Trustee of the Online School for Girls, where she served as Chair of the Education Committee and a member of the Finance Committee and worked to promote the mission, development, and brand recognition of this new school. From 1993 until 2000, Janet was an English teacher at Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Jack Barrack Academy). A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Janet also earned a Master’s in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She was a member of the 2009–2010 Cohort of the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads, attended the 2016 NAIS Institute for New Heads, and has demonstrated her commitment to professional development through active participation in and presentations at national and regional independent school conferences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher until right after college when I fell into a position teaching second grade Sunday school. Despite my best intentions and thanks to the machinations of my mother and a distant cousin who ran the Hebrew school in our congregation, I took a job that needed filling in late August. All week long, in my office job, I planned for my Sunday school class. Thanks to good mentoring, I learned a great deal, recognized how far I had to go, and decided to go back to school to study education.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Spending the past five years at The IDEAL School of Manhattan has been the most interesting and rewarding experience of my career. So many schools value diversity and community, and, at IDEAL, those values are core to everything we do. IDEAL expands the definition of diversity to include ability and establishes social justice and anti-bias curricula as essential and intentional parts of the school’s program at all levels. As a result of our mission and structured approach to inclusion and identity, IDEAL students appreciate and celebrate diversity. They develop empathy, self-esteem, and grit, recognizing each individual, including themselves, for their unique gifts and challenges. The lesson is that, when carefully tended and intentionally scaffolded, an inclusive and diverse school has a powerful and positive impact on the academic, social, and emotional growth of students.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am excited about the plans we are making to grow IDEAL’s 18–21 Program, a student-centered and individualized experience designed to build upon our oldest students’ unique strengths, goals, and passions and to prepare them for their next steps. Internships are integral to the 18–21 experience, with opportunities for students to gain hands-on experiences in business, science, the arts, media, the law, retail, and service industries. I am excited to start offering the program to students outside of our community and bring the IDEAL experience to a new group of young adults. W e are also preparing to pilot a virtual summer program. The summer program will offer interactive, fun, and theme-based social and educational experiences that will connect, engage, and inspire students in an inclusive online platform. Our virtual summer doors will be open to IDEAL students, as well as to young people in NYC and across the country who want to experience or may not have access to an inclusive and differentiated educational community during the school year.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I don’t believe that anyone is ever truly an authority in education. Educators are lifelong students, growing and drawing lessons from each new experience, and education itself is constantly evolving in response to the needs of students and our ever-changing world. I am fortunate to have been part of extraordinary educational communities, as a student and a professional, where I have learned from the ways each community lives its mission and serves its students. I have also had the privilege of working in schools that are newer than their competitors and that have served a need for students and families. Being a part of a growing school is an incredible learning experience and requires flexibility, sensitivity, and creativity.

From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I don’t feel qualified and it doesn’t seem fair to rate an entire education system! In general, I think schools, whether public or private, need to evolve to be more inclusive, differentiated, and interdisciplinary, equipping students with the skills to be creative leaders and collaborative team players in the workforce. The need for flexibility and responsiveness to the academic, social, and emotional needs of each student have become even more evident as schools have moved to distance learning. The pendulum in the past few decades has swung away from fostering the social-emotional growth of students to testing and raw data. I believe the swing back is beginning and that’s a positive move. Kind individuals who can think across lines, possess strong executive functioning skills, and bring out the best in others will continue to thrive as they transition from school to adulthood.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I have been impressed by the thoughtful and hard work of schools to move curriculum online and to ensure that students have equal access to technology and learning. Schools developed equitable grading policies and distributed meals, and teachers adapted quickly and creatively, learning a new mode of content delivery and reaching out to the families of their students, all while taking care of their own families and children at home. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 50.8 million students in US public schools. Faculty, schools, districts, and states are constantly engaged in conversations about how best to serve their students and always adapting and improving their practices. I am inspired by the level of discourse and the acknowledgment of the need for constant growth in education as our nation and economy change.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. Inclusive learning environments: Inclusion fosters empathy and resilience and promotes academic achievement in students regardless of whether they are typically developing or have disabilities. It is more important than ever that we teach perspective-taking and model a respectful and inclusive community for our young people.
  2. Social-emotional and anti-bias curricula: Schools should prioritize social-emotional and anti-bias curricula that engender respect, build confidence and advocacy skills,and scaffold the development of empathy and perspective. Learning can only take place when students feel safe, seen, and loved.
  3. Interdisciplinary learning: Interdisciplinary, co-taught, and project-based classes develop flexible and creative students. In the age of the internet, it is too easy for people to become siloed in their own beliefs and to miss critical connections among ideas or people.
  4. Physical education and the arts: Healthy and happy students who have opportunities to shine and feel like a part of a team are optimistic, resilient, and available to learn. We need to invest in the arts and physical education, including lifetime sports that can be transitioned from the classroom into adulthood.
  5. Faculty salaries: Great teachers are knowledgeable in their content area and skilled at designing and communicating curriculum in ways that engage students. Teachers must also be skilled at getting to know a variety of young people, learning what is special about each, and creating a safe space in which all voices are heard and students feel comfortable taking healthy risks. Teacher salaries must honor the complexity and challenges of their role and responsibilities.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement? This is clearly an area in which we need to improve as a nation.

  1. First, it is important to engage students early in STEM subjects and to develop strong numeracy skills. A strong understanding of the relationships between numbers and the basic operations is essential for success in high level math and science classes. We must prioritize support for students struggling in math, just as we do for students struggling with reading skills.
  2. Exposure to the real-world applications for STEM subjects can inspire students to put in the hard work needed to pursue these disciplines. FIRST LEGO League and other robotics competitions offer students a hands-on opportunity to tackle authentic challenges that require practical STEM knowledge in engineering and coding. Coding is also a terrific way to introduce students to STEM fields, while also teaching logical thinking and creative problem-solving.
  3. Even more importantly, relationships are at the heart of most choices students make. The more we can make learning collaborative, build connections between our students and local leaders in STEM fields, and, as teachers, encourage students to view mistakes as a healthy part of learning, the better able we will be to equip them with the confidence and skills to go into STEM fields.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Young women tend to let self-doubt impact their career decisions early on in their education, often leading them to choose paths other than in STEM fields. A diverse workforce in STEM fields is critical to a team’s creativity and success in problem-solving. More women in the STEM workforce will also help to increase funding for research projects related to women’s health and development. Finally, STEM majors often yield high paying job opportunities, and it is important that women have equal access to these positions.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

1. Young women are often motivated as much by relationships and helping others as by the discipline itself. Mentoring programs and internships to foster connections between young women and successful professional women can build confidence and open doors.

2. It is essential that math, science, and technology teachers form supportive relationships with all of their students, regardless of gender, encouraging collaboration and presenting mistakes as an opportunity to grow, building a sense of confidence and connection in the classroom.

3. Be sure to make explicit connections between the subject matter and how the work students are doing helps others. Show the value in the work. Helping others inspires all young people, girls in particular.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

STEAM, definitely. The arts foster confidence, perspective-taking, and creativity, skills that are essential in higher-level positions in math and science. Education should also underscore the equal value in all fields and career paths. The arts are every bit as important to our society and democracy as the sciences.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each? I actually think there is one priority which, if added to the school day, could build confidence at a personal level and ultimately expand to create societal change. I would make sure that all school schedules include time that focuses on identity, community, and social justice. At IDEAL, during daily time set aside for group discussions in both divisions, teachers check in with students, individually and as a group, and lead lessons focused on self-reflection, team-building, and executive functioning, integrating our social justice and anti-bias curriculum into these discussions, as well as our academic classes. Our annual Civil Rights Museum, an IDEAL spring tradition to which all students contribute, exemplifies how time dedicated to identity, community, and social justice creates a culture where all students feel safe and valued and learn to advocate for themselves and others. This year, for example, the second grade researched the Americans with Disabilities Act and explored changes New York City has made to public transportation to improve access for individuals with physical disabilities. They also interviewed a wheelchair user about her personal experiences with mass transit and wrote letters to the MTA with their suggestions to make transit more accessible. In previous years, one Upper School student started a business providing hard-to-find cosmetics specific to her underserved neighborhood, while another began a blog inviting her peers to engage in real talk about their lives and communities, and then coordinate their social justice efforts. The Civil Rights Museum is an example of the leadership skills that we can foster in students when we set aside time every day and in the curriculum for self-reflection, team building, and advocacy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“For all serious daring starts from within.” –Eudora Welty. This quotation resonated with me in high school and college because it emphasized the importance of thinking differently and exploring new paths. As I’ve gotten older, it is the word “starts” that holds the greatest weight in my thinking. Creative thinking is a first step, but positive change only occurs when individuals possess the daring to share new ideas and to bring people together to advocate for change.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Governor Cuomo. I’d like to learn more about his vision for the Reimagine Education Advisory Council and support them if they are looking for a lens focused on inclusion.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @TheIDEALSchoolofManhattan Instagram: @janetlwolfe LinkedIn: Janet Wolfe

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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