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One Foot in the Old and One Foot in the New

shutterstock_245966344Meg Hanshaw Ph.D.

“Sometimes I get so caught up in where I need to go, I forget who my students are.”

-Anonymous Teacher

I recently subbed for six weeks in a public middle school for a health teacher. I hadn’t taught in middle school for a long time and I was excited to use all my “advanced” social-emotional coaching and teaching skills. I have spent many years learning, practicing, and teaching these new brain-based skills. I planned out my empowerment lessons effectively and had supportive behavioral management plans ready to go.

My 6th grade students sat wide-eyed and ready to learn. They loved the learning choices they had, as well as the self-grading process (which breeds trust) and open discussion-based classes. I had few challenges with these students, and they learned and grew in their wellness and health skills. My 7th grade students were a little more challenging. They were more disconnected from my teaching and the material than the 6th graders. I slowly found myself beginning to revert back to some old methods of teaching – trying to control them so I could get the curriculum taught. However, most of the time I stayed calm and confident and was able to stay connected to the students. So for the most part, they stayed motivated to learn.

When my 8th grade students came to class, it was an entirely different story. They walked in slamming books on the desk, cussing at each other, talking very loudly, and disregarding anything I would say. I felt panic in my body bubbling up. I heard myself saying to myself, “What is wrong with these kids?” “Will this empowerment stuff really work with them?” “There are too many to write them all up!” I wanted to yell at them to shut up and be respectful and learn. Many times I did and totally lost connection with them. Most students in the class had no motivation to learn anything especially with a new teacher. Although one part of me knew what was really going on with these students and what to do in the new teaching paradigm, I was scared and didn’t fully do it. “There isn’t enough time,” I worried. “What would the principal say if I wasn’t teaching what I was supposed to?” From there, things got worse instead of better. We ended up moving the entire 8th grade class back to the gym with the P.E. teachers; they didn’t come to the health class anymore. I spent a while thinking about what I could have done differently and finally came to the conclusion that I had been in a challenging situation.

This story shows a common stressor for teachers – worrying about getting the required curriculum and standardized assessments done on time at the expense of the students’ best interests. Most teachers know that being forced to teach the required curricula using standard teaching methodologies disregards the research which illustrates that students learn better when they get to determine their own passions and grow within their own learning framework. You can’t force kids to learn when they don’t want to. In addition, teachers know that the barrage of assessments they must give takes away from developing a growth-mindset1 environment, which intrinsically motivates students to want to learn. Lastly, strict teaching requirements covertly tell teachers that their own creative abilities are not good enough and it distrusts their integrity to do what it takes to ensure confident, resilient, and motivated learners.

The current generation of teachers is in the midst of learning the new brain research that unequivocally describes how students truly learn and what they really need to thrive in school and in life, as well as why students bully, why kids hate school, why there are so many drop-outs, and how to handle behavioral challenges positively with connection. Teachers are beginning to learn WHAT to do to make school fun and healthy and reignite the natural process of learning, moving students forward progressively so they feel confident and successful and don’t want to quit.

The CHALLENGE in implementing this new knowledge is that the old educational philosophy and system is not allowing teachers to truly step into the new paradigm yet. This is creating an internal struggle within our teachers. Teachers are exhausted and stressed out trying to keep one foot in the old required paradigm of education, and the other foot in the new paradigm (which we call Empowerment Education) trying to do what they NOW know really works. One moment, teachers are treating their students like “zombies of the system”, and to make up for it, they are trying to connect and create a fun, healthy learning environment, giving their students choices, stimulating individual creativity, creating win-wins, and teaching students about emotions and morals so they can respectfully handle any challenge and love learning for life.

Moreover, as students advance in the old paradigm, many begin to develop learned helplessness and despondency about their ability to enjoy and control their learning. They truly become disempowered students; disempowerment creates students who are disillusioned and angry. These students hate their learning environment; they don’t want to be there. Many students then, project their anger and shame onto teachers, each other, and their school environment. They are not able to see any point in learning. They have too many other issues to deal with. This is what I experienced with those 8th graders. This is not the fault of the administration, teachers or school. The educational system itself is based on the wrong goals. You can’t fix learned helplessness and despondency challenges with disconnection such as stricter discipline, more testing, more sitting, and an onslaught of one-size-fits all curriculums.

I believe that this generation of teachers has the most challenging job of all teachers in the history of education. They have to work in the old paradigm, knowing that it is not totally working and being scared to rock the boat so they don’t lose their job. They then feel like they have to squeeze in “the new”, sometimes even secretly, so that their students don’t have to continue down the stressful, unhealthy, disconnected, non-compassionate “one size fits all” learning path we have currently created in education.

Today’s teachers who have studied the new paradigm of education are the “undercover game changers”. It is time to allow them out in the open and let them begin to experiment in the new paradigm little by little. They must be allowed to voice their opinions about how to get the new way implemented without ramifications. Administrators must be open for teachers to try new research-based things, especially in the social-emotional dimension. When kids start to feel safe to express, they will begin to let it all out. We need to connect with them and guide them, not punish them for this. We need to accept and validate them so they understand why they feel and do what they do. There is nothing wrong with our students; we just make them feel like there is something wrong with them by trying to fit them into one mold, even if it is doesn’t fit, and punishing them for not knowing what to do with their feelings. This new generation of teachers must stand strong, holding the new healthy and empowered vision of education even when it seems hard. Student will learn even more and be less stressed and more healthy in the new paradigm.

Our educational system is in a transformation from one way of being to another. Educators and school reform are “waking up” to the knowledge that there is a better way to work with students. The covert habits students are learning in their daily routines are about competition, being the best at all costs, basing personal success and confidence on grades and outcomes, not on the process of learning, or who they are as people, or work ethic, or how motivated they are to learn what they are passionate about, or how they find any answer and information imaginable on the internet, or how they contribute to their communities.

The bottom line is that students must be treated with respect. They must be able to bring all of their behaviors to school and learn why they act as they do and what to do about it. Where else will they learn this? Humans are NOT their behaviors. They are much more. We must allow them to be themselves without the stress of having to prove themselves otherwise. We must teach them compassion for themselves and others. We must allow them to make learning choices; it is already inherent in them to do so.

Today when you ask kids if they like school, most say no. Just about every one of my 8th grade health students said they hated school and me. THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE CASE. That does not make ethical, psychological, emotional, physiological, biological, and social sense. What my 8th graders needed was six weeks of expression in a place that accepted and validated who they were, what their challenges were, what they loved and hated, and where they were headed and why. That is the foundation of health anyway! What they really needed was connection. I was not in an educational paradigm where I had the ability to do that for 60 students. It would have taken a semester at least to turn them around. However, if I could have done this, I know that a trusting relationship and the intrinsic desire to learn health would have prevailed. I bet health would have become their favorite subject. Without your health, what is there anyway?