When Will We Stop Vilifying the Children & Families We Say We Aim To Lift Up?

Social Emotional Learning; a field that I am new to and gaining knowledge, wisdom and appreciation for. The concept is one that I profoundly believe in. When thinking about education today (teachers interacting with children), and understanding that something is fundamentally broken which is resulting in our country woefully under-performing in contrast to other countries in the world; social emotional learning (SEL) points to the heart of the issue. The issue is fundamentally dysfunctional relationships manifesting themselves in the classroom.

We have leaders in the field like The Aspen Institute who are committed to unearthing the core factors contributing to this country’s broken educational system, and they have taken the stance that “Learning is social and emotional”. Vanguard thinkers and leaders like Zaretta Hammond with her “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” framework for teachers speaks to the fact that learning does not happen without established trusting relationships.  Can it be that “simple”? We have politicians pointing to unions as the blockade to progress in education, and school districts fighting for sufficient funding but often making poor choices in investments to benefit all children, and then philanthropists peering in from the outside with the best intentions seeking improvement, hoping to find silver bullets to “cure” systemic issues. But the answer really is that simple; ALL of our teachers and educational administrators simply need to believe that ALL children have genius within them, and it is their role to encourage, nurture, and support each child in discovering that genius to share with the world.

Think for a moment about an example of a “great” teacher you may have had or know of. Now think of an example of an “exceptional” school you attended or visited.  The common thread in each of those scenarios will be consistent with the truth of the bolded statement above. Those superhero Teachers and Principals that we highlight in videos like purple unicorns – they display these values. They actually love children, not just the children that look like them. Not just the children that come from “good” 2 parent homes. Not just the children who do not live in poverty-stricken communities. Not just the children who do not have physical, emotional or mental health needs. Not just the children who perform well on standardized tests to make them look good. But they love and believe in ALL children.

So what prevents this simple truth from being the rule and not the exception? Well, on a micro level, we have to examine what factors contaminate any human to human relationship. We are products of our upbringing, the examples of relationships and behaviors we have seen, and the values that our cumulative culture produces. Said simply, bias and ego are often the leading unnamed and highly taboo culprits destroying our classrooms today. Bias is a very touchy subject, one that people immediately recoil from! Talking about personal beliefs and owning the stories that define who we are?! OH MY! No way! That might cause us to have to examine ourselves, we might then have to reflect and -God-forbid- actually practice “self-awareness” that we are now shoving down our children’s throats in the name of SEL!! But if we step back to look at things on a macro level, those individualistic mindsets are the remnants of strategic choices made by the writers of the founding principles of this country. They merely continue to be bolstered and renewed in different ways. This country was not founded to uplift all of humanity. In fact even to this day, not all humans are considered human beings, worthy of civil or human rights. So our educational system is merely a product of the source of our country’s diseased consciousness.

What concerns me the most, as we all seek to exist in this toxic environment is the fact that unfortunately even our best “inventions” and intentions towards a cure are often still perverted. SEL for example. As I explained, is a field I am learning and growing in but deeply believe in conceptually. The application of this “concept” of social emotional health and or learning has been almost entirely child-focused. There are countless programs that seek to teach/build/coach, etc SEL skills in children. Teachers- who are already stretched thin- are mostly engaged to the point of learning what structure/framework they need to learn and then enforce onto the children, not with the goal of doing any of the reflection work themselves let alone build it into their practice to live and model it.

Let’s take a step back for a second and just examine teaching children how to be ‘self-aware’ (i.e. recognize) their emotions. Is this really the job of the child?? Or better stated, where should the bulk of this identification really lie in a relationship between a developing child and an adult? We want our babies to be able to raise their hands and robotically announce to us “Teacher, I am feeling really upset and hurt right now because Sharon looked at me and shook her head. This reminded me of the disapproval I feel from my parent at home, and it is bringing on some underlying psychological trauma for me. So I am going to throw this chair as a result.” Sound about right?

Of course we want to develop the language and awareness of our children that allows them to accurately articulate what they feel and what they need in all circumstances. They will need these skills when they are adults in all areas of their lives where relationship and communication is required. (i.e. everywhere that human interaction exists) However, there are some flaws with this line of thinking as a solution for our broken educational system:

  1. The system is asking Teachers, who happen to be taller children (emotionally), who have never been taught about social emotional health and well being, to teach it to children.
  2. The premise of this approach assumes that problems with children learning in the classroom are a result of problems with the child, and so they need to be “fixed” by learning some skills. (This is called a bias) They are developing children!! Perhaps instead of trying to make them operate as mini-adults, we should instead elevate our expectations and qualifications for the adults in these classrooms to approach teaching with a whole child, developmentally-appropriate approach.
  3. There is also an extension of the premise of #2 that pushes blame onto families. As we talk about measuring/teaching/building skills in children, this presumes they are lacking them (deficit approach- this too is a bias). Which also means that those “no-good” parents didn’t teach them these skills. Enter the “savior” Teacher and school administration who feel utterly burdened with the weight of having to raise the children of these “ignorant, no-good” parents. (Guess what this is? Also a bias!)

Has the perversion of this approach begun to become clear?

What is wrong with the educational system in America is NOT the children, and it is NOT the families!! Or the communities where the children live!

Isn’t it time that we start taking a serious look at the cause of the ailment instead of prescribing medications for the symptoms? Our problems are much deeper than teacher pay, or charter versus neighborhood schools, or magnet and IB schools versus STEM schools! Our problem is in what we refuse to name!! It is the silent killer that lies lurking in every educational forum, every symposium with all of the field’s best and brightest who present their purple unicorns and silver bullet ideas on how to cure the failures of the system. Our problem is systemic, and it is about the refusal to address this country’s collective consciousness of racial bias. Until this is at the beginning and end of any and every conversation we are having around education, or any problem in our society- we are really doing nothing more than pouring sprinkles on a pile of excrement.