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Invisible Curriculum

By Bill Madigan, Vice Principal, King Chavez High School

One night after dinner at a nice restaurant in San Diego, I found a dead homeless man in the parking lot near my car.  At first I was unsure of his condition.  He just looked so still, and I just had a gut feeling he was not alive.  Next to his head was an empty large bottle of cheap vodka.  I called 911, and in a moment, sirens, police cars and an ambulance were screaming in my direction.  After a frantic attempt to revive him, one of the paramedics declared him dead.  An officer who searched his pockets had found some prescription medicine, and he read aloud the man’s name: David.  David looked like he was no more than 30 years old.

The image of David’s still body and the scarier frantic action of the paramedics left a fairly hot memory for me.  The next day when my first period AVID kids entered the room – one boy dancing to internal music, two girls walking in a goofy teen embrace that almost made them fall to the floor giggling - I saw them differently.  I wondered about David.  Did he laugh and goof off when he was in school?  Was he a ball of adolescent possibility like my little AVID boys and girls?  What happened to him that he should lose his will?  What does it take for any of us to have such a collapse of spirit?  And, more importantly, I wondered what could I do in my role as a teacher to prevent such a tragedy?

This made me begin to realize there is more to my role than teaching “stuff.”  I had always felt that who I was with my students was more important that what I taught them.  Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach says, “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”  Good curriculum is important, but who you are when delivering it is more important.  Mary Catherine Swanson often used the term “hidden curriculum” to refer to invisible concepts such inspiration, motivation, resilience, and grit.  The longer I have taught and mentored other educators, the more I realize this hidden curriculum is actually more important than the visible. 

Now, neuroscience has support of that fact.  In a recent interview with Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of USC Rossier school, she mentioned the crucial importance of helping students become resilient, what she called “getting your guts up.”  She also shared that, “Skills are important, but inspiration is more important . . . I use my perception of your mindset to adapt myself, adjust or be.”  The classroom is not only a place for cognition and learning standards, it’s also a dynamic interpersonal, social and emotional environment.  The teacher has two roles that must dance in harmony: 1.) Deliver well-designed curriculum for their discipline and 2.) Inspire and model resilience.

The more “visible” delivery of curriculum can be learned rather readily.  Taking kids through the steps of the “Cornell Way” is relatively easy.  Being an inspiration or being a great model for resilience are far more complex and profound in nature and thus take more time and intention.  A trip to an AVID Summer Institute can give you great “stuff” to do in the classroom.  Hearing an inspirational story from a young Latina AVID student will move you to go back to school and teach like a champion.  Every year I hear the incredible stories of AVID students at the Summer Institute, and what stands out to me is the recognition – usually in tears – they give to their AVID elective teachers.  These great kids usually say something like “I wouldn’t have made it without my AVID teacher” or “My AVID teacher never gave up on me.”

As educational leaders, we actually do change lives.  We actually prevent many tragedies like David who lost his will.  I’m certain we really do save lives and more importantly create more inspirational energy for this world.  We do this, not with what we do like Socratic Seminar, but with who we are. When we hang in there with the challenge of teaching and leading, especially when students seem uninterested or resistant, we become the inspiration that guides students to their best selves; we create pivotal moments, and we “build the guts up” of our kids as Mary-Helen says.


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Reader Comments (2)

Well said! Thank you!

April 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterR. Robin Withers

This is a good article to share. It was a real attention grabber with the first paragraph. This makes me think of my class...and motivate me to continue, especially the end of the school year. I know I am ready for the summer, but I often think of my AVID students and their welfare. I don't want them to be in "David's condition".

Thank you for sharing.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdythe Miller

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