A million years ago, I used to be a classroom teacher. First sixth grade (how did I ever do that?!?), then fifth. During my time in the classroom, I became more and more aware of how the focus in education was strictly on academics. As standardized tests dominated the educational landscape, there became less and less time for anything else. I also became aware of the kids’ emotional and social needs that were going unmet. I could plan the greatest math lesson in the world, but if the kids came back from recess riled up from a playground conflict, nobody was going to learn anything. But to take time away from academics to help the kids work through the problem? Unheard of. As a classroom teacher, I felt powerless in the face of the turning tide of standardized testing. I left the classroom for graduate school. My goal was to learn more about how schools could become places that support kids’ social and emotional development, alongside academic learning. Grad school was an awesome experience, and I had the opportunity to research and work alongside some of the leaders in the field of school reform.
The passion that I felt as a teacher about supporting kids’ emotional development has intensified about a million times now that I am a parent. There have been three high school suicides in our town this year. Three. That fact chills me to the core. There is a growing trend of depression and anxiety among teenagers in our country… and it is not somewhere out there in someone else’s back yard. It’s right here at home.
Schools are the place that kids spend most of their time. The school climate can bolster or hinder children’s social development. As the parent of a girl, I worry about cliques, and “mean girl” syndrome. I don’t want my daughter to be either the target or the perpetrator of the social bullying that is common among girls.
As the parent of an autistic child, I worry about bullying. One of the characteristics of people with autism is that they misread social cues. I’ve read lots of stories about autistic kids becoming the target of cruel jokes. Often, the kids don’t even realize they’ve been taken advantage of, because they perceive the other kids’ overtures as friendly.
But here’s the good news. In my years of working on school climate issues… I’ve never seen a school that warms my heart as much as the school where my kids go now. From the moment I enter the building, I notice the details. I notice the principal who stands just inside the front door each day, greeting students with a cheerful hello. I notice the prominently placed list of school expectations (phrased in clear, kid-friendly, positive language). I notice the classroom meetings, in which kids are encouraged to solve classroom problems in a collaborative and respectful manner. I notice the long roster of well-trained classroom aides and in-house substitutes… so that even when the classroom teacher is sick or at a meeting, a person who is familiar with the kids and with the routines is there to step in. I notice the many opportunities afforded to all parents to be involved in meaningful ways in their kids’ education.
There are things in our culture (both the wider culture, and right here in our town) that are causing the rise in depression, anxiety and even suicide among teens. As someone who cares deeply about public education, I hope to return to work sometime soon into a role that will support our schools in their crucially important role in turning the tide. I feel profoundly motivated (and blessed) by the fact that my kids’ elementary school is taking so many important steps towards creating a positive and emotionally healthy school climate.
One parting anecdote: This morning, I observed a teacher escorting a prospective student to a pre-Kindergarten screening. “You are going to like coming to our school next year,” I overheard her saying. “Our school is a friendly place.” Yes. Yes, it is.