What Makes a School Successful?

I was fortunate to spend the last few days in Tacoma, Washington, learning with folks from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. I got to have conversations with lots of smart adults about ways we can support kids as full people and how teachers, researchers, and policymakers need to work in partnership to do that work. But to be honest, the best part of the trip was when we piled onto buses and drove to a local middle school to see the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative in action.

I was endeared to the school as soon as I saw a sign on the library bulletin board that said “READ RISE RESIST,” but I liked it even more when I learned that it was a bit of an underdog. The school has a reputation for being a “bad” school. One student told us that his aunt attended the school as a child and told him that he should stay far away from it. The principal shared some of the school’s test scores with us, which showed that almost a third of students are not yet demonstrating proficiency.


Student voice shouted from the hallway walls–posters, examples of work, college aspirations. Inside of classrooms, students were writing, talking, solving problems, advocating for their needs. Students who used to get sent out of class or suspended frequently were using strategies to manage their emotions and stay in class. At the same time, staff members were interrogating their own patterns and biases and implementing restorative practices to decrease exclusionary discipline. When we asked students what they liked about the school, they told us that the teachers were always willing to help, that everyone is included in the school’s “family,” that “teachers try to get to know us so we can trust them.”

I walked into a 6th grade math classroom and saw small groups of students gathered together. In each group, one student stood at a whiteboard and presented a question they had about what they had been learning in class. I sat down next to one girl and asked her what they were doing.

She explained that this was something they did every week, that they helped one another review and untangle their confusions by asking questions that will help the presenting student understand. They aren’t supposed to teach their classmate, she said, only ask questions to help them discover the steps they should follow to solve the problem.

“So what happens if someone gets frustrated?” I asked her. “What if they are feeling really confused and they just want you to tell them what to do?”

“Oh,” she said, “well, then we just do emotional labor.”

Just to be clear, this was a sixth grader. Telling me about how she and her peers do “emotional labor” in math class like that’s the most ordinary thing in the world.

I asked her to explain what emotional labor was. She said, “Like, we help that person feel less frustrated by telling them a joke or making them laugh, and then we get back to doing the work.” I asked her if she could tell me any specific examples of emotional labor strategies they had learned, and so she asked me, “What did one vegetarian say to the other vegetarian?”

“I don’t know, what?”

“‘We’ve got to stop MEAT-ing like this!'”

There was really no topping that, so I went over to watch another group, and they were giving their classmate a new problem to solve to make sure she really understood how to do it. After she finished, she asked them, “Did I do it right?”

One of her group members gave her a wry smile and said, “Did you do it right?”

She rolled her eyes and smiled: “Yes, I did.”

Another boy, who was pedaling away on an exercise bike attached to a desk, said, “Wait! Let’s do emotional labor! Let’s do a cheer.”

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When I told the story about the sixth graders’ “emotional labor” to my friend later that night, she said she’d never heard the phrase used in such a positive way, explaining that she’s mostly seen it referred to as a burden that marginalized people have to bear. 

In a recent Slate article, Haley Swenson outlines the history of the phrase “emotional labor”:

“In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor.”

My friend and I agreed that we liked the idea of doing emotional labor with someone else instead, as a way of being in empathetic partnership with them. We loved the idea of teaching that skill and that vocabulary to kids. And we never would have had that conversation if I hadn’t talked to that sixth grader in that classroom in that “bad” school.

That “bad” school is doing transformative work with students–good work. And while the school leaders will be the first to tell you that they have more work to do (decreasing suspensions, raising test scores), that shouldn’t discount the great things that are happening in those classrooms.

Schools are complex places. If all we look at, in considering whether schools are successful, are test scores, we’re missing out on seeing so much beauty and innovation and learning. How will we ever learn about cool and interesting work, like teaching sixth graders how to do “emotional labor” for one another, if we discount schools based on a single metric?

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The protocol I watched students do is called “collaborative study groups.” Read more about it (from a different school) here.