Most teachers, many parents and some students are aware of the three-legged stool concept and practice in schools. The three legs are teacher, parents & student. The teacher represents the school, the parents represent themselves and their child and the student can hopefully represent himself or herself to the extent possible. Too much practice in the past was a conversation between the school (teacher or principal or counselor) and the parent talking about the student, figuring out a strategy or a response which they believed to be in the best interests of the student. More recently, students have been invited into the conversation as an active participant since any plan might wisely include the person who will be most affected.
These kinds of conversations may have to do with academics, with discipline, with shared concerns or just about any other topic you can imagine having to do with a student’s well-being. Conditions at school or at home can affect a student’s performance in either direction, thus it behooves those three parties to be working in concert toward common goals with a common vision and plan for the outcome. The image of the three-legged stool was easy to imagine and one could see it not being able to stand without all three legs present. That made sense and the three-legged stool has definitely been an improvement as it has been put into practice.
However good those intentions have been, I want to respectfully suggest that even the three-legged stool is not adequate if we want a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the students’ lives that have an impact on their education. I am suggesting an image of the four-legged stool as an alternative. The fourth leg, drum roll please, is the community where the student and his/her family live and the life of the student outside of school. It is in this context where students spend an enormous amount of time, where they are known by both their peers and other adults, and from where they take cues about what is cool and what is not. There are those students who are engaged in community service activities, or could be, who participate in club sports, who hang out with friends in both virtual and real social situations and who may even have a mentor in a specific field of interest or endeavor.
By adding the fourth leg, we can get a better understanding of how the community may be an influence for positive and yes, sometimes negative, input or serve a student’s needs that are not being met elsewhere. We can view the community as a resource for additional learning experiences that can support what’s going on at school. Place-based learning in community settings is but one example. Extended family relationships may also part of the fourth leg. Suffice to say that a student does not attend school in isolation from the rest of the community.
If you’re using the three-legged stool approach, consider the fourth leg and see if it adds something of value. It appears to be able to support more weight, is better balanced and certainly more comprehensive. It only takes up a little more space and the value added may well increase the desired results for all concerned. One way to add this fourth leg is to invite someone from the community to a conference who knows the student from a different perspective. This person could be a neighbor, a friend who does not attend the same school, a mentor, a coach or an employer. The point is to be inclusive and have contact with that other aspect of a student’s life that can offer additional support, just as the fourth leg does for the stool. Let’s have more productive school conference meetings on behalf of students.