• Randall Olson, Ed.D.

Welcome Back to Unreality!

If we are to believe the script we have been given, our welcome back-to-school speeches will be prefaced by the title above, “Welcome back to unreality.” After all, in countless graduations, promotions and commencement speeches given the previous spring, the students, staff, and parents were warned ominously with what has become almost a cliché, that the graduates were about to enter “…the real world!”

If that is the case, what does that make us? We who supposedly “work” in the educational system, with its billions of dollars invested in buildings, grounds, staff, maintenance systems, busses, services…we are apparently an unreal place, an artificial creation, a Truman-like enterprise, built under a dome and peopled by folks who don’t really deal with the “real world.”

You may think this is an absurd idea, and that the connection between a commencement address and its reflection of our status as educational professionals is a specious and indolent waste of time. However, I would suggest that words matter, and that words reveal mindsets, and mindsets determine outcomes. The astounding part of this is that such addresses are delivered by highly educated, highly skilled people – by college presidents, no less!

A serious consideration of such a widely held and frequently repeated view- point is worth the effort. We may find solace by considering the statement to mean the students are leaving an arena wherein they have been protected, counseled, fed, guided, given second chances, and now will have to face a world where that is not the case. But that’s not true. Any society or organization worth its salt will afford its community members and employees the same nurturing environment. We will all get second chances – and many more – throughout our lives. In fact, students seldom receive as many “second chances” as folks in the “real world.” Even your taxes, if late, may be extended – more than once.

The most negative impact of such a statement is that it advances the notion that school is simply a holding pattern for kids, where they are ware-housed for a given number of years, serviced by perhaps well-meaning people, but the experience is not really that important or significant considering the demands of the modern work place. The mindset extends the notion that what students accomplish in school is quaint, reasonably safe, and even entertaining, but not meaningful. In terms of the “real world.”

Unfortunately, if that is the case, and if we believe it to be so, it also gives us permission to accept the status quo, accept the average, and to collect our checks, find other means besides teaching to entertain and fulfill ourselves, and dutifully move toward retirement. There is no need for accountability in an unreal world. In fact, avoidance of accountability has been a hallmark of education, only recently threatened by the advent of standardized tests and other measures of student success.

However, that is not the case in many schools. In many schools the staff take their work seriously, knowing that each day is the “real world” and that they are accountable to their students, and the quality of the education the school delivers. I would suggest that in schools and districts that accept this accountability the culture is driven by a leader who believes in the real world model of a school and who insists on its application.

Schools that deliver real world teaching have a built-in tremble factor. The term “tremble factor” was first coined by a Boston University economist, Paul Rodan, to explain certain economic behavior – but it

“Real” accountability requires a tremble factor.

A school dedicated to quality work, from everyone, is a school that recognizes and honors its role – embedding knowledge and skills in students and earning the trust of the community in developing students who are responsible, knowledgeable, and honor what they have inherited and what they need to commit to the future – in the real world.


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