Why I Believe in Better World Ed: Lily’s Perspective

I stared at this question long and hard while my seventeen-year-old brain churned with ideas, memories, aspirations, and existential crises. I was answering the question for a college application, and it seemed like 250 words could not even begin to cover what I believed to be my power for good. What does “power for good” even mean? How could I reflect on my limited life experiences in a way that they might converge into one motivation, one driving factor, one vision to make positive change in this world? Stumped, I began contemplating when I had felt extremely passionate about something bigger than myself, my school, or my community.

Then, it clicked.

What had originally just been a way to pass the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school would soon turn into a long-lasting passion, one that has endured through my college years and resulted in the discovery of what I believe to be my power for good. This passion is what has brought me to where I am today: interning at Better World Ed, where I hope to use my knowledge and enthusiasm as fuel to enact my power for good — finding my role as a change-maker in education.

My story begins with Fatima*, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants and a student in the 3rd grade class I was assistant-teaching at a Beaverton elementary school during the summer of 2013. Despite her excitement for school, Fatima repeatedly confided in me that the other students didn’t want to be her partner during math exercises or games on the playground. She would tell me, “Ms. Lily, the other girls don’t like me. They make fun of me for covering my head and arms and legs in the summer.” At a school predominated by Latinx students, Fatima had keenly recognized that she did not blend in with the crowd, wearing a hijab and modest clothing in the July heat. I did my best to reassure her that they would get along eventually, as long as she treated them with kindness and respect in return, but deep down, I was concerned. In my role as her confidant, I began to pay special attention to Fatima in class — especially her performance and behavior. As the summer went on, Fatima acted out in nearly every class, causing disruptions for the other teacher, her classmates, and myself. Frequent visits to the principal’s office and countless “reflection times” in the hallway took Fatima out of the classroom and further into social and physical isolation. All I wanted was for Fatima to succeed, but it seemed that as her social and emotional well-being suffered, so did her success in school. During our last week, Fatima was asked to stay home as to not distract the other students from finishing the summer school activities.

I was heartbroken.

Throughout my education at a small, private K-12, I had found school to be a safe, welcoming, and empowering place. I loved learning and felt supported by my teachers and classmates. When I got to that Beaverton elementary school, my eyes were opened to the privilege from which I had been benefitting without any awareness. As a student who had thrived in school, I couldn’t comprehend how the same system had left Fatima disenfranchised and defeated. Where I used to see opportunity for growth and learning, I only saw inequity and injustice. I was angry, but I knew that the anger had to be channeled elsewhere — somewhere positive.

I explored various paths before eventually choosing to major in psychology, because it became evident how the study of human behavior and mind directly connects to education. I knew there was a need for education reform, especially changes to the inequities of existing curriculum and structure, but I also felt that there was something missing. As I progressed in my psychology courses, I began to see a pattern in what interested me. I took Child Development, Social & Emotional Development, and Educational Psychology, and each time I had the opportunity to write a paper, I was drawn to studying and understanding the student as a social, emotional human within the classroom. I began reflecting on fundamental questions, like what is every student’s story? How do a student’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development interact? What role do teachers, curriculum, and the school have in their development?

It was becoming clear to me that what I wanted to change the most in education was the way that students are supported as social, emotional beings in the classroom, as well as how they learn and are taught to interact socially and emotionally with others — classmates, teachers, parents, siblings, and everyone else they’ll meet in the future. I have learned in my classes that if a student’s social and emotional development is fostered throughout their youth, they have a higher likelihood to succeed in school, progress in their careers, and have overall greater well-being. As a result of these individual developments, they will be able to contribute positively to the world as a global citizen. This success comes from being able to regulate and express emotions effectively, control behavior, maintain social relationships, act in prosocial ways, and make responsible, thoughtful decisions. All of these elements are imperative for all humans, especially if we want to create a more connected, open, and empathic world.

I believe that, in addition to educating our students to be able to add, subtract, read, and write, we must place an emphasis on educating them to relate empathically to others. All of this can come from the daily practice of empathy — stepping into someone else’s shoes — in any and every scenario of life. And, importantly, this act of imagining someone else’s lived experience is about willingly understanding their perspective, and acknowledging that it’s okay if it differs from your own. Empathy doesn’t mean we all have to agree; empathy means we accept that differences exist and proceed with an understanding based on the shared human experience. If we all made an effort to ground ourselves in empathy, whether we’re ordering at a restaurant or speaking in a political debate, what do you think the world would look like?

When I saw the tight interconnectedness of Fatima’s social and emotional well-being and her school achievement, it became clear then and there that if we want our students to succeed in the future, we need to start by teaching them to be open to listening and respecting the stories of those around them, especially those stories that are different from or opposing to their own. Fatima’s classmates didn’t know how to approach Fatima’s differences, and instead of being curious and empathic, they emphasized her “otherness” and pushed her away — an action that directly impacted her schoolwork, her social and emotional behavior, and potentially her future development and achievement.

This is why I became a part of Better World Ed, where social and emotional learning (SEL) is prioritized as an integral part of school curriculum. Math and literacy lessons are infused with SEL activities — “Empathy Challenges” — which include students listening to the stories of others and reflecting on their own personal life stories. And the best part is that these stories come from around the world, so students are practicing empathy with people who may be very different than anyone they’ve ever met. More experience with diversity, integrated within a curriculum that teaches important relational skills, will prepare our students for the world outside the classroom. I can only imagine how having Better World Ed videos in Fatima’s classroom could have changed her life story. If her classmates had received more exposure to global diversity and been taught how to practice empathy, I really do believe they would have accepted Fatima and her differences with curiosity and kindness.

No two people see the world in the exact same way; we all have our own constructed realities. It’s easy to be scared or hateful in response to that difference, but if we can help our youth learn to embrace the discomfort of difference, perhaps we can shape this world for the better. I hope that we will create a world in which we listen instead of fight, converse instead of argue, and treat others with respectful curiosity instead of judgment.

The path to enacting my power for good is only just starting. Each stop along the way is a milestone for developing my vision and how to put it into action. I’m here at Better World Ed because its vision — social and emotional learning that captivates each student through global stories — aligns with what I have learned throughout my education and what I believe at my core to be a solution for bringing people together, around the world, with open eyes, minds, and hearts.

Now, in return, I’d like to ask you:

*Fatima’s name has been changed for confidentiality.

-Lily Massaro, July 30, 2018