True Education Reform is an Inside Job

One of things I get to do in my work is to support teachers and principaIs directly when behavior issues rise to the surface.  Whether serving as an Education Advocate / Consultant or as a district Behavior Specialist, I am expected to know what I am talking about. And by doing so, I generally tend to think I do know what I am doing for it’s a matter of “cracking the code, not the kid”. So I continue and share my insights.  And people continue to listen. But then I realized, I was missing the mark.  For nothing really changed within the context of the larger system; beyond classrooms, schools, and districts.  I was just another band-aid on a never-ending sore.  For what I really want, is to assure a message of hope, grace, and embracing the gift within reaches a greater number of students and teachers.

So I came to the conclusion that I needed to change the narrative I share everyday: For I feel something greater needs to surface.  Here’s what I am talking about …

Life happens.  Whether it be in the classroom or outside the school building.  And change is a major component of this evolutionary process. Nevertheless, within the context of education, schools, and classrooms, business as usual seems to prevail. And we often go our separate ways and continue to do the same things over and over with little change taking place as if schools and life are separate. Keep in mind, most educators believe we are all doing “what’s best for kids”.  But then again, if life is all about change, growth, and progress, why are most schools and classrooms still stuck in what may appear to be a model from years past?  By doing the same things over and over with similar results, how is this a part of life or a part of the evolutionary process?  How does our traditional model of school create a platform for our children to truly step into their brilliance: The remarkable, the extraordinary, and the unique nature of who they truly are?  Does your school, your classroom really support the gift waiting to be discovered within each child to present itself?

Every day, this theme becomes louder – clearer – stronger and continues to haunt me: So now, it’s time to amplify the message:

I wholeheartedly believe that we need to embrace the gift within, ourselves, and our students, for true change, transformation, and potential to unfold; for educational reform is an inside job!

And I also believe, the traditional educational system is founded upon a number of guiding principles which I do not support anymore:

THE EMPTY VESSEL THEORY

STEM IS THE NEXT REFORM

LIFE IS NOT FUN SO LEARNING SHOULD BE ABOUT RIGOR AND GRIT (NOSE TO THE GRIND)

TEACHING IS A ONE WAY PROCESS; ONE TEACHES, STUDENTS LEARN … REPEAT AS NEEDED

THE EMPTY VESSEL THEORY

The premise behind the Common Core, our national set of instructional standards, is designed to fill up each child, like an empty vessel, with knowledge and skills preparing them for the world of tomorrow; specifically, directed toward jobs and employment.   I don’t really believe in this philosophy anymore for I do not see our children as blank slates needing to be processed through an educational system like cattle.  I wholeheartedly believe that each child is integral part of something much greater; and it’s our rightful duty as parents and teachers to embrace the gift each child presents as it unfolds.   Secondly, we really don’t know what the future will look like for our children in light of their prospective employment: According to recent studies, “65 percent of the children entering primary school now will ultimately work in a job that doesn’t exist today, reported by the World Economic Forum [CNBC, August 2017].

So what is most important? From my perspective, every child needs to fully grasp and embrace the gifts within themselves for they will be relying on these extraordinary skills, attributes, and talents through an ever changing society and career path.  And for sure, there are core skills that need to be learned along the way.  But one’s ability to read, write, or perform math calculations or related problem solving, does not make a person whole or complete.  It’s more about how one feels about his or her self-worth, self-realization, and one’s ability to serve the greater good through their internal calling or sense of purpose, which makes the difference.

In a recent study, and replicated numerous times, the following insights are most critical to explore when considering student achievement and what is defined as “hope”: “In research with 3,920 college students, Dr. Snyder and his colleagues found that the level of hope among freshmen at the beginning of their first semester was a more accurate predictor of their college grades than were their S.A.T. scores or their grade point averages in high school, the two measures most commonly used to predict college performance. The study was reported in part in the November issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Students with “high hope” set themselves higher goals and know how to work to attain them,” Dr. Snyder said. “When you compare students of equivalent intellectual aptitude and past academic achievements, what sets them apart is hope.” [New York Times, December 1991].   And this sense of hope is founded upon how one feels about oneself and the promise within related to their future and a deep seeded sense of possibility; the ability to succeed is really an “inside job”.

STEM IS THE NEXT REFORM

Also, I don’t believe that the course of study we are on, with an over-emphasis of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) based skills, is really what is in our students’ best interest.  I believe it’s in the best interest of major corporations and large industries within the political process.  We have seen this many times before across the American educational landscape: Big business guiding the instructional framework: For example, after the Civil War, as America shifted to industrialization as the foundation for employment, moving beyond a cottage-based economy. An emphasis on assembly-line related employment guided our educational system. After World War II and through the early stages of the Cold War, science, technology, and the “Space Race” influenced the American curriculum, and now, within the context of global economies, guided by technology, the Common Core presents it’s strong-hold on the educational system as well; and packaged as “STEM”.  And most teachers have remained silent during this transition, and have gone along with this dance for the last 30 plus years. Since the Nation At Risk report in 1983, we have seen one reform after another, one publishing house text after another, and each year there is a new initiative at the district level presented to teachers; a non-stop barrage of “best practices” and “research based” methods:  Being a veteran educator since 1980, I have seen nothing that resembles consistency, sustainability, and long-term program development during the last three decades.  It’s as if we are on a never-ending treadmill, going faster each year, and we are like puppies chasing our tails round and round.

According to curriculum experts, the Common Core is a step in the right direction; providing a national framework for all students to assure learning takes place across the country.  I agree with this.  However, I believe we lost creativity, artistry, and an appreciation for the humanities within the teaching profession down this path.  Through an emphasis on testing & achievement scores, fidelity toward “being on the same page” across the district, and using text-books as the basis for all learning, we have lost touch of what was once a profession grounded in artistry and craftsmanship. For example, in many elementary schools across the country, Social Studies and Science are not taught as independent subjects anymore and are “embedded” within the Language Arts text books.  So labs, hands-on kits, and collaborative activities, which required innovative instructional planning, have gone by the wayside due to an over-emphasis on “Common Core”; meeting english-language arts standards as the primary instructional target.  Back in the 1980’s when I first started teaching, I was expected to create highly engaging Social Studies and Science lessons for I knew that there were students in my class who struggled with reading, writing, or math, but loved the hands-on experiences or the socially engaging activities found within these areas.  Same for art and music; as elementary teachers, we were expected to integrate the humanities into our lessons every day for we were targeting the “whole child”.  This is often not the case anymore.

In fact, I believe a large number of teachers see this as well:  “Less than half of Americans (49 percent) and only 40 percent of teachers now say they support Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Public support has dropped 16 percent since 2013, when 65 percent of Americans were in favor of the Common Core standards, according to the ninth annual Education Next poll released Tuesday. But the greatest change in opinion has been among teachers. In 2013, 76 percent of teachers said they were in favor of the Common Core. In the new survey, only 40 percent say the favor Common Core–representing a 36-point drop in two years.” [According to CNS News, August 2015]

So what do we do?  How do we move forward?

From my perspective, we need to bring creativity, ingenuity, and artistic expression / problem solving back into the teaching process.  As a means to encourage our students to be creative, expressive, and problem solvers themselves.  Also, I believe we need to emphasize a new set of skills and learning; that which transcends time, cultural shifts, and social development; and by doing so, from day one, when our youngest students begin Kindergarten, we are setting the stage for a new educational reform movement: One that will last the test of time.  By focusing on the emergence of the gift within.   For example:

According to leading futurist John B. Mahaffie, he believes we need to look at the following personal and learning skills as the foundation to assure our children will be successful in an ever-changing / evolving future:

1. Love of Learning — With no certainty about the skills and knowledge we will need. A desire to learn will give an individual greater success. That comes from experiences as a child in which learning is challenging, interesting, rewarding, and fun, and sometimes includes what the child wants to learn.

2. Skill at learning — Learning to learn is a teachable skill and should be at the core of the school curriculum. This includes iterative efforts at instilling and advancing learning skills, and giving students the chance to reflect and learn about how they learn best.

3. Self-knowledge — Self-knowledge is thus a central skill. A critical part of it is humility, but another is self-confidence. The self-aware child will grow to be someone who can and wants to talk to all sorts of people. To listen well and to continue to learn.

4. People sense — Children may be naturally self-focused and thus in practice, selfish. There is a way out. We can work with them to understand the situations others are in, the points of view that other people have. The child who develops people sense will be a strong collaborator.

5. Communication — Communication includes spoken, written, and increasingly, visual communication, and will be fundamental to most kinds of work. This is strengthened by people sense, and in turn improves and strengthens skill at collaboration.

6. Worldliness — Not all education happens in school. Consider the advantages of the child who has been to the capital city and has seen what’s there compared with the child who has never left the village. Or, to be fair, also the child who lives in the city and has never seen a farm or village.

7. Comfort with complexity — The world is not driven by simple cause and effect and big questions are not black or white. Our world is full of subtlety and complexity. Examining it and understanding it that way is essential for success in work and in life.

8. Goal setting — Successful people learn how to set goals and meet them. For the employer, this means they are productive. For the individual, this can mean personal success and advancement.

9. Open minds — No success is possible if we don’t raise children to become adaptable, thoughtful, open-minded adults. Theirs will be a world of constant challenge and change, and being strong and prepared means being able to change.

These are all skills and insights which are guided by a deeper sense of one self, and one’s connection to the larger puzzle called “life”.  As a result, I truly believe our greatest efforts and service toward our children, and their education is to design a program which acknowledges the gifts within and the emerging promise which every child presents from day one, from Kindergarten forward.  And its imperative that the system supports every child through the window of promise, purpose, service, and connection to a much larger contribution than “employment”, “career”, or “college”.  Whether we explore the foundation of hope, as well as the nine essential skills, shared by John Mahaffie, our educational system needs to look deeper at the over-arching theme of learning and education way beyond the Common Core.  It requires teachers and administrators to reach deeper into their own personal tool-kit. For creativity, ingenuity, artistry, and critical thinking to evolve within our students these same essential skills need to be personified and demonstrated by our teachers and staff to truly make a difference for our students today.  Imagine what learning would look like if every Kindergartner entered school and was welcomed by the following: “We look forward to seeing the gift within present itself within you, and we will do everything possible to nurture the discovery of this process. No matter how long it takes or what detours your path will require; the path toward your self-actualization / realization will guide our efforts”.   And by doing so, this requires us, as true role models, to pursue the same principles ourselves. For love and understanding serve as the foundation of this educational philosophy.  And it is founded upon the notion that we need to “be the change you wish to see in the world” [Gandhi].   Here again, I pronounce that true educational reform is an inside job!

LIFE IS NOT FUN SO LEARNING SHOULD BE ABOUT RIGOR AND GRIT (NOSE TO THE GRIND)

We are not talking about throwing the baby out with the bath water; the Common Core, or any other curriculum guide serves a purpose.  However, effective teaching is about creating connections to learning from a wider perspective; as presented by John Mahaffie.  From a simple standpoint, take a moment and think of the challenge as follows: What if we focused on just three elements of his model?

  1. Love of Learning
  2. Self Knowledge
  3. People Sense

And we crafted lessons from this perspective.

Love of Learning: Creating lessons which are based upon student interest and engages their curiosity; bringing fun back into the classroom.  This may require teachers to find their own joy within the lessons and share their own “love of learning”.  However, we do need to move way beyond the text book to assure the love of learning is transferred from teacher to student.  Establishing teaching as an art or a craft, through creativity and ingenuity, will be the means to do so. For us to truly transfer this notion, “love of learning”, teaching and learning needs to be founded upon the following: “If you love the life you live, you will live a life of love”.  We need to truly enjoy what we do everyday so our students can also see this experience within their own lives.

When I started teaching, my mentors, and colleagues, veteran teachers from the 1970’s, many would be described as “hippies”, loved teaching.  And they all presented something within which personified a deep sense of “love”; this is how they felt about themselves and their experience working with students.  Some brought their own personal hobby or interest into the classroom; whether they played music to supplement the lessons, or taught art classes as a part of the learning experience.  I remember, one of my Master Teachers used theater as a regular feature within his lessons.  His students loved performing plays and their reading abilities soared as a result.  Years later, one of my veteran teachers, when I was a new principal, featured choral singing within her reading activities for on Sundays, she was the Choir Director of a local church and felt music was a powerful source of connection to the learning process.  What do you do within your classroom which personifies the “love of learning”?

As a side note, so many of our students today experience hyper-focus when learning embodies their interest level in addition to having a vacuum of disconnection, disinterest, and disengagement when there is no meaning at all; feast or famine.  Why fight an uphill battle when lessons can create bridges toward engagement?  Use of social media and technology are innovative ways to create these connections.   For example, when students are learning about different cultures across the globe, there are numerous ways in which students can connect with other classrooms thousands of miles away.  Also, the use of Mindcraft and other software generated models, provides hours of engagement when students are provided opportunities to create based upon established benchmarks and related rubrics.

People Sense: Creating developmentally appropriate activities which allows students to see beyond themselves within the learning process is an essential life skill.  Play as the foundation for Kindergarten, collaborative learning for older students, class meetings, and small group activities may serve as the bridge toward social skill development.  Where ever you are guided to move toward; collaboration, connections, and communication will be the means to create a stronger people sense within our students.  And likely, this will require us to practice these same strategies ourselves by working within teams, cadres, and partnerships with our colleagues as if it’s second-nature.

Currently, one of the teachers I work with inspires me for he presents class meetings on a daily basis as a form of creating culture and family within his room.  However, it’s more than that for these social learning activities often lead toward problem solving, critical thinking, and compassion toward one another.  Resources such as Compassionate Classrooms by Hart and Hodson, or the Nurtured Heart Approach by Glasser are excellent resources to consider.  As a trainer for the Heartmath Institute, I am able to share a number of resources with teachers and principals including the Coherent Communication Technique which serves as a framework for social communication. Engagement from the heart; when compassion guides our conversations, provides the basis for establishing authentic people sense skills.

Self Knowledge: Developing a deep relationship with each student with the fundamental understanding, “I see you” continues to be the foundation for the most effective student – teacher connection.   And helping each one discover the gifts as well as the challenges within allows true learning to evolve within the classroom.  This takes time and requires a level of mindfulness to unfold; by focusing on relationship more so than task.  As we shift the focus to connections through relationship, self-knowledge becomes an important by-product of this process for relationships serve as the pathway toward self-realization and actualization.  When children feel an authentic sense of being seen, heard, or understood, they are able transcend this experience toward a higher level of their own self awareness.  This is well represented with the classic human development model presented by Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs; when students feel secure within related to their physical, safety needs, and genuinely feel a deep sense of belonging, the path toward self-actualization / realization unfolds.

Take a look at your own life experience: Picture in your mind the one teacher who left an indelible mark on you and your life.  What was it she or he projected which guided you to see this in yourself?  Likely, it was their ability to simply be present with their students so each one felt “special”, “unique”, and authentically appreciated.  And overtime,  this transcends so our students see this quality in themselves leading toward self knowledge, self awareness, and self actualization.  Being present, and relationship centered, provides the platform for true connections between teacher and student.

Within my recent work as a Behavior Specialist, I continue to ask the teachers to slow the process down so their emphasis on relationship-building takes precedent over task.  For today’s classroom teachers often feel like they are on a never-ending treadmill, always behind.  However, to make true inroads and connections with our students, we need to take time to nurture these relationships for today’s children all struggle with the notion of “belonging” [See Maslow Theory] for their own lives are also moving way too fast and their sense of security is often in question.  As we focus on our students, rather than the classroom activities alone, a genuine sense of “family” develops, which so many of our students lack at this time in their lives within of our society.

TEACHING IS A ONE WAY PROCESS; ONE TEACHES, STUDENTS LEARN

Finally, we are getting to the point: Our ability to see the gifts within another, the underlying promise, potential, and their talents, is often a matter of seeing these things within ourselves first.  Like the Talmud saying at the top of the page, “We don’t see things the way they are. We see things the way we are“.   Our frame of reference within guides us how we see others.  If we are working through a filter of stress, worry, tension, or doubt, how can we really see the gifts within others?  More than likely, we will focus on the same things outwardly which are being processed within: Within a classroom of 25-30 students, if we are feeling overwhelmed, we tend to see our students from this lens.  Like a mirror.  On the other hand, if we are at peace, calm, and at ease, it is much easier to see our students and their wide range of talents, possibilities, and promise within, which presents itself every day.  Again, how we feel, especially about ourselves, provides the framework how we see others.

“Relationship is a great mirror. It is the mirror in which we see ourselves, in which we discover ourselves … In this mirror, we discover—our tendencies, our weaknesses, and our strengths. We discover our good qualities as well as our negative qualities. This mirror becomes a very precious teacher for us, a very precious path. The mirror of relationship becomes a very precious teaching for us to discover who we really are, and where we are on the path and in the world altogether.” [Mindful, August 2010]

So another lesson on this path is as follows:  We are always learning about ourselves through our students.  I will say this again; our students present an opportunity to see our true selves through each one of them. For everyone presents an opportunity to serve as a mirror of who we are and more importantly, who we want to be.  Once we see this as part of the teaching experience, we become free to truly engage in an authentic process which unfolds every day; self-awareness is never ending.  And instead of seeing our students and the triggers many present, as a threat, especially those who appear to push our buttons, and allow uncomfortable emotions to surface, we can see this process from a new lens: Gratitude and appreciation leading toward self realization and self awareness.   Ultimately, leading to personal freedom.

For example, just the other day, I was asked to observe a 5th grade student who was known to present an extraordinary set of social skills including the ability to curse in the most abrasive manner possible.  He was also someone who has the ability to size up another quickly; his survival techniques guided by keen intuitive insights, provides him a safety valve when dealing with new people and situations.  I thought I was up for the challenge.

As I walked into the class,there were five people in the room: The teacher, working with a student one to one, and three other students working independently on computer-related tasks.  The student and the teacher appeared to be engaged in a math lesson; nothing unusual in this first glance.  Immediately, after I said, “Hello”; the 5th grader unloaded on me with the following verbal assault: “What the F%$# are you doing here you mother F&^%$#  A%$#3^?  Then, after sizing me up and down, he launched into another set of profanities which I will not get into, however, he hit target spot on.  Somewhere within me, I responded to the assault with a deep sense of fear and concern; something that rarely surfaces.  And truly, only someone who is extraordinarily intuitive would be able to find within me.  And he did it.  Afterwards, I walked away and was incredibly impressed with this young man’s amazing ability to read people.  Nine out of ten times, a verbal assault like this would have no impact on me.  However, this was one of those situations where the mirror was clearly presenting itself.  And I was grateful for experiencing this for I am now able to move on and through the emotional baggage I have been carrying for a long time.

The truth that needed to unfold is as following: As a Behavior Specialist, or Educational Consultant, I have carried around an emotional set of attachment [or luggage] which basically states, “I can fix this”.  As if I am a plumber, an electrician, or any other handy-person on call.  But the truth is, I am just another human being, someone who is also experiencing the human condition with my own set of challenges, hurdles, and insights.  So when I was called out by this 5th grader, “Who the F&^%$ are you?”, there was some truth in his profanity for I had to ask myself, “Who am I and what am I doing in this process?”.   One thing for sure, I am not here to fix the human condition, nor save anyone from the learning which is to unfold.  So I am grateful for the understanding which unfolded. Learning is a two-way street.

So how does this resonate for you?  How do our students teach us about ourselves?  And how can we embrace the insights which evolve when our emotional buttons are pushed in this process?  Most notably, how can we see the gift within every student when it’s not always easy to work through the chaos each may present?  I have seen violence, assault, and inexplicable acts of malicious behavior in our classrooms as our children unload upon teachers and students; in ways I would never have imagined years ago.  But then, today’s classrooms are an expression of the human experience we find within our communities and society as a whole. So teaching requires something much different within the usual “standards” based toolkit and class management systems.

Specifically, teaching requires a different mindset today than it did over thirty years ago when compliance and social rules of order ruled the roost.  Nowadays, this is not the case.  The notion of compliance, “Because I told you to”, does not exist anymore. Nor does fear, “Wait till your father gets home”. However, compassion, understanding, and simply, love for one another, serve as the basic requirements of teaching, like always.

Teaching may not be for everyone anymore for the conditions within the classroom are much different today.  Nevertheless, teachers today are being called upon to demonstrate a new level of compassion, like never before due to the level of aggression, anxiety, fear, worry, and sometimes violence, many of our students bring from their lives into our rooms.  And this requires us to open our hearts in ways which poses a greater challenge for compassion is only authentic when it’s an expression of the heart!

Here’s another way to look at: As life continues to expand, moving at a faster pace, we are wired as humans to respond to this level of change with a “fight or flight” pattern; with fear at the core of this response.  As such, the only way we can off-set this increasing level of fear, as it presents within our classrooms, is through an energetic shift which counter balances fear, and that’s through love, faith, and a deeper sense of connection and compassion.

Parker Palmer, writes in The Courage to Teach, “All the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome it’s effects [fear] on our lives … all hold out the same hope; we can escape fear’s paralysis and enter a state of grace where encounters with otherness will not threaten us but will enrich our work and our lives …  we move beyond the fear that destroys connectedness … by reclaiming the connectedness that takes away fear”. And connectedness, through compassion and understanding,  have always been, and will continue to be, at the core of the teacher – student relationship.

Teaching in the 21st century is not for everyone.  It’s no different than being a first-responder, like a firefighter, police officer, or a member of the military; except our intentions are beyond survival and triage.  We believe we are doing something noble, something transformational.  In this process, we are being called upon to go much deeper than the curriculum, the text books, and our standards-based assessment programs.  We are asked to do so as the ever-changing human condition plays out within our classrooms with all of it’s warts, challenges, and social maladies.  Like any position which puts one’s life at risk, one needs to seriously self-reflect if this path is truly for you.  For teaching is not for the light-hearted.  You have to be comfortable with change, challenge, and having your current beliefs and values threatened, and in some cases, your physical wellness is threatened as well. For today’s teachers are being asked to evolve with their students by looking at life, and all of it’s challenges, head-on.

In closing …

When we open our classrooms to the human condition, and all of the possibilities found within this learning process, we also need to open ourselves, our hearts, and be vulnerable to the possibility of learning as a two-way street. It’s not as if we have a stronghold on learning and all of life’s possible outcomes; it unfolds like a mystery.  Once we see the learning experience as a give and take process, we are open to the possibilities of connectedness. Again, “we don’t see things the way they are, we see things how we are”.     And we need to be the change we hope to see.

And it’s imperative that those who embrace teaching in the 21st century, see the experience from this lens: our children, our students, and the challenges each brings to the classroom, provides our own self awareness, and the opportunity to evolve toward our own self realization. Breaking it down even further: If we experience another’s behavior and actions as the path toward our own self development, there’s something within this narrative which connects us to each other and our students.  And if this connection is founded upon compassion and understanding, we are on the right path.  If not, then conflict, separation, and most notably, fear will prevail.

It’s quite simple: True education reform is an inside job!  And the means to do so will not be found within the next new text, curriculum guide, workshop, or political shift at the legislative level; it’s really about the transformation within ourselves and our ability to see connection, rather than separation, between teachers and students: Being vulnerable within our hearts!

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