Wednesday, September 27, 2017

NOT just Poverty: The conversation to improve education must include the needs of our students

            I have heard from administrators, and I personally believe, that we cannot control what happens outside of our school, therefore do what we can in our classrooms to help the children. But we must acknowledge what is happening in our society to the children if schools are to truly educate the children. Once it is acknowledged, it must be a part of the joint efforts to improve public schools. The rhetoric I hear nation-wide about ‘fixing failing schools’ will not work without it being a part of the solution. Also, the term ‘community involvement’ takes on a more encompassing and holistic meaning. Our culture and society has changed. More and more children come to schools hungry, unloved, neglected, abused, homeless, and others-wise not having basic needs met so how can we expect them to learn? Schools that are ‘failing’ by whatever measures used are symptomatic of a reality that there are concentrations or students without their basic needs being met. To meet the needs of our students, schools have slowly added services to help meet the needs of the children so they can learn (more elsewhere about how schools may be shifting to community social services organizations).

For me, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clearly frames many of the problems public education is experiencing today.

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability
3. Social needs - Belongingness and Love, work group, family, affection, relationships
4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility
5. Cognitive needs - knowledge, EDUCATION, conceptual understanding
6. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences
7. Transcendence needs - helping others to achieve self-actualization.

            What are some of the obstacles to learning? In short, an obstacle to learning is anything that interferes with any step in the process. To review, those include:
            • Physical issues that distract from attention, like insufficient sleep, hunger, poor nutrition, lack of exercise;
            • Safety issues that stimulate increased anxiety and fear, like bullying, school shootings, over-stimulation, drug use, deaths of classmates
            • Emotional issues that sideline motivation, like family dysfunction, parental death and divorce, anxiety and depression
            • Neurological issues that interfere with the “normal” neuronal connections, like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder

            Notice that formal education is at Level 5 on the Maslow pyramid, and that all of the obstacles noted above relate to challenges occurring at Levels 1 through 4. According to Maslow’s theory, in an optimal environment, needs must be fulfilled in order. Just as we can’t learn to read until we have learned the alphabet, it is only when the biological, safety, social, and esteem needs of a child at levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 are satisfied that he or she can fully advance to the cognitive needs of Level 5—the only needs public education has always been designed to assist our children in fulfilling.

            How many of the obstacles listed above are under a given teacher, principal, or superintendent’s control? Truthfully, none. Is it reasonable to expect our schools to be able to deal with the explosion of new information and skills and somehow overcome the onslaught of social, emotional, economic, and neurological challenges that make the creation of environments conducive to learning exponentially harder today? Is that goal realistic? Attainable?

            No. Teachers can only do so much by themselves. We need a new paradigm, one in which all stakeholders (parents, teachers, children, community) and critics (media, elected officials, parents) become aware of and acknowledge inherent challenges teachers face on a daily basis in providing environments conducive to learning. As more children come to schools without their basic needs being met, and their trying to help the children experience meet some of the basics needs so they can learn - Teachers are exhausted. On top of the exhaustion, if we fail to support and respect teachers, we will send the only professionals who have what it takes to achieve the outcomes we demand of public education running for the doors. And then where will we be? (more in another chapter)

Excerpt from “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” pages 40 – 42.

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