Improving Equity and Empathy at School

Last spring a group of students representing our Gender Sexuality Alliance asked to have a meeting with our district’s curriculum director and myself. We sat down in my office and the students began to make a calm, thoughtful, and well reasoned case for more LGBTQ+ representation in our curriculum. The students made a persuasive case that essentially asked the question, “Why not?” 

Giving students meaningful voice in our learning community has made our school more equitable and created a more empathetic place to learn and grow for all of our students. The recent case made by the students for more LGBTQ+ representation in our school ran parallel to a similar conversation that I had two years ago with a few of our students of color. They had helped us understand just how complacent we were in the dominant narrative’s deeply embedded systemic implicit biases, prejudices, and perpetuation of marginalization for those historically marginalized. On February 1st, 2018, their advocacy led to our high school being the first known public school in America to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. The flag raising sparked national and international attention, and more importantly has been a visible symbol of our local school community’s commitment to making our learning environment more equitable and empathetic. 

So how exactly does a predominantly white, middle class, rural high school like ours go about being more inclusive and equitable? Here are five strategies that we are using to improve. 

  1. Know thyself. As administrators and teachers we owe it to all of our students to examine our own biases, privilege, reflect on our practices, and pursue professional learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge and commitment to equity. Helping students understand their place in time and history means we as educators need to have a stronger understanding of our own. 
  2. Do the homework. The students from our Gender Sexuality Alliance raised such a simple and poignet question, “Why not review existing units and look for ways to be more inclusive?” As we improve our school’s clarity around targeted skill-based competencies, it ought to render more unit content choices more neutral. In other words, if reading comprehension is the goal, the selection of which materials and authors to read should be flexible to include more diverse authors, themes, and topics. One of our science teachers recently uncovered that a longstanding biology unit about DNA had vast and meaningful implications to inequitable incarceration rates, systemic judicial bias, and the use of cutting edge science to improve those problems. Holding up an equity lens to almost any of our units can yield similar connections and opportunities for inclusivity.
  3. Use data. The achievement gap is as troubling in our school as it is anywhere in the country. We have consistently lagged in literacy and math skills among students from low socioeconomic status. Use of data through an equity lens pushes us to ask who(?) more often. Who is accessing our afterschool program? Who is utilizing our social worker? Who is being referred for special education? Who can regularly access technology? Who is accessing our flexible pathways? Who is represented in faculty and leadership? Some of the answers to these questions illustrate the stark disparity in our system for the historically marginalized and those numbers can spark more targeted intervention and proactive problem solving. Recently adopted local school policy will also provide more strength and urgency to answering these questions with equity at the forefront of our work.   
  4. Interrupt microaggressions. Our students have reported hearing microaggressions, usually masked as jokes, on a regular basis. There are two ways that we have worked to improve this issue. One is to improve knowledge of history, context, and status of historically marginalized members of our society–in an effort to help raise awareness of the pain and implications “jokes” can have. The second is to simply improve our ability to interrupt. Relying on resources from Teaching Tolerance, our faculty actually practiced interrupting microaggressions and biased comments. It proved challenging, and having more practice and chances to collaborate on strategies has been useful faculty time together. 
  5. Look around. We have simply been looking around to reveal what implicit messages are in our system. What and who are on the walls? What gender normative language can we remove from our forms, class groupings, bathrooms, student management system, graduation, etc. Is special education a place in our school? Who is in leadership positions? How can our posters, art, book displays, school motto and hiring communicate inclusivity and celebration of all? When we examine our environment closely through the lens of equity for our historically marginalized it is incredible just how strongly and frequently the implicit biases reveal themselves.  

We have been fortunate to have students with voice helping to lead the way in our school. Our job is to hold up our end of the work too. That means not only listening to their voices, but also raising the expectations for ourselves. Waking up to the systemic biases in our school is difficult–even painful work at times. And recognizing our own privilege–no matter our life circumstances, is internal work not everyone is eager to do. Despite the challenges, making strides to create a more equitable learning environment is not only the right thing to do for our historically marginalized students, it is crucial for our advantaged students and all members of our community to lead deeper, more just, and more empathetic lives as well. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow.

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So Long, Summer!

After sixteen years as a teacher, I’m well-accustomed to the internal rhythms of the school year.  August sows seeds of anticipation and excitement for a fresh start. By October, we’ve found our stride, having established a strong classroom culture and systems to fuel daily learning.  Over time, however, the accumulation of minor stresses and struggles can begin to erode that early exuberance. By February, there are days where it feels like we’re in survival mode!  

Fortunately, spring offers a renewed burst of energy for the home stretch.  And by June, students and teachers alike are beginning to embrace the promise of summer vacation and exciting opportunities on the horizon.  Sunshine, hiking, gardening, travel, backyard barbecues, fishing trips, pleasure reading, mountain biking, camping…and so much more!  Peter fishing tackle

Those outside the realm of education often point to teachers’ summer vacation as a cushy luxury unknown to others in the real working world.  In what other profession do people get so much time off simply to relax and play?  But, I would argue to be at our best, teachers need this prolonged time away from the intensity of the school year to reflect, relax and recharge. 

In truth, many of my educator-friends use the bulk of their summer break to work a second job, complete coursework for recertification, or to attend a variety of other workshops that introduce new instructional practices and strategies to better support students.  Certainly, these are all worthy endeavors that help rejuvenate us without the high-pressure backdrop of returning to school bright and early Monday morning. But this doesn’t exactly sound like summer vacation.

Is there a deeper benefit to stepping back that actually makes us better educators?  What do we gain by distancing ourselves from the world of education even more?

peter-daughterDuring the summer holiday, my family makes an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest to reconnect with family, friends, and to soak up the natural beauty of the region.  With many miles logged and memories made, a few of this year’s highlights include several days in Portland, Oregon, sampling a bounty of amazing food and reconnecting with the quirky energy of one of my favorite cities; a family trip to the Oregon Coast to play in the sand and watch migrating gray whales from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific; a three-day father-son flyfishing trip to Idaho’s wild and scenic Lochsa River to commune with massive cutthroat trout; daily mountain bike rides with my brother exploring the foothills of the North Cascades mountains; and a side trip into the Canadian Okanogan in British Columbia, a rolling landscape dominated by several large lakes and hills dotted with beautiful orchards of apricots, cherries, and peaches. (Even more, the area boasts a growing number of vineyards that produce a variety of amazing and delicious wines to enjoy while relaxing and soaking in the views).Peter son

Interestingly, for me, it is precisely these experiences where I begin to reflect on my role as a teacher and feel that sense of inspiration and renewed enthusiasm begin to blossom.  Gazing out over the Pacific, I contemplated how to enhance our recent project, Blue Planet, which explores the impact of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change.  Visiting parks along the coast, I took photos and gathered resources that will help improve the project during the next go-around.  I didn’t set out on the trip determined to redesign a project. The opportunity presented itself organically and I had the presence of mind to take notice.

Peter riverDuring our three-day fly fishing adventure in northern Idaho, I took the opportunity to get lost in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, which recounts one of the largest and most destructive wildfires that swept through the region in 1910.  The book presents an incredible history of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to conserve broad swaths of America’s most beautiful natural places against the onslaught of industrialists and speculators.  In many ways, the conflicts and themes explored in the book are playing out again today. On the drive home, brimming with new insights and ideas, I mapped out the next iteration of our See America — National Parks project.   

Even when it’s going well, teaching is an inherently stressful profession with ever-increasing demands and few easy answers.  We become teachers because we want to make a positive impact on the lives of young people. We want to inspire, cultivate curiosity, and help students acquire knowledge and skills to solve problems and lead fulfilling lives.  This all takes a tremendous amount of energy.Peter bikes

To be at our best, we must ensure that we have the enthusiasm, patience, and emotional fuel to give to our students.  Summer adventures offer a much-needed respite from the intensity of the school year. More importantly, the extended break provides the time and space to be present in our surroundings and helps us to be open to the possibilities and connections that will inform and enrich our practice.  

Peter view

 

Here we stand on the precipice of a new school year, rejuvenated and ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges that await us.  So long, summer! See you again, soon. Hold onto your seats—school starts bright and early on Monday morning!

 

 

peter-headshotPeter Stratman (@peterstratman) is a teacher-leader and instructional coach at Cabot School where he helped design and implement a dynamic project-based learning program. He has extensive experience with community-based education, youth voice, and service-learning. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, Peter is the co-creator of LaunchPad, a web-app that helps students and teachers build and share awesome projects.

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Does this Spark Joy?

In fourth grade I told my teacher that I wanted to be a high school history teacher because the content was “more complex” than in fourth grade. This moment ushered in what I like to call the “Hoarding Years.” I saved [and moved to too many houses] all of my history projects, notes, and books in the off chance I would need them in my future classroom. The need to save also trickled over to DVDs, wall decorations, costume jewelry, socks, mugs, pennants, seats and university sweatshirts. After my first few years with my own classroom and curriculum, I realized I was falling into the same pattern.

booksWhen I moved back to Vermont in 2015, I made a commitment to myself that I would get my act into shape and organize the mayhem I had been schlepping from place to place. What I realized in the unpacking process was that I had brought more than a decades worth of notes and textbooks; I had been carrying with me an overwhelming sense of perfectionism I needed to bring to my new classes as well. Starting at a new school I quickly fell into the trap of trying to be the ultimate teacher with all of the answers. I tried to make my classroom student-centered, proficiency-based, universally designed and project based with a curriculum that was progressive and representative of my students. Needless to say, my classroom was a mess, my apartment was a mess and so was my head.

A few years later, I experienced a significant realignment in my personal/professional life that changed all of this. While visiting a dear friend, I was sharing how I felt like my life was in disarray. My lovely friend cut me off and revealed she just could not stand my “historical collections” any longer. She pulled out her phone, and blunt stated, “I’m ordering a book for you. When you get home, read this, and then we’ll get to work.” What I didn’t realize in the moment was she had just volunteered herself to spend an entire weekend watching me contemplate whether or not a pair of soccer socks from my traveling soccer team in 1998 brought me joy.

IMG_3983Let me explain- my friend had bought me Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014). She included with the book a note reminding me that in order for long-term learning to occur, I must do the work myself… who knew accountants can see deep into the soul of educators? For those of you who have not yet read Marie Kondo’s book or watched her now popular Netflix series Tidying Up (2018)),  she has an uncanny ability to persuade you to fold your underpants. To me, Marie Kondo’s magnificence is boiled down to three main ideas:

  1. Before organizing, you must take everything out from where it’s been stored
  2. As you decide which things to keep, donate, or throw away, you must hold the item and wait to feel whether or not the item “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, thank the item for the joy it did bring, however brief, and move on. 
  3. The process is fully immersive – tidying up is more about surrounding yourself with joy and less about cleaning up. A small, yet powerful mental shift.

The second point is where the greatest learning has occurred for me. Kondo writes, “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.” As I think about my role and responsibilities as an educator, I keep coming back to this quote. As a World History teacher I feel the weight of my task – to provide my students with an understanding and appreciation of cultures, countries, and people from all walks of life and time periods. I want my students to feel empowered, to be confident in their bodies, and to make informed and powerful change to the status quo. I am also becoming increasingly aware of the barriers my privileges as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle class, English-speaking, Jewish woman create as an educator. My blind spots are massive. These blindspots do not spark joy. Thank you for the privileges that have allowed me to get to where I am now. I began to crack open my curriculum to critically evaluate whose voices are amplified in my curriculum and whose are limited to whispers. I need to get outside of echoing the euro-centric curriculum I was taught and intentionally learning more about the people, areas and ideologies of the world I have not yet explored.

Now is the time to surround myself with people and things that spark joy. I have learned that the greatest joys often begin as moments of discomfort, whether that is spending two hours folding clothes or acknowledging that many times my students know more than I do and embracing the opportunities vulnerability presents. 

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I am a work in progress and I encourage you to spend some quality time whether that’s looking at your curriculum or your sock drawer to make more space for joy. 

 

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Emily Gilmore (@Queen_Gilmore) is a 2017 Rowland Fellow and Social Studies teacher at South Burlington High School. Current sparkers of joy include: donuts, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, her cats (Minnie and Daisy), Queer Eye on Netflix, and planning her next adventure (roadtrip through Algonquin National Park, Michigan, and Toronto).

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Allyship is About Asking

When I was sixteen, I took the first steps of a lifelong journey to learn about the privilege I live in as a white, hetero, able-bodied cismale; and also the power that I have because of that privilege. All of that learning, then and since, has helped me realize one thing I’d like to share with you now: 

Allyship is not about assumptions; it’s about asking.

This is a slightly fictionalized story to protect the involved persons and bring in more current and relevant terminology.

You might recognize a student of yours here. I hope you do.

I lived in a dorm at boarding school with two guys — let’s call them Kyle and Steve — who hated each other. Even though it was never said aloud (at least not that I heard), and even though Kyle was too stoic to tell us, there was definitely something racist going on. Steve was white, and his father was a politician from Kentucky; Kyle was black, and his mother was a public defender in The Bronx. Steve exuded WASPy pretentiousness, always playing with metaphor and innuendo, baiting people into ideological arguments. 

Something made Kyle finally reach his breaking point, they wanted to fight each other, and it became increasingly apparent that I was the only one who could stop the impending melee. I was the closest thing to a mutual friend that they had, even though I didn’t feel close with either of them.

I played sports with Kyle, but I didn’t feel like he ever really let anyone in, not completely. Steve and I were Physics lab partners, so we got together to do work out of necessity, that was it.

“I think it might end in blows tonight,” one of my friends said after we returned in a large crowd from an off-campus trip.

“It should,” said another friend. “The kid’s dad is messing with voter I.D.s, and Steve said—”

And that’s when we heard the roar of voices from behind us. A bunch of people peeled back to get a better view of the quad we’d just left. I peered over their shoulders.

The masses were moving from the quad to the small field behind the library. Steve and Kyle headed toward the pine tree at the middle, a huge crowd forming a circle around them like a scene from a bad movie script.

Sly, I thought. That area would definitely be out of earshot of the faculty meeting taking place on the other side. I started walking toward the dorm again. It wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t my problem. Who was I to say that two guys couldn’t go toe-to-toe if that’s what they really wanted to do?

I was almost through the door when two of my best friends caught up with me.

“You have to stop this,” one said. “You’re the only one they’ll listen to.”

 “Please,” said the other.

 I thought about my dad in that moment. He taught me two rules about fighting: 1) Never start a fight. 2) Nobody wins in a fight. 

Something on my friends’ faces convinced me to follow them back to the throng. They looked so concerned.

Steve and Kyle were pushing and shoving, cussing and spitting, fists beginning to rise. Their icy breaths creating a slight fog around their heads.

The crowd parted to let me through. Walking up to Steve and Kyle, I was fully committed to breaking them up. But then I saw their eyes: pure fire, crazed beyond anything I’d ever seen up until that point. I was convinced that stopping it then wouldn’t have stopped it forever. Not with the way they were looking at each other.

So instead of breaking up Kyle and Steve, I stayed on as a referee. I made them touch fists and swear to only throw punches like it was a real boxing match. Some twisted part of me believed that was the correct choice, like I was personally in control of the power struggle and had made things equal and “safe.”

I’m not sure if that means I broke rule #1. Rule #2 definitely came true. Those guys mangled each other that night, and I don’t think it solved anything.

__________

Days later, Kyle gave me a fist-pound when I arrived at the bus stop. “What’s up?

“This is my first mandatory community service,” I said.

 “Same.”

“I can’t believe the school is making you miss the game today. They didn’t even see the fight happen.”

“The school isn’t doing anything yet,” said Kyle. “They might, but I’d still be allowed to play while the investigation runs its course. It’s Coach Scannell, man. I missed practice because of disciplinary meetings, and you know what that dude says about missing practice.”

“Screw him.”

“Yeah, I wish.”

 “You wish?”

 Kyle bit his lip, like he was having an argument in his own mind. “You don’t get it do you?”

“Get what? That guy’s one of the worst coaches I’ve ever had. He doesn’t care about us. So, yeah, screw him!”

Kyle shook his head. “Don’t be so stupid and selfish. It’s not that easy for everyone. I can’t afford to take risks like you. Do you know that coaches from Oswego and Plattsburgh were planning to watch me at the game today? Those are New York state schools, man. Do you know how huge that would’ve been? I’m a couple of notches up on their list because I can get in-state tuition. I don’t cost as much to recruit. But now? I don’t know. Now I’m one of those guys.”

I tried to stay with him. “What guys?”

“Wake up. I’m a black hockey player from the City, and now I won’t be at the game because I fought some white kid? C’mon. Those coaches will probably just run for the hills now.”

 “Hurley just got into Tufts.”

 Kyle shook his head and paced around, muttering and mumbling before looking up. “You really need me to teach you this, too?”

 I nodded. “I’m trying to understand.”

“Then it’s about time. You see, people meet Hurley, and they’re like, oh, yeah, this is one from that other set of black people, like the Obamas or something, not the normal black people who make this country a shit hole.”

“I’ve heard some of the comments he’s faced.”

“I would never try to speak to his experience, but the this or that is true. People meet Hurley and they see skin that’s a few shades lighter than the portrait of black in their minds. They hear a kid talking like he’s a reporter for NPR. They see the khakis and the polo shirts. They make up all sorts of stories to help them justify why he’s part of that good side of black people, no matter what else he is or isn’t.”

“There are a million types of black people, just like in every race.”

“No, there aren’t. Not to most people. There are two. There are the ones who get to live in the white world when the white people decide that’s okay, and then there’s everyone else. No white world. Ever. No gray area. Black and white. The binary is in full effect.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You have to check your privilege and look around. I know you accept everyone. You’re not sexist, xenophobic, homophobic… You’re not racist. But that’s not enough. You have to be anti-racist. You have to listen. You have to be willing to give up the power of your privilege, in all its forms, if you ever want to truly understand. If you ever want to really put the power dynamic on the level for good. You think I really wanted to fight Steve? Man, I’ve been trying to avoid him and survive for a year, and then you make us touch fists and box. That was my one goal for the year, to not fight that kid. Remember when Ms. Armagh had us write letters to ourselves in class? That’s what I wrote. I told myself to make sure no one had an opportunity to see me as the angry black guy, no matter what. Even if someone hit me first. But here we are.” He held up his hand. “I can imagine what you must have thought. I can imagine your justifications and motives. But the only truth here is that you never asked me what I thought. You never asked me what I felt. Never once. Your assumptions about what I needed in that moment changed my existence here forever.”

I let out a deflated gasp, like I’d been the one punched in the gut.

He mock-laughed and shook his head. “Screw Coach Scannell? I wish.”

I stared blankly ahead for a long time, rooted in place, trying to keep myself from hyperventilating, Kyle and Steve’s landed punches echoing in my head over and over and over and over and over.

Finally, I held out my hands to hug Kyle.

 “What’s this?”

 “It’s something I need,” I said. “I know it’s selfish, but maybe you need it, too.”

  We hugged each other and cried together at that bus stop.

 I knew the balance of power would shift in my favor again the moment the bus arrived, and I still didn’t fully understand all of the forces that created that power, but I knew two things:

I wanted to.

I had to.

Peter

Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

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A New Path To Purpose

The transition took me by surprise. One moment, we were exploring the path that ideas take on their legislative road to public policy, and the next minute, students were disclosing their personal struggle with ongoing anxiety and depression.  At first, I worried that the doom and gloom of our semester’s exploration of climate change and species collapse might be to blame, but it soon became clear that the root of this shared experience was far deeper. In an act of incredible vulnerability, adolescent after adolescent gave voice to the loneliness and uncertainty of transitioning to adulthood in the paradoxical age of connectivity and disconnection.  

Post-graduation plans didn’t seem to tip the scale.  An even mix of students headed to the work place, to dorm rooms, and into gap year adventures expressed ambivalence about pathways that had no clear link to outcomes or impact on an ever-unpredictable world.  Absent was the mixture of nostalgia and excitement my peers and I had experienced in the weeks before graduation. As I listened to my students wade through their relationship to political divisiveness, financial insecurity, and a world that makes them feel increasingly small, I felt guilty that my biggest fear heading into college had been home-sickness.  

And then I asked the question: “Who in the room feels like they have purpose in their lives?”  Two students sheepishly raised their hands. One guffawed. Most stared at me blankly. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that their high school experience had provided plenty of opportunity to build skills: meeting standards established by adults, pursuing truths set forth by adults, regurgitating answers deemed correct by adults.  Students learned to write essays, take tests, and, yes, do high order thinking to analyze literature, scientific data, and historical events. What was glaringly missing was the option, nay, the requirement, to turn the lens inward. While they could conjugate a verb and factor a polynomial, few could articulate what mattered to them or brought them joy.  This is the failure of public education.

When we pitched the idea of “EPIC Academy” (E.P.I.C. for Educational Path I Choose) to the Rowland Foundation, we led with our vision of students building agency through passion-driven projects they designed.  Over the course of our first year in the fellowship, we realized that passion without impact is hollow and temporary. If snowboarding or animal husbandry or musical theater begins and ends with the experience of the student, the learning does nothing to connect students to a larger network of belonging or meaning.  

The seniors in my classroom had copious talents. They starred on athletic fields and theatrical stages, in bands and in clubs.  The vast majority have food security, consistent housing, and functional families with summer plans. What they don’t have is the feeling that their existence matters.  

Passion.  Power. Purpose.  These are the tenets of EPIC Academy.  These should be the priorities of all public education.  Instead of diagnosing the extent of the summer brain drain in math computation in the first weeks of the year, we should be helping students figure out what lights their fire.  In a world of monumental challenges like climate change and income inequality, where floating plastic islands are 64 times larger than our state and college tuition grows faster than inflation, in a world where individual humans feel powerless to make an impact on the ocean of concern, we need to help our students find the places where they do have agency not just in their lives and to pursue their passions, but to effect change in the world around them.  

We can’t solve adolescent anxiety with a series of 9-week projects. We can’t prevent iPhones and Snap Chat streaks from coercing teenage brains into dopamine dependence with a new path to graduation.  But we can show students that we see them. We can stop telling them that school is here to prepare them for some condescending, future “real world” and start recognizing that they already live in…and worry about… the real world.  Educators clinging to the 1970’s belief that success in freshman biology predicts college graduation, career advancement, and a white picket fence is not only failing our students, but making them feel alone in their unease.  

Beginning next fall, the fifty students who self-selected into EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School will connect.  They will build deep and lasting relationships with their teacher mentor who, because of this new model of small cohort size and full-day mentorship, can truly know them.  They will collaborate with community partners who are active in the arenas that students want to pursue. Through the iterative process of peer review and community reflection, they will connect with each other.  And, most importantly, they will turn that lens inward and do the hard work of examining who they are, what motivates them, what assets they possess and can access, and yes, how to create lives of meaning and joy.  Five years from now, let us not measure the success of education by math scores and reading levels alone, but by the number of students that raise their hand when we ask them, “Who feels like their existence matters?”

Amber

Amber Carbine-March wishes she could talk to animals, but is pretty darn happy being a high school science teacher.  When she isn’t petting her miniature donkeys or paddle boarding with her wife and kids, she is usually scheming new ways to expand equity and opportunity to all students.

KH

Kim Hoffman is a former yurt-dweller and field naturalist turned science teacher. When she isn’t identifying edible wild plants with her botany-obsessed 5-yr-old, she is dreaming up ways to empower students.

 

 

 

 

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Imputing the Best Motive

As a graduate student in the UVM counseling department in the mid 90’s, I enrolled in the most difficult course I have ever taken, Robert Nash’s Professional Issues in Counseling. It was a rigorous investigation of both the ethics and the personal, moral dimensions of the helping professions, and for me it is a class I am still digesting some 20-plus years later. It was in that class where I met my future wife (I sat next to her in an almost empty classroom when we both arrived early on the first day), one of my best friends (he used Nash’s own “moral language” arguments to convince the professor to let him enroll in an already filled class), and it is also the class where I believe I truly began to learn about the gifts of humility and the transformational power of excellent instruction, the type of teaching that warrants revisiting even years later.

Throughout my education to that point, I had done reasonably well in school, but had few experiences where a teacher really saw me, or at least had the desire to challenge me in a meaningful and respectful way. I had, until then, relied on a varied skill set depending on the circumstances. Often, it was a combination of wit, charm, and doing just enough work to get decent grades, but I rarely “dug in.” Frankly, I didn’t see the point to expend more energy than necessary. I saw myself as a successful teacher after one semester of student teaching and one year of teaching high school English in South Dakota (oh, the arrogance!). Now I was training to be a counselor because, surprise surprise, I thought I would be good at it, and it seemed like it might be a little less work than teaching (oh, the ignorance!).

Nash saw right through me. Within the first few weeks, he spoke to me after class and in a compassionate but direct way challenged me to do more, to be more. And in that context of being in a program that was as much about personal development as it was about the research and practice of counseling, I took on the challenge. I did so not because I needed a higher grade or because I thought success in this class would lead to other opportunities, but because Professor Nash wasn’t going to let me settle for mediocrity in his classroom. It was time to dig deep, and it was the first time I totally absorbed myself in an educational experience. I loved it.

There is one lesson that Nash taught me that continues to resonate, and one that I try, daily, to incorporate into my life, both work and personal. It is a refrain that echoes in the conversations between me and my then classmate-now wife, and one that has the power to transform the classroom experience for both the teacher and the student: “impute the best motive.”

In this era of establishing norms or common agreements for working groups it may sound familiar, but in the fall of 1996 this was new to me. Nash suggested that in our interactions with colleagues, students, strangers, or whomever we come into contact with, we should assume that the other person is doing the best they can and for the right reasons, their right reasons. This concept, and the discussions we had on it, challenged my view of so many things. Most importantly, it put the onus on me to appreciate not only the present circumstances and motives of the person I was interacting with, but also the experiences and learnings that they carried with them. When you approach people with this understanding, it becomes difficult to judge, categorize, or make unfounded assumptions.

To honor Nash’s advice, our challenge is to truly believe that people are doing the best they can and for reasons that make perfect sense to them. It’s difficult to be frustrated by a student, colleague, or parent if you believe he is doing the best he can at that time and that his motivations are sound and reasonable given his experience, understandings, and expectations.  It is, in essence, our job to recognize a student’s best, whatever that might be, and make that best better and to let go of judgement in the process. That is a big ask of taxed, overworked teachers. It is much easier to go to judgement than it is to go to compassion and empathy, but it is what our profession demands.

In this year of Rowland work, engaging with amazing teachers and administrators throughout the state, I am constantly reminded of how much I have yet to learn. As cliche as it sounds, I’ve come to the realization that there is a direct inverse relationship between how long I have been teaching and how much I know. Each time I read an article, read a book, or have a conversation with a colleague at Stowe High or a member of my humbling Rowland cohort, I’m searching for nuggets of instructional wisdom I can pocket for later to use in my own practice. All of them are valuable and treasured, but it is the words of Professor Nash that have come back to me repeatedly this year, and when I can truly honor them, they provide the fertile soil for the growth and wonder I hope for in all my students.

Roger Rowland
Roger Murphy is a 2018 Rowland Fellow from Stowe High School where he has worked since 1997. Roger has been a counselor, Alternative Program Coordinator and teacher, and also a teacher of English and Social Studies. Roger’s Rowland work this year has resulted in a new position for the coming year teaching Financial Literacy and running SHINE, the Stowe High Internship Experience.
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Why we need to love ourselves now: A reflection on year one of my Rowland Fellowship

 

“So many years of education yet nobody taught us how to love ourselves and why it’s important.”

– Unknown

As I reflect back on my first year as a Rowland Fellow, I continue to be drawn to the quote I wrote at the top of my Rowland proposal back in December 2017.  I was drawn to this quote as it recognizes the need for students to learn how to love themselves as part of their educational experience. Throughout my sabbatical time this year, it has become even more apparent that the lack of love we have and show for ourselves is deeply rooted in our community and throughout many generations. I have witnessed so clearly the masks, struggles, and sufferings that hold many back from loving themselves. I’ve seen it with students, faculty, parents, and mostly in myself.

I have learned that we have all been taught social norms through our own upbringing, and these norms vary across communities, cultures, religions, and generations. The imaginary “parenting book” has become more complicated through generations as society has evolved, shifting greatly when  the iPhone and other digital devices were invented. Parents seek out one another to figure out if they are parenting “the right way” when really every child is different except for one basic need, love. We all need to be loved, and we all need to be nurtured.

At the same time, these social norms have also developed this imaginary book of right and wrong, good and bad. We compare ourselves to others and set a standard for ourselves that is often not accurate or realistic. Our internal voice tells us that it is selfish to love ourselves before others, that we are just not pretty enough, smart enough, able enough, or just plain good enough, and that time is of the essence, so we need to keep moving and striving to be better and do more to keep up with this busy world rather than slowing down and generating more time to love and appreciate our body, our mind, and our soul.

This is me, and this has been my struggle this year. I believe that part of this journey was meant to teach me how to love myself because no one ever taught me how or why it is important. It was never taught in my home, in my community, and definitely not in my schooling. Why don’t we teach our children how to love themselves and why it is important? We teach them to be kind to others and how to love others, but why not ourselves? Is life truly all about perception and the need to be perceived by others as kind and loving? Does that even matter if we don’t love ourselves? Can we truly even love another if we don’t love ourselves? I cannot answer these questions, but I do think they have all influenced my work and shaped both my growth as an individual and as a school counselor this year.

I have tried to create balance in the roller coaster ride of my Rowland sabbatical year. I have worked hard and often fast, but I have also acknowledged and given myself time to slow down and nurture my soul. I have found that a heavy guilt often sets in when I do choose to slow down instead of speed up. It is as if the expectations of others, or at least my perceived expectations of others, drive my need to keep going as if I won’t be good enough if I slow down. I have also seen this throughout my school this year especially with fellow teachers. It was clear through the results of a faculty survey we created around job satisfaction and wellness. Many teachers choose to work many hours before school, at night, and/or the weekend when they are not contracted to work because they are expected to get the work done, but when is it too much? When do we make a change and recognize that the teachers in our school are often choosing others (the students and the needs of the school) above their own needs? When do we acknowledge that the teachers in our own school are not well because we do not value and support a teacher who sets boundaries for themselves and chooses not to work outside the hours of the school day?

What does all this mean for our students? They are learning that it is not important to take care of themselves or set boundaries for themselves as this is what they are seeing their teachers do. At the same time, the same pressures are being passed down from the teachers to the students. We tell students to check their email regularly, get involved, play sports, join clubs, fill up their schedule with classes, stay in class for the full 80 minutes, and then “oh by way” you have a bunch of homework to do to on top of everything else you are already doing. What are we doing? We are overscheduling them, dictating how they spend their time during the school day, and only giving them five minutes in between classes and a 30 minute lunch to be kids. Then they go home and they are either overscheduled, staying up late doing homework, or on the other end, they are disengaged, not caring about school because they “hate” it, so they choose another way to fill their time, maybe playing video games or self-medicate with substances or even food. And yes, there are outliers, there are the students who have a job, take care of their family, and even those few and far between who have actually been taught how to live a balanced life and love themselves fully.

In my work thus far this year, I have realized that we cannot transform our school to integrate social-emotional learning and wellness practices if we do not see the need for ourselves. Yes, we see that our students need this, but as adults, we need this too. We need to consider proactive ways to support our own wellness as it keeps us from adding reactive “band-aids” that are not sustainable. One way to conceptualize this is through a wellness wheel, consider a pie chart where each piece of the “pie” is a slice of wellness: emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual. It allows us to see that wellness is multi-dimensional, how everything is truly connected, and that life is fluid. Taking time to reflect on our own wellness through use of a wellness wheel can help us understand how to thrive as humans and empower our students to do the same.

At the same time, if we are going to teach about wellness, model wellness, and live well, how can we shift our schools, the place students and teachers spend most of their time during the school year, to become a one-stop shop for wellness needs? I believe that the creation of  Wellness Centers in our schools could be the answer. During a school visit trip to California, I witnessed schools that organically infuse social-emotional learning and wellness practices into the backbone of their school culture and environment. It was during this visit that I was introduced and witnessed the power of a Wellness Center while visiting the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). After Columbine, there was a desire to make schools safer, but SFUSD decided to address unnoticed mental health with students. They developed a wellness initiative in collaboration with the Department of Public Health and the Department of Children, Youth & Families to keep students in school, assess and address needs, and then link students back to the community. The initiative included the development of a Wellness Center at each of their high schools. The Wellness Centers they developed provide a full range of free, confidential health services such as school-wide health education and events, group and one-on-one counseling, nurse services, medical referrals, and more. A typical Wellness Center model includes a Wellness Coordinator who provides the leadership and ensures all student needs are met, School Nurses who listen, educate, provide basic first-aid, help manage chronic health conditions, and provide medical referrals, Community Health Outreach Workers who engage students in Wellness programs and partner with Community Based Organizations (CBO) to provide services to students, Behavioral Health Counselors who provide one-on-one and group-based mental health and substance abuse counseling, and Youth Outreach Workers who are students trained to educate their peers about health issues. Community partners, the school administration, and parents are also an integral part of this model. A few important factors to note are that the Wellness Center is in its own space – separate from the school counseling office (as it offers students who may need mental health support a more private, confidential space away from those who may just need academic support such as changing their schedule), and the Wellness Center is also non-punitive and advocates for more restorative practices. The Wellness Centers are also very welcoming, provide clear expectations (15 min. visit rule), utilize a thorough data tracking system (including sign-in and out), offer food and tea, and are included as part of every new student’s orientation. In seeing these practices in action at schools in and around the San Francisco area, I believe that a Wellness Center could help to more proactively support Vermont students and even be solutions to many of our educational problems including a more proactive approach to funding.

With that said, I am excited to move this effort forward at Harwood Union High School. I am excited to offer students a place to go in the midst of the chaos of their lives. A place they can feel safe and connected. A place that becomes the hub of all things wellness related. A place that teaches students how to love themselves and why it’s important. As Sir Ken Robinson once said, “Education needs to address the world around our learners but also the world within our learners.” Now is the time to address the world within our students, to teach them how to love themselves and how to love one another.

 

tara004Tara is a 2018 Rowland Fellow, School Counselor at Harwood Union High School, and President-Elect for the Vermont School Counselor Association. Originally from Michigan, Tara graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Health Promotion in Kinesiology. After serving a year in the AmeriCorps, she continued her studies at the University of Vermont earning a dual Masters in Mental Health & School Counseling. Outside of school, Tara teaches Buti Yoga and loves spending time with her partner, two step-children, and two furry pups. As a family, they enjoy spending time outdoors connecting with nature through hiking, snowboarding, trail running, gardening, paddling, backpacking, and camping.

 

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