Growing up, I was bullied. At times it was relentless. I was overweight and I was more interested in reading a book at recess than playing foursquare. My most targeted “problem” was my sensitivity. As my mom used to say to me, “You feel hard.” I would see other people being bullied and I would cry for them. I would see other obese people and feel their shame. I would see a homeless person on the street and weep. I constantly worried for others.
At the time, I did not know why I felt so deeply for others, but what I did not know was that I always wanted to know how to make my pain stop. I could never separate my own insecurities from the insecurities in others. I vividly remember passing a homeless man on the streets of Boston. I couldn’t have been older than six or seven. As we passed him, he didn’t look up. His clothes were ragged; the tattered strips of cloth on his body were blowing in the brisk Boston breeze. I begged my mom for money, any amount of it, to give to the man. This was not a new behavior for me, and my mom obliged. And even though I did my small part then, I could not help but to wonder how the man had gotten to this point. I didn’t understand why he was there and why there wasn’t a way to help him get off the street.
As I grew older, I became better at shutting the world out, but this misunderstanding never went away. I am still frequently haunted by the image of this man. I know he could have been there because of his own decisions, but what if he was set up to fail at the very beginning? What if he didn’t have a family? What if he didn’t have anyone to course-correct his path when he was young? I had several people set me on better paths when I was young. Would I be this man had I not had them?
The image of that man has never went away. I instinctively knew as I entered college that I wanted to do all that I could to ensure I would never be haunted by another man like him.
Those of us who teach do so for many different reasons. At the heart of all of our reasons is the inherent desire to ensure that those who come after us find a better world than the one we found. Over the years, I have played my small part a few times. I had a student who did not commit suicide because she, “didn’t want to disappoint me.” She is now a proud military wife who, even when her husband is away, smiles because she relishes her life and its opportunities. Another student of mine suffered from anxiety silently until she realized that it was literally killing her. Through many hours of talking, crying (sometimes both of us), and reflection, she is succeeding in college away from her family, high school friends, and former teachers. Yet another student reached out to me for help regarding his drug abuse.
With our successes from day to day, we also experience the heartbreak that comes with imagining our students who, for whatever reason, will end up being some version of my homeless man on the street; they are the anonymous stranger whose life isn’t fulfilled. I am no longer just haunted by the image of the man in Boston, but also by the student who, a week after graduation, was gunned down because he was running in the wrong circles. Should I have spent more time persuading him to change his life? I am tormented by the student who didn’t go pursue his passions because his family dissuaded him. Why didn’t I sit with his family to explain to them that spending money would mean that my student wouldn’t be undermatched and therefore less likely to be successful?
Every teacher has stories like these. I am not unique for having experienced them. And if my two successful students are the only ones I ever course-correct, then I can die a happy man. Over the last six months, however, I find myself increasingly unsatisfied. I want to maximize, as we all do, the impact of my life. After much thought, many conversations, and copious sessions of solutions seeking, I came to a realization. Through research and practice, we know what good education looks like. However, our education system, one based off of a factory model, is horrendous at helping the holistic child.
For example, since the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, many states have seen tremendous growth. Kentucky, for example, used to measure itself by asking one question: Are we better than Mississippi? That has changed tremendously as now Kentucky is in the middle of the pack by many measures. This is a positive change.
And yet, what often doesn’t happen is addressing the non-cognitive factors of a child, the mitigating factors in the student’s outside life that prohibit the student from being successful. These are the factors represent a much harder fight against because they seem largely out of our sphere of influence.
To demonstrate this struggle, imagine putting a Bandaid on a bullet wound. You may cover the visual wound, but what about stitching the bleeding artery? What about antibiotics to ensure that more systemic, ongoing infections don’t begin? What about ongoing therapy to properly bring a person back to full health?
In the educational context, this is seen by actions such as Blessings in a Backpack for students who are poor. This action is not detrimental, much like putting a bandage on a wound isn’t bad, but it also is not intentional or targeted. Students may need access to affordable, accessible medical care for their “bleeding arteries.” They may need psycho-emotional supports for their cognitive “infections.” They may need consistent community advocates to ensure that the student’s actions bring them to “full health.” In our current educational model, this cannot happen. In my school, for example, we have one person who oversees these issues. We also have 667 students. That is a ratio of 667:1. These are not sustainable numbers, and this narrative is one we all face in our schools.
For my small, sustainable successes I have, I know that I also have another homeless man from Boston. I am weary of the cascading images of students who could have gone a different direction. Because of this ongoing dissonance, I have begun to create a program at my school to address not only the shifting educational landscape of America, but also addresses and redefines what it means to reach the holistic child. I am fortunate that I have many supports already in place for this program. I am energized by the possibility of maximizing my impact. But I am also asking anyone who will listen to consider what it means to help the holistic child in a systemic way- a way that goes beyond putting a Bandaid on the problem.
I want to be the champion that I had and that I hope my daughter has should I ever lose sight of her struggles, passions, and potential.
As I create and implement this program, I want to open a dialogue so that we learn together and reimagine what school and it’s duty to helping the holistic child looks like. What if we could have fewer nameless people in the future simply by reimagining what it means to help students today? Could we prevent another sensitive child from crying because they wondered what if? I have no idea if it is possible, but I am committed to finding out. Teachers aren’t the solution. Nor is the solution money, community, parents, and society. All of these factors play a part. If you are interested in knowing where I am thus far, please refer to this document that shows what is driving my thinking and this document which shows the current components of the program.
I cannot effect large-scale changes alone, but I can create the gentle breezes of change in my small way. A gentle breeze can become a gust in a mere moment. As such, I can no longer sit back and let excuses get in the way. It is within my sphere of influence try to find the answer to the question of what it means to help the holistic child.