Today I feel very angry. I have a mix of other emotions; like sadness, frustration, and worry. But mostly, I am angry.
Three days ago, I left a great state conference (#MEMSPASLI19) for educational leaders in Michigan. I was on top of the world and eager to accept the challenges of the upcoming school year. I was ready make to a difference in the lives of 400 children and the adults and educators that touch their lives everyday. But today I worry as I prepare to start and lead a new school year. Within 24 hours, domestic mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have terrorized human beings of all ages and claimed the lives of 29 people, and injured dozens of others. The ripple affect to those survivors, witnesses, and families will forever haunt them and their communities. If they survived or are personally connected to this event, they will never be the same again.
We are doing this to ourselves – in the greatest country in the world. This is not about gun control. This is not about video games. This is about a mental health crisis that is plaguing our nation and our children. This crisis is not getting better. Kids today legitimately wonder if their school will be the next, and that is not okay.
I am mad because in my 26 years as an educator, it has never been more to clear to me what our priorities need to be as a nation yet we continue to miss the message. The American educational system is an opportunity to grab this problem by the horns and start acting proactively instead of reacting. I am mad because instead of seeing the opportunity that sits right in front of us, we continue to set up obstacles that prevent educators from doing the necessary work to support the whole child.
I don’t know if those responsible for the recent mass shootings, or previous acts of terror, ever had the means or opportunity to receive mental health support or therapy. I do know one thing for sure, every one of them was a student at some point in their life. I also know that every student interacts with perhaps 100 teachers and school staff during their school career, and each interaction is an opportunity to change the trajectory of a child forever. Herein is the greatest possible opportunity we have as a nation to fix this problem. But in order to take on this challenge, we must reexamine our nation’s educational priorities.The teacher evaluation system is obstacle number one. I am a school principal and the hoops I need to jump through to follow the law of this mandate is time consuming and inauthentic. Not only that, it is time consuming, inauthentic, and threatening to my teachers. It is an obstacle to teaching and learning. It is an obstacle to relationships and risk-taking for the purpose of personal professional growth. If only I could truly sit side by side with my teachers, as a leader of learning as opposed to an evaluator. If only the system would trust me enough to “do something” when a teacher is not effective, because I would. I do. It is my job and I don’t need a threatening mandate to force me to do right by students. I am an educational leader and my job is to make teachers better, please let me do my job without forcing me and my teachers to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove it or waste precious time that would be better spent supporting and connecting with the children that are crying for help right now. Too many children are crying out for help.
Obstacle number two is the high stakes, high priority, and in some cases punitive assessment system. Now more than ever, educators know that they need to educate the whole child, yet our assessment system values one and only one thing – achievement as measured by knowledge acquisition and the ability to reproduce that knowledge in a formal assessment setting. Everyday I see educators, including myself, who desperately work to meet the needs of students as they struggle to feel accepted, desire to belong, handle stress and anxiety which is at an all time high, cope with emotions, make friends, handle disappointments, stand up for themselves, and stand up for others. Do we really want to value test scores over empathy, conflict resolution, resilience, risk-taking, coping skills, executive functioning, thoughtful dialogue, decision making, collaboration, innovation, kindness, passion, humanity, and trust (just to name a few)? Test scores do not measure these most important things. What if every citizen in the United States of America suddenly stopped caring about test scores and replaced it with caring about the heart and souls of our children? What if we embraced the power the educational system, through partnerships with mental health organizations, could have on improving mental health in our country starting with today’s youth from preschool to young adult? What if our entire nation started caring about the authentic learning of children like developing a love and passion for reading and writing, having the ability to communicate through various outlets, having courage to jump in (risk-free) to solve messy math and science problems that look impossible, and becoming an examiner of the social and historical actions and decisions of our past and how they impact today while discussing how to make the future better for all? What if, instead of criticizing teachers, the entire nation offered support to our teachers to educate the whole child? After all, a broken child may not be able to support, improve upon, or positively change our world one day.
The stress and anxiety of a teacher is also at an all-time high and teachers are leaving the field after only one or two years. Anxiety in children is also at an all time high. Is it because the system doesn’t align to current human values and needs of children? When our educational system as we know it only prioritizes knowledge acquisition as assessed on a high stakes test, and teacher evaluation systems prioritize the same thing in a threatening setting only publicizing effectiveness ratings and test scores, yet we know the mental health of our students are in crisis, how can we expect teachers to feel anything but anxiety and fear of failure? Let’s add to it the new societal norm of blaming teachers and schools with any perceived problem involving today’s youth. It’s no wonder to me.Am I the only one that see’s that our priorities are not matching the needs in our nation?
We are not in an educational achievement crisis, we are in a mental health crisis that is affecting our youth as much as our adults, and we need to recognize this, realign our priorities, and adjust the system to match these priorities.
Despite our best efforts, as we have indeed been exercising them for years, we cannot make gains in achievement before students feel safe, valued, and like they belong.
Education departments, in partnership with mental health organizations, have an opportunity to answer the call of this crisis. In order to accept this opportunity, the entire nation, not just educators, needs to adjust to the needs of our current constituency, especially our youth, realign the priorities, and adjust the systems so that they match and give energy and support to tackling this crisis.
Or we can continue to wait for when and where it will happen next.
Please share this with anyone that cares about this problem, especially those who directly affect national and state level educational decisions.