Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Subtle Undoing of the Education of Our Students

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 13, 2016 3 min read
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You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. - Atticus Finch

As you read this blog, in your home or office or somewhere in the world on a mobile device, chances are you are not hungry or cold or in pain. Chances are during this season you are making a list and checking it twice. And, for many educators, it is likely you are contributing to help a family in need. Yes, educators are safe from the life realities of the students they serve. It may be literally impossible to remain openhearted and empathetic if we do not walk in the shoes of others. Some believe that we serve our students best by expecting them to leave their ‘baggage’ at the door as they enter the safe place we call school. But the words of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, are true for children too.

But what tools do they have to leave their ‘baggage’ at the door? Who can teach them to put aside their hunger or hurt or fear or pain? Who creates the space where they realize those are temporary and that there can be different future? Who brings hope into their lives? Don’t think we are only talking about those students who live in poverty or who have absent parents, this can be true for any child, whether wealthy, comfortable, or poor.

Children. The attention to changing standards and methods of teaching and learning may have turned our hearts and our minds away from our true calling. As adults, there are a myriad of things on our minds that distract us from being truly present. But, as adults, we have choices. Most of us have places and people to go for help. We have learned how to mediate our emotions. We have learned how to stifle worries in order to do our day’s work. Children have not.

The experiences of children outside of school come to school with them even if they are never spoken out loud. Who will be their guides? Classically, educators respond to learning differences. Yet, the emotional responses of those being identified and their parents can go unnoticed or unattended. But there is more and there are more children. What about the child who is struggling to understand what it means to be black or the Hispanic child whose heritage is being lost? Or the child struggling to understand their assigned gender or sexual orientation? Or the child struggling because a parent is mentally ill or drug addicted or just arrested or deceased? Or the child who simply feels out of place? Or the child whose parents are separating, introducing all kinds of uncertainly into his life?

These realities will interfere with our ability to teach a child to read, or complete an assignment, or to focus and succeed. If we accept that these things are out of our reach, if we contend that our jobs are to teach only, if we look to the counselors who will deal with non-academic problems, if we acquiesce to the notion that the best we can do is follow the rules and expect the children to do the same, then who will help the children rise up and grow forward with hopefulness?

During the presidential campaign and following the election, we have seen the hardening of the hearts of people toward others. So now, we have children who believe their classmates will be and should be deported. And, we have children who believe they will it will be. We have gay children who are watching expression of hatred against gay children. We are living in a complicated world and it is confusing for all. There is no single answer to how to help understand what children are experiencing and helping them to clear the path to learning. Or is there?

The Greek Aeschylus, called the father of tragedy, born in 525 BC, understood that suffering yields wisdom. In our world, children are exposed to far more than those in ancient times living in the small villages. Our children experience the world and its suffering much earlier. These 21st century children arrive needing a kind of love and acceptance and stability unlike generations before. So perhaps there is one single answer for today’s children. We can take it from an Internet meme You seriously have no idea what people are dealing with in their personal life so just be nice, it’s that simple. The life that each of us is lucky enough to be living makes room for the awareness and compassion that others need. Our youth need something we have to give. They need us to see and hear them and they need us to allow our hearts to be responsive.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.