Our Children Are Counting on Us
As the education world around us continues to spiral through the misguided insanity of testing as both the academic means and the end, I remain steadfast in my determination to provide whatever I can to ensure that each and every student who walks through the door of my school has equitable access to high-quality instruction and is provided the kinds of learning opportunities that nurture academic risk-taking, critical inquiry, and principled reflection. In short, I expect for my students the same as I expect for my own children. I want them equipped to make a consciously positive impact on the world around them. We need to spend at least as much time developing the self-efficacy, collaboration, and problem-solving skills they will need to make this happen as we do preparing (enabling) them for success on our current professional obsession—the high-stakes standardized assessment.
To do this well, we also have a responsibility to create an environment in which students feel not just physically safe (that is a given, especially in light of the recent spate of school violence), but also emotionally safe. According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), "schools that create socially and emotionally sound learning and working environments, and that help students and staff develop greater social and emotional competence, in turn help ensure positive short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes for students, and higher levels of teaching and work satisfaction for staff." Given the breadth and depth of research that exists on the necessity of attending to young peoples' social and emotional needs while providing for their academic ones, I am not sure why this isn't among the top most federally supported priorities.
Truth be told, the idea of schools attending to the psychological safety of children is not a new one. As early as the late 19th century, John Dewey emphasized meeting the needs of the whole child—physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. Dewey's teachings led to the understanding that
"[T]he central aim of education is to foster the individuality of the child and that teachers must teach children how to think for themselves rather than pass on cut and dried knowledge." (Ryan, 2000)
"Dewey held that the purpose of formal education was not to prepare children for any fixed goal, but rather that schools should be devoted to encouraging children to grow and to prepare them to continue to grow and develop as adults in the uncertain future that they would face. Childhood was not merely a prelude to adulthood; it was a stage of development that was important and valuable in its own right. Accordingly, schooling should be based on meeting the needs of children, as children, rather than only striving to prepare them for adulthood." (Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society)
In creating his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, Dewey asserted that "the purpose was not to provide children with unbridled freedom but to help them grow toward effective social membership." (Engel, 2008)
The world is an uncertain place and our kids know it. They have grown up in a world of war on multiple fronts, horrific stories of violence against children in schools, and the worst economic crisis in nearly a hundred years. They live with the uncertainty of access to higher education as prices skyrocket and the reality that, even if they do go on to college, none of us really know what the jobs of the future will look like. Our kids are scared. They worry that they will be among the first to not out-earn the generation that precedes them. They watch in horror as their older siblings, neighbors, and friends struggle to get or maintain employment; and they doubt that things will get better in the face of the scandalous gridlock going on in Washington, D.C., and in many cases, in their own states and municipalities.
As these realities compromise the sense of psychological safety our students possess, physical safety concerns continue to present challenges to educators as we attend to the social/emotional well-being of the children we serve. According to a study on school crime and safety from the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2009–10 school year:
- A greater number of students ages 12–18 experienced theft and violent crime at school than away from school.
- 85 percent of public schools recorded that one or more crime incidents had taken place at school, amounting to an estimated 1.9 million crimes.
- About 20 percent of students ages 12–18 reported that there were gangs present at their schools.
- About 31 percent of students in grades 9–12 reported they had been in a physical fight at least one time during the previous 12 months anywhere, and 11 percent said they had been in a fight on school property during the previous 12 months.
Now more than ever, our children need to know that we love them, we care for them, and we are committed to helping them to create a brighter future. Our children are more than the sum of their test scores; they are more than just a measure of teacher or school effectiveness. Our children are counting on us to remember them when we are deciding whether to compromise on bullying prevention programs and security personnel in order to fund another remedial test preparation class. Our children are counting on us to remember that before we can expect them to be engaged fully in their learning, we must first make sure they feel safe, in mind, in body, and in spirit. Our children are counting on us to understand that they know that while another Sandy Hook massacre may not be avoidable, they still want to feel our presence around them as a reassurance that someone is paying attention to their safety. Our children are counting on us.
Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). Benefits of SEL. Retrieved from Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: http://casel.org/why-it-matters/benefits-of-sel/
Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society: http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Co-Fa/Dewey-John-1859-1952.html
Engel, L. H. (2008, May/June). Experiments in Democratic Education: Dewey's Lab School and Korczak's Children’s Republic. The Social Studies, 117–121.
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). The Condition of Education. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_scc.asp
Ryan, A. (2000). What did John Dewey Want? Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 45(1), 157–173.
Marc Cohen is a high school principal in Montgomery County, Md. Since becoming a principal in 2006, he has led an aggressive campaign designed to raise academic standards and narrow the achievement gap for all students attending his school. A recipient of ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award in 2009, he is an advocate for educational causes internationally and in the U.S., keynote and professional development presenter, and education consultant. Connect with Cohen on his website, blog, and on Twitter @marcjcohen.