Engaging Programs Put People First

When a colleague and I were tasked with revamping the ‘Career and Academic Readiness’ program at the alternative high school where we worked, we sat down and uttered a phrase we hoped they didn’t hear at the Division office. As first-year teachers we had been reminded that our first obligation was to the curriculum, but we were convinced we had to put people first.

We posted the reminder: ‘Forget the curriculum’ on the wall and started with what we knew about the kids we would be working with in the fall. We knew we were designing a supportive environment first and foremost, and we were educated/experienced enough in teaching to know that the ‘traditional’ classroom environment often works at cross purposes to our main goal, especially with the at-risk kids we would have in our classroom.

We knew that if we put people first we would be supported because the school we were working in was itself based on ‘put people first’ thinking. The neighbourhood had undergone a radical demographic shift, and attendance was dropping.  The teachers and administration sat down and asked the students what they wanted. And things were changed to address the real barriers the students identified.

In later years, the then-Principal was often asked to attend conferences and speak about the ‘Nutana Solution’. His talk was short. He said the secret to Nutana’s success was one word:


We all know it’s more complicated. The really hard parts come next: Listening to truly understand and then moving mountains to make change happen. It takes time to change mindsets and actions, and it starts with asking people what they need.

Of course we returned to the curriculum, but it was delivered in a much different manner than it would have been had we been designing a curriculum-centred program – because we started with a much different purpose.

To Put People First, We Start With Why

One of the mainstream resources I really appreciate is Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why.

In it he explains a significant amount of motivational and organizational theory in one diagram and by moving this information into the mainstream has helped shift conversations. He has helped change mindsets and the actions that flow from them.

‘The Golden Circle’ from Simon Sinek’s book, ‘Start With Why’.

In a nutshell, Sinek talks about the ‘Golden Circle’ – What we do is impacted by how we do it, and how we do something is impacted by why we are doing it in the first place. People see what we do, and our methods and reasons for doing things are often hidden. In Education, the Why and How pieces are referred to as ‘The Hidden Curriculum’*.

What we see, the end-products of our development process are the programs, systems and materials we create. We’re:

  • Redesigning a program for at-risk youth,
  • Documenting a social media process,
  • Creating HR materials for on boarding and training

But what we don’t see as clearly are the why and how that are the foundational pieces of the program, process or materials. These are the pieces that drive engagement.

When We Put People First We Take Their Perspective (Or Better Yet, Include Them!)

When we put people first we pay particular attention to both the why and how of the project/process at each stage, even (maybe especially) when they seem to run counter to how the organization has been functioning.

We would have had even more success with our Career and Academic Readiness program had we taken the next step – and actually involved the students in ‘co-creating’ the curriculum. This isn’t just a nice thing to do, it would have helped our students better understand how school works (so they could better navigate it), and it would have helped them identify their strengths and increased their agency.

* I had a major epiphany while studying Education after reading Jean Anyon’s Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. It outlines how the same curriculum is delivered very differently depending on why the students in different social classes are perceived to be going to school. I found it very, very disturbing and it has become a big part of my Why.