Authentic Experiences: A Principal's Viewpoint

When Students Choose the Challenge, They Reap a Rare Reward

"I did it!"

I talk a lot about the value of “authenticity” in education. I use that word to signal meaning and significance. When something is authentic for a student, it means something to him or her. Other activities in school can certainly have value, and students see the importance of the lesson, but there is something special when the work touches on their own interests or questions.

I have had the fortune to participate in educational approaches that give students choice when it comes to their work, and I have seen first hand the power choice has in making a student’s work authentic; in making it their own.

When a student feels like they are doing work of their own choosing, the rewards are powerful and long lasting.  Upstarts Theater represents one of these moments; a moment when a student chooses to take a journey that they aren’t quite sure if they’ll be able to complete, but when they do, the payoff is that much greater.

Over and over, authenticity leads to the development of student perseverance, grit, confidence and pride.  At an another school, I vividly remember when I was working with students on projects in which they had to choose a problem, or answer a question of their choosing, using the academic skills that we’d taught them.  They then had to present their findings or solutions to a panel of experts (an audience).  For example, a student chose to study the impact of cattle grazing on groundwater.  She ended up presenting to a panel that included a geologist, the director of the local water control board, and a rancher. This non-biased panel then listened to her research, heard the position she ended up taking after weighing the options, and then asked her clarifying questions that allowed her to defend that position.  And the teachers weren’t even allowed in the room while she did all this!

When that process completed, and the student exploded from the room shouting, “I did it! I did it!”

I was forever convinced of the power of student-choice and authenticity.  When choice and authenticity are present in the classroom, the student is no longer just following the directions of the teacher.  Rather, their own enthusiasm propels them toward a question that they want to answer.  With careful support and coaching from the teacher, coupled with the discovery of their own inner strengths, the success that comes from such a journey surpasses any grade or score that could come from a teacher.


An educator for 22 years, Demian Barnett has had the privilege of teaching at the elementary through university level and has been a high-school and elementary administrator. Barnett is the principal at Peabody Charter Elementary, where the school uses ParentSquare to connect the school with the community.