Best Questions: Supportive Education Communities
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..."; no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
The best questions are those we ask ourselves. Personally. Individually. They are not the rhetoric-laden, subtly fault-finding or responsibility-avoiding calls to action that permeate Twitter posts and website headlines, but the first-person singular translations of those thoughts. What will I do? What do I do? How will I change? Although we find comfort in collective action and group activities, the real change, the real progress, and the real meaning comes from individual action based on individual reflection.
Sometime back in the mid-'90s, I was privileged to attend a presentation by Regent Adelaide Sanford of New York. Sanford is a leading voice in multicultural education and, specifically, meeting the needs and celebrating the strengths of children of African descent. During her presentation, Sanford included countless statistics about the ways in which black children were underserved academically, over-identified for behavioral and learning needs, and invisible in the curriculum and environment of their schools. None of the statistics were a surprise to the audience. We all knew the truth of those numbers. Then Sanford made a comment that has lived with me every day since. She said, "If you know and fail to act, you stand indicted."
There was silence in the room for some seconds after she made this dramatic statement. Perhaps not surprisingly, although her comment was inspirational to me, others found it to be a condemnation and attack on their characters. In fact, I honestly believe it was. Although I have spoken often in this column about the "believing-doing gap," Regent Sanford, in that moment, told the truth about the effect of that gap in a wonderfully simple phrase loaded with complex implications that caused uncomfortable introspection: Do I stand indicted?
I've come back to this question recently in response to the work of two gifted truth tellers, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Lee Hirsch, the director of the film Bully. Yarrow, a legend I am blessed to call a friend, founded the nonprofit Operation Respect, which is dedicated to "creating compassionate, safe and respectful environments." Last month Operation Respect joined What's the Benefit? Inc. to produce a play called Weaker People ... A Dangerous Notion. Through dialogue and song, Weaker People explores the confusion and sadness faced by bullying victims, shows bullies belittling and physically hurting others to be socially accepted by the popular crowd, and illustrates how adults often feel helpless in stopping these situations. Through the dramatic arts, this fantasy rock musical tells the truth about the visceral experience of bullying and leaves families, educators, kids, and the community at-large asking if they stand indicted because they do know what is happening but fail to act. (Special thanks to Michele C. Hollow for sharing her thoughts on the play for us!)
Similarly, Bully (which I have seen twice and about which I've spoken fairly extensively with Hirsch) uses documentary film to expose the families and young people indelibly changed by bullying. It forces the viewer to put aside generalizations like "boys will be boys" and "those kids just need to suck it up" to see in microcosmic detail the confusion, anger, fear, and desperation in children and adults alike. It is intentionally not easy to watch. Neither educators nor parents come off as particularly effective. Instead of asking whether or not we stand indicted, Bully demonstrates in painful detail that we do, but through the guide for the film, developed by Facing History and Ourselves, it asks what we will do as a result.
There will be a temptation within those who were in the audiences of Weaker People and Bully to bring in a new antibullying program, hold assemblies for kids to talk to them about bullying, spend an hour of professional development time on the topic, or ramp up punitive measures against the bullies themselves. Although they will be well-intentioned efforts, these steps will not work. They are simply check-box responses to a symptom of a much deeper problem. In fact, the school that receives the greatest amount of attention in Bully actually used a well-respected antibullying program! No group's response will work without a matching, and far more important, individual response. The reality is that bullying, like culturally biased teaching, like noninclusive learning and social environments, and like excuse-based cultures of low expectations, is a result of adults—individual educators, families, policymakers, and community members—knowing and yet failing to act so that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. In my opinion, although they will be well-intentioned efforts, these steps alone will not work.