I’d rather cut grass for a living

Source: Flickr Creative Commons, http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1327/1178786504_67eb233e05.jpg

We are at a crisis point in education today.

Too many teachers and children are feeling disconnected, stressed out and unmotivated. The external pressures brought on by the new mandated instructional practices from both Federal and State Departments of Education and the accompanying skill sets necessary to carry out these mandates for instruction are felt by all members of the school community: from the superintendent to the principal, teachers, teaching assistants and other staff members. I hear it every day as I work with teachers in their schools and classrooms: “I’ve never felt so unprepared,”or “I can’t take time out to do the things I want to do with the kids.” One very talented 30-year veteran middle school teacher during a grade-level meeting recently said in a dejected tone, “I’d rather cut grass for living than do what they are asking me to do now.”

These pressures enter into the emotional experience of the student and not only impact their academic success but overall life success and sense of hope and optimism for the future as well.  When a third grader comes home from school afraid he might not pass his grade because of the test he took, when children are more exposed to test preparation than life preparation, when these things happen, something is wrong.

Since the earliest days of my career as a 4th grade teacher in Woodstock, New York, to my current role as Director of The School of Belonging Project, I have always believed that as teachers, within everything we do, we must hold the vision that each child is unique with special gifts to offer the world. It is our role to consciously create the conditions for self-discovery, life success and emotional safety. We must value the relationships we have with our colleagues, parents, the children and ourselves. I love the words of author and teacher Marianne Williamson who said in one of her lectures: “The further inward we travel, the further outward we travel.” These inspiring words have helped me see that in my role as a visiting teacher in schools, the focus must be to model openness and self-reflection as I encourage other teachers to do the same with their students.  The greatest social learning takes place through modeling, and all great teachers are reflective as a matter of practice.

In 2001, while writing my first book, Building Classroom Communities, I quoted David Whyte’s poem The House of Belonging as an entry point to articulating what happens in a classroom community:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this I where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

In these times, we need to create Schools of Belonging where all staff and students feel connected, supported and inspired to teach, learn and discover.

In my next entry, I will articulate the vision I hold for A School of Belonging…

This piece was originally published in Startempathy by Ashoka


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David A. Levine’s (davidalevine.com) work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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