Mindfulness. Whatever it may be; there are skeptics. Giving students tools for expanding metacognition and access to self is a wonderful aim, but it’s no miracle cure for anxiety and anguish. It won’t stop hurtful social media, bullets, or viruses. Meaningful mindfulness doesn’t happen in the lonely recesses of the soul but must be regular practice and above all regular discourse in a community. Students must talk about what’s on their minds, which means expanding and actually listening to and acting on student voice—not just about how kids feel about the pandemic or the geometry test but about how they are processing the world. And how they would like to see the world change.
Empathy. Working to project one’s generous feelings into the contexts of other people and their situations is admirable in all ways, and walking miles in someone else’s footwear is critical mental and social-emotional exercise for all humans. But the practice of and disposition toward empathy must be taught, part of this by example: by demonstrating active empathy toward the differential experiences of every child and every colleague; not just nodding but asking questions and exploring experiences and perspectives. By keeping this exploration at the top of every conversation.
And Respect. Historically schools have freighted “respect” with connotations of compliance, in which respect equals doing the whatever as expected and treating with deference those in positions of authority. NO. This is not respect. It’s fear. The truism that “respect must be earned” is too often co-opted to mean, “If you have been invested with ‘authority’ by the system, you must exercise it in ways that make the underlings obey.” True respect, as we must mean and practice it in schools, means seeing everyone as who they are and understanding them how they wish to be understood: in their physical selves, in their experiences, and in their feelings and perspectives on who they are and what their lives have been like. And what they want their lives to be.
Thirty years ago another old colleague (I’ve had a bunch of ‘em in a long career) offered up the now-loaded term “P.C.” as being not about “politics” but about Politeness and Courtesy—not Emily Post etiquette, but about making the active effort to treat and speak with and about other people and their experiences with humility and respect. (While we’re at it, let us stipulate that “humility” is not about self-abasement and shame but the simple recognition that one is part of but not playing a starring role in a huge and complex world—that other lives, human and otherwise, all matter as much as our own, regardless of whatever systemic privileges we may have been granted or denied.) Schools can enact respect as a meaningful value by training members in the arts of treating others as they wish to be treated and by looking for ways to affirm the value of the physical lives, the experiences, and the feelings and perspectives of every community member—and by calling out moments when these values are abrogated, denied, or imperiled.
Mindfulness. Empathy. Respect. M-E-R, a nice metaphor for helping students and everyone else better equip themselves emotionally, socially, and ethically to swim in the great sea of humanity in a world under so many threats.
But nice metaphors, however apt or just clever, are not enough. Schools and the individuals who tend and attend them must find themselves in worlds where these words—and words like diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice—are not just given lip service but actively and intentionally lived as educational and above all human values.
This is hard, but it is not in any way antithetical or an impediment to “learning”—the bread-and-butter academic and athletic, social-emotional, or artistic content that schools must provide. Skills, understandings, and habits of mind—plus some important factual knowledge—can be intentionally taught and reliably acquired in environments where mindfulness, empathy, and respect are the lived ethos of the learning community and its culture.
There is the matter of support, which in the mantra “Fewer promises, more support” is not about fortifying counseling and DEIB offices (never be a bad idea, to be sure) but about creating cultures of support—in which the acknowledgment of the physical, emotional, and social being of each individual is the starting point for all learning. This involves a high level of intentionality, but the intentionality is what schools claim to be all about. It’s the promise we make and a covenant we proclaim.
There are some who smirkingly harp on the slogan that “all lives matter,” and of course all lives do matter, but not in the way these people mean. Schools must do the work to understand what ALL the lives in their own care need and want, all the way up Maslow’s Hierarchy. Otherwise, they will never be communities in which all students (and all adults) find the physical, emotional, and social validation and security that will enable them to learn well—mindfully, empathetically, and respectfully—on their journeys through life.
Fewer promises, more support.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)