I probably don’t have to tell you that being an educator in 2018 is NOT the same as being an educator 30 or even 20 years ago… before the world wide web transformed everyone’s ability to get quick answers to any question.
Okay, so obviously our youngest students aren’t accessing the web to get their questions answered, but they are watching as their siblings, parents and neighbors do it as naturally as walking to the fridge to pull out a quick snack. Everyone – you, me and all our students – are influenced by the environment we’re born into … the environment in which we live and grow.
These are fascinating and quick-moving times. Two defining features of these quick-moving times are our self-sufficiency and our connectedness. (Yes, there are definitely down sides to all that ‘virtual’ connectedness, but that’s not where I’m going right now, so please stay with me and my train of thought here.) The self-sufficiency of our times is exercising our inclination to trust in our own instincts, and the ‘connectedness’ of our times is bringing out our inclination to collaborate – which is based on the deeply natural need to belong. And belonging, when it’s healthy, is based on mutual respect, which, if you think about it, can only be based on each individuals’ well established self-respect … which curves back to the self-sufficiency and self-trust that are being enabled in today’s world.
There’s a lot to unpack here … are you getting that?
Okay, so SELF-RESPECT is a concept that needs defining, so that we’re all as clear as possible that we’re all thinking along the same lines about what that term encompasses. First, what self-respect is NOT. Self-respect is not an idea or a mindset about how much I matter… even though that’s good, of course, but it’s not really enough to support a person in maintaining core values when real challenges arise.
Self-respect, on the other hand, is a healthy, ground-zero, foundational sense (which goes beyond ‘words and thinking’) to a core of spontaneously responding to the fact that each of us, ourselves included, is worthy of being acknowledged, and worthy of being treated well, in spite of our imperfections. Healthy self-respect, cannot be forced, but it can be activated, engaged and it must be exercised.
If all of this is getting too abstract and theoretical, take a moment to think of a few individuals you know – personally, or in the world at large – who personify self-respect. Inevitably, they are people we admire. Inevitably. They’re comfortable in their own skin, as the saying goes.
Can you imagine a class full of learners established in self-respect? And then, can you imagine how a class full of self-respecting learners would be the natural foundation for a class environment based on mutual respect?!
So, what does this have to do with SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING? And, even more importantly, how can this fact enable our teaching approach to be smarter, more efficient, more successful – with less effort?
Well, how many of us are brave enough and BIG enough to acknowledge the fact that our young students’ knowledge and understanding are not limited by what we – their teachers and parents – tell them. How many of us would actually benefit from reminders that teaching students from pre-formatted curriculum and one-size-fits-all, right & wrong, Do-This/Don’t-Do-That formulas are just not connecting, deeply enough, with today’s students. Sure, behaviors might change in the short-term. Students will sing the songs about being nice and treating each other well, but do any of us really, honestly sense that that is how deep learning happens? That that is how learning gets remembered and used in REAL LIFE? And by ‘real life,’ I mean not just on the playground today, but in school next year, and the year after that, and the years after that …
Let me ask you a question that I hope you’ll ponder for a moment in order to arrive at an answer that can inform your future teaching in the most meaningful and energizing ways. You ready?
When you were a kid, were you ever a ‘blank slate?’ Were you ever an empty bucket – just waiting to be filled with others’ ideas and values and labels and feelings? I know I wasn’t. Ever. And out of all the teachers who’ve responded to that question from me, not a single one of them ever said, ‘Yes, I was a blank slate, and I needed to be told what to care about and how to feel, and the best way to solve every single problem.’ Not a single teacher out of the thousands of teachers I’ve interviewed, one-on-one, or in large groups during my presentations at education conferences answered YES to that question. Not a single one. In fact, the most common response I’ve received to that question has always been the exact opposite.
What does that tell us? How does that inform our way forward in developing the education, the thinking skills, the critical thinking skills of our young students … especially as those skills relate to their social emotional learning? To answer that question, I’m going to loosely quote Elisabeth Stitt, an educator I’ll soon be introducing on an upcoming episode of the NOT YOUR NORMAL SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING podcast:
Elisabeth basically told me that something she did as a teacher —- and that she emphasizes with parents — is to assume that children do not want to be behaving badly (because, as she said, it never feels good to her to behave badly) and that if we, in our role as teachers, can acknowledge (not necessarily agree with, but acknowledge) our students’ perspective, with gentle curiosity and with trust in who they are at their core, we can nurture their self-respect – which they all deserve, and which, when it’s healthy, serves all relationships.
So, how can we most efficiently move into the paradigm that’s emerging for today’s students and tomorrow’s world?
By activating and engaging students’ ability to collaboratively discover their own shared solutions…. to take responsibility and to shape their destiny by establishing their individuality within the context of the class, and eventually, the world around them. They want, and really need, to move from dependency to autonomy, and to do that they need opportunities to express their values within collaborative peer group discussions to gain direct experience making decisions that ring ‘true’ and work for all. That’s how self-respect and mutual respect and collaboration align.
And even though it might, at first, feel un-natural or uncomfortable to be teaching less, while asking more questions to evoke kids’ own wisdom, teachers commonly report that it’s never long before the all-around benefits of this approach start accumulating – beyond anyone’s imagination – which is always a happy surprise.
Will some teachers continue to see this type of approach as a threat, as too difficult, as undermining their roles of authority? Will some teachers continue trying to “tame” young children, by imposing compliance-based practices in the mistaken belief that the kids “just need to learn how things are!” then everything can get to how it “should” be…
Or do we take on the challenge and the highest calling of our role as educators, testing the old ‘industrial, production line assumptions’ about what schooling should be?
It comes down to trust. Do we trust our students – who they are at their core? Do we trust that, at their core, even our youngest students are open to discovering solutions that work for everyone, including themselves, rather than just themselves?
IF we can s t r e t c h into trust … even if it feels a little ‘risky,’ is it so hard to imagine how that courageous act of stretching out of our comfort zones will lead to real WIN-WIN’s in our class?
… and isn’t that what we all want?!!!