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Dear Politician Who Says You Were Never challenged in School,
It’s election time again. With that being said, I heard your address to a large group of parents at a Home and School forum recently.
And I happened to catch you saying that you had not been challenged enough in school- that school had always come easy for you. Heard you saying, in a round-about way, that you wished that you had been given a higher bar to reach to. You repeatedly stated that school came easy to you, required little effort; stated also that your experience in school had not met your high expectations. You added that you wished for more opportunity for your own children to increase their proficiency in logic and analytical skills using chess clubs and the like. These are lofty goals, particularly for some children. Perhaps not for yours, if they follow in your footsteps.
As I listened in, I couldn’t help but think that you are one of the few that leave the school system unchallenged, and I want to give you a few things to think about that might possibly help you re-invision your formative years.
Whether or not children are academically challenged, there are certainly challenges that arise whilst children are in the care of the school system. One of the first challenges that arises concerns social manoeuvring. Starting with that first of all experiences on the bus, right on through to which side of the locker your coat will hang on and whom you will play with at recess, social development poses both rewards and challenges for many students. Learning opportunities abound. Part of the learning students endeavor to do in school has to do with learning the ropes when it comes to making and keeping friends, learning how to get along, how to solve problems, how to stand up for yourself, how to develop a healthy self-image, how to exhibit confidence, how to manage conflict, how to deal with bullying, how to learn empathy and the list goes on. From the time students come to school, they engage in social interactions and the learning never stops. Often the reason students have interference with their academic learning is due to the high priority that friendship, relationships and social encounters play in the lives of students. For good reason: if there is trouble on the social front, it is pretty hard for a kid to concentrate on the academic front.
Students are also coming to school so as to develop their personhood- and this type of learning begins at birth. From the time they first discover that they have a fist and tiny fingers that they can plunge into their infant mouths so as to self-soothe, to the day that a child babbles and then speaks their first words, children are learning their place in the world and how they matter. Students come to school having experienced many different aspects of life. Many children have already known what it is to lose a loved one- a family member or pet, even at the very young age of 4 or 5. Children know what it is to experience the separation and divorce of a parent, the impact that cancer or other terminal illness can have on a life. Some children know first-hand the challenge of mental illness, having dealt with it personally. Many children come from impoverished family situations, knowing the reality of what hunger truly means. Which goes to show: children come to school with all sorts of complex, complicated intervening variables that contribute to the learning that takes place at school. Some live with anxiety and fear. Some come with reluctance and tension. Some come angry. Some come sad. There is much strain and stress that children are under, and children from all walks of life are impacted by such. No one is immune to the pain of life.
While children come to terms with the reality of the life they are living, they are also learning how to deal with these realities in hopefully healthy ways. While in the care of the school system, they are given opportunity to develop resiliency, authenticity, confidence, and self-awareness. They are given the opportunity to be enabled, so that they can come to see who they are and who the people around them are as well. This process can be a smooth one for some kids, and can be a very difficult, challenging one for others. For some children- even as young as 5 and 6 years old, they can begin to compare themselves against the others around them, and their negative self-image can start around a little seed of doubt: “I am not as pretty as X.” “I am not as smart as Y.” “Z has more (fill-in the-blank) than I do.” These little niggling fears can lead children to compare on more specific subjects: “I am not as good in French as X.” “I got lower marks than Y on that last test.” “I must be stupid- Z always finishes first and I am always last.”
Learning to become who they were meant to be is probably the biggest learning endeavor that a child will embark on while in elementary and secondary school. Certainly it poses both challenges and rewards for the learner. And while I would never say that the school system can take credit for all the learning that takes place around this aspect of child development, I will say that teachers spend most of the daylight hours with students; if there are issues to be explored and concerns to be addressed, they often come into the light of day within the school day. If a child is afraid, that child will in one way or another convey that message to someone who cares. If a child is feeling at risk, this feeling will surface somewhere along the line. Teachers get well-versed in how to pick out differences in body language and behaviours so as to help students who are dealing with challenges- both those that have risen prior to the school day as well as those that come as a result of the school day.
Along with the learning that comes as part and parcel of social development and personal growth, there is the very real challenge of how to meet students academically. You seemed to say in your address that you were not academically challenged in school, as if to say that this is the most important area of learning endeavored in school. While I agree that academics are the most privileged learning in schools, I also hold that life is also about more than just intelligence development. The very real learning and growth that takes place in school includes emotional development, physical development, spiritual development, character development, along with learning for social justice and citizenry. While school supports many types of learning, I do see that academic learning weighs in heaviest within the minds of the public, when school is discussed. Of course, any well-meaning teacher is going to strive to impart a love of learning to their students, one area of which is content mastery. One aspect of care-giving certainly concerns the ability to exhibit care for the world around us and then strive to impart understanding about that world as much as is humanly possible, using the arts and science, literacy and numeracy, technology and creative and collaborative instruments so as to engage learning and knowledge. We want students to be critical thinkers. To use good judgment. To be fair, just citizens of the world. We learn partly how to do this through our standard curriculum.
But we learn the other part of this through the hidden curriculum. Those life lessons that occur in-between the content mastery and the teachable moments. Consider some areas of opportunities for learning…
Learning how to appreciate difference- classrooms with students of varying abilities and strengths can all contribute to the learning that happens in such a classroom.
Learning for social justice- again, classrooms with varying socio-economic statuses, cultural backgrounds, beliefs systems and diversity can be rich sites for such understandings.
Learning for conservation- modern classrooms are the ideal site for theories to be tested, experiments to be conducted and ideas to be generated.
Learning how to be empathic- we have a program called The Roots of Empathy that invites a mother and her baby into elementary classrooms so as to grow feelings of empathy amongst students. When we talk about why this is important, other learning opportunities can also take place.
Learning how to be kind- there is endless opportunity to learn the trait of kindness. In our school, we call it ‘bucket-filling’ and it has become part of the language and culture of our school. Being kind is something we work on improving for the rest of our lives. School is a perfect site to learn the whys and hows for this important skill.
I would challenge you, then, to re-consider: were you unchallenged in school or were there some learning opportunities that you might have missed out on while you spent your time there? While logic and reason and analytical skills and the like are important and worthwhile things to do and learn while in school, so are learnings centered around care and compassion and kindness and justice. If you were not challenged in school, I would ask that you look back on those years and truly ask yourself:
Even though I might have been unchallenged in certain aspects, were there in other areas- some missed opportunities, if you will- for learning that might have enriched my life? Which, if I had explored them in greater detail, I might not have felt like school was such a waste of time after all?
I leave you with this story. A while back, I participated in a workshop in which each person was to describe their experiences with bullying as recollected from their childhood. One man, a tall handsome guy with great appeal and charisma, proudly told the rest of the participants that he had nothing to recall- he had never been bullied. I left that day mulling this fact over in my mind. Trying to reckon his story alongside mine, making sense of the fact that I could recall dozens and dozens of stories from my childhood in which I had experienced unkindness or bullying of varying degrees, while he could garner up none. And my final conclusion was this: I will never be glad that I was bullied. It is a painful part of my past that required many years of self-reflection and introspection- as well as time- to help me heal. However, I also am very aware of what I have learned because of what I endured throughout those years, and I believe the most important lesson about life that bullying taught me was that kindness matters. And it is so very vital in our world today. I am a better person because of the pain I experienced as a child, and I can honestly say:
I might never have learned this lesson about life had my time in school been as un-challenging as yours was.
A Caring Teacher