PJ Caposey is a superintendent at district Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. He is a keynote speaker and an educational leader. PJ became a principal when he was just 28 and, within three years, PJ was able to lead a small-town/rural school that was historically achieving near the bottom of its county to multiple national recognitions.
An accomplished educator and motivational speaker, PJ has written around eight books, and his work has been featured in several notable spaces, including Washington Post, NPR, CBS This Morning, ASCD, Edutopia, the Huffington Post, etc.
It was enlightening and an honor speaking with PJ Caposey about the challenges in education. PJ gave us a glimpse of the ways how we can change the education system for the good of the students.
You have often talked about teachers reaching out to children for effective learning; how do recent teaching restrictions and salary concerns affect teacher morale?
The issue with teacher morale is both overstated and understated. We are in a time with a dramatic teacher shortage, particularly in the United States.
Many people point to teacher morale as both a result of that and a precursor to that, and both can be true. The issue is that this is not a new or pandemic-related issue.
The teacher shortage is a decades-old problem and not a new concern
Multiple studies show that a cliff like that happened in 2008 when teacher responses to questions like, ‘Hey, I like my job’, or ‘I’m very likely to recommend’; all of that kind of fell off a cliff in 2008. So, it’s been on this downward spiral for a while. When I say this is not a new problem, I mean, this is literally a decades-old problem.
Morale, to me, is almost always like a climate issue that’s dictated by culture. So, when someone says hey, the morale is low, my question is, so let’s define the culture. Are we recognizing, appreciating, honoring, Valuing, or collaborating with?
If you’re doing those things, even if morale is low, it’s most likely to bounce back, if you’re not doing those things, and the morale is low, then we’ve got a serious problem that we need to address.
Your book ‘Students Voice-from Invisible to Invaluable.’ discusses the importance of students’ voices in learning. Do you think post-covid, the student approach to learning has changed?
I think that people are changing. Students are reflective of society. And I think, in some ways, they are demanding a greater voice in their learning, and there are positives and negatives to that.
I believe, every school wants to create community contributors that can communicate and able to think critically. I think that’s pretty universal, whether in Country A, Country B, or whatever.
If we want to create people that will make society better and be able to think critically, there is such a thing as experts, and I believe most of our teachers and leaders have expertise.
Students’ voices in learning is important for effective learning
So, for lack of a better term, even though I don’t know if one exists like a democratic model of education, it might not be what’s best.
That doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t have some choice in how they demonstrate their knowledge or the things they may study to practice the skills we say they need to master.
One of my all-time best examples of this is- we had a foreign exchange student early in my career that came from Bosnia.
And we were discussing the antecedents and causes of war, and the teacher wanted the class to focus on the United States Civil War. This person, a foreign exchange student, came from a war-torn country that had just experienced war and wanted to practice and master all the same skills but with a different prompt.
In my view, if we don’t listen to student voices in a case like that, that’s almost educational malpractice. But, that said, those types of examples are only sometimes there, which means that if we want students to research a classic novel and they want to do it on our recent publication in a magazine, those are two different things.
So, there’s this ray spectrum between trying to maximize and emphasize students’ voices. And then also saying there’s a right and wrong way to do things.
What do you think is the biggest gap in classroom teaching today: access technology, teacher shortage, classroom environment, or any other?
The most significant gap still exists between what is being measured in terms of how schools are reported. Some countries are considered successful in terms of education and what is likely to put kids in the best position to succeed tomorrow. So, for instance, in our district, we are very fortunate to have a lot of students that go to Ivy League schools and go to the most prestigious schools.
We also have many students in our area that enter directly into the workforce, the military, or whatever. Our desire to remediate any possible gap so that our test scores would look great sometimes run counterintuitive to what we could best provide for kids.
The second gap for me is geography. To explain, we are a small rural school, which means that my students live 60 miles to the East. They would have a much, much larger variety of offerings to take both on this-the advanced academic side and the excellent education side, simply because the schools are bigger and the volume of money that flows through, and the number of classes that can be offered are dramatically different.
Correspondingly, if you go 20 miles north, we have an urban center where education is much further because the school environment is different, where, you know, we might have a fight or two a year, they might have a fight or two an hour.
These students are having these vastly different experiences, So, when I look at education holistically, the biggest concern is that there’s just inequity by geography.
Would you like to give a message to our readers?
It’s to make sure that we’re doing meaningful work. If you ever find yourself in the throes of the day, the week, or the month and you’re wondering ‘why’, don’t ever lose that question of’ why’. If we lose that question, then the status quo is just going to be pervasive.
If we keep asking ‘why’, finding better solutions, and trying to make meaningful use of every hour of every day. We can do really good work on behalf of kids and our communities.