Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.
I should never indicate the topic that I’ll address in the next post. It’s almost a guarantee that something will happen that catches my attention and “demands” that I share my thoughts, reaction, emotional connection.
This time, the world intruded via an event that has captured national attention… the confrontation of native America veteran and a high school student from Kentucky which took place during the past week in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. What an incredible lesson about life in the time of social media. After seeing videos of what was labeled as a confrontation, after reading the written statement/response by the student involved, after seeing an interview with the Native American elder, after reading a recent account on CNN (updated at 4:46 am!) which added information about another group involved in the event (the Hebrew Israelites), after being offered links to various YouTube clips and viral videos, and after having had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive exchange among members of the Modern Learners Community, I haven’t a clue what really happened.
I’m not sure that matters. While what actually happened may be of critical importance to those directly involved… the student, his classmates, their parents, the elder, participants of the Indigenous Peoples’ rally, the African American Members of the Hebrew Israelites, the teacher chaperones, the school leaders, etc. … to me this is now a historical event and I find myself trying to focus on the how and why of the event, on what we could be doing as educators to help our young people respond with greater understanding, with greater empathy and without resorting the violence as a solution, whether that violence be physical or verbal.
How and why do such events occur? I return to what has become a recurrent theme in my thinking. It’s an observation that I haven’t heard shared on major news outlets. It’s an observation about our sense of separation… our separation from one another, our separation from our institutions (and the consequent lack of faith in their effectiveness). It’s an observation about what happens when people feel exploited and forgotten. In some ways, it touches directly on the theme that I had promised to explore. It’s an observation about fear and powerlessness and the behaviors which seem to accompany these conditions.
It’s the behaviors that accompany fear and powerlessness that I want to explore.
Let’s move this back to school and our continued resistance to calls for change. Will Richardson (what’s a blog post from me without at least one reference to Will?) noted recently in his writing that teachers and educational leaders often express a sense of powerlessness in response to his inquiries about why there remains such a gap between educator beliefs about learning and the practices we see in our schools.
When I was traveling and visiting schools throughout the country I heard the same responses. In interviews with teachers I learned more. Many of those interviewed looked outside of the school for explanations and, frequently to assign blame… blaming the state, the district office, kids these days, social media, etc. They often named those they perceived to be “the enemy”… state bureaucrats, the principal, the superintendent, the board of education, etc. But beyond these behaviors were others, less obvious… feelings of exploitation, under appreciation, fear.
And so the origins and lessons of the DC event are not so dissimilar to those we are experiencing in our schools. When people feel separated, frustrated, isolated, exploited, under appreciated they lose hope in traditional institutions. These are not conditions in which innovation, creativity, and commitment thrive.
How often have you heard conversations in which the sense of separation and the accompanying sense of powerless are used to justify a refusal to see what’s in front of us or to remember that it’s our responsibility as educators to find and create the space so those around us can feel the sense of safety that comes from connectedness rather than separation? How often have we blamed the state’s bureaucrats for mandated testing issues while continuing to use grading practices that stifle student initiative, learning or creativity? How often have we blamed declining engagement levels on our students or ignored the messages students are sending by woeful attendance patterns? How often have we created cultures in which separation and isolation are more pervasive than collaboration or the development or nurturing of caring, supportive relationships. What have we done intentionally to create spaces where thoughtful reflection and empathy are the rule?
What would happen if…?
- What would happen if we identified one issue in our schools that might reduce the sense of separation/isolation among teachers, among students?
- What would happen if we engaged our school community in the development of a response to address the separation/isolation issue we identify?
- What would happen if we wrote a personal piece to our staff and school community about our beliefs about learning? About how kids learn best?
- What would happen if we devoted a sacred amount of time each day to improving our relationships with our staff?
Couldn’t we at least try one of these?
Wrapping it up…
The Modern Learners Community has been engaged in a deep, thoughtful and sometimes emotional exchange of responses to the following prompt, “I’m curious about how you, the people in our Modern Learners Community, react and respond to the recent Convington Catholic event or others like it? I’m also curious to know what you might need to build your capacity as it relates to leading your communities through these discussions.”
— Melissa Emler, Team Member – Modern Learners Community
I’d like to end this piece with a response from one of the participants in the Modern Learners Community
…It also made me think about this course, and clarify more what I value the most…and what I believe the world needs desperately right now…and they are all qualities of the heart: people who can compassionately listen, non-violently communicate, play, create, feel empathy, develop emotional intelligence, reflect deeply, love themselves and each other.
Susannah Azzaro, Modern Learners Community
Thank you. Be well.