“If it weren’t for the words of an educator…”

The power we hold when we work with children and youth

I was off work for a few weeks and in the last week, with my illness subsiding, I had the great pleasure of driving my kids to and from school more than I typically would be able to do. When I come home at the end of a day of work, Rachel and Max have usually been home for a few hours. The drama of the day may have worn off and they have moved on. Having the luxury of picking them up as they leave school gives me access to so much more of their day.

This past week, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two distinct experiences my children had. I picked Max and his friend up from school on Wednesday. They got in the car and immediately started talking about one of their teachers. They were imitating him in the way he calls the class, “Eights!” and doesn’t seem to call out any particular student by name except to tell him (it is typically a boy) that he is “useless”. He tells the students that they “hijack” his class. They were laughing about it but it made me wonder how laughable it was. I can’t imagine telling a child that he or she is useless. Why would any educator abuse his or her power in that way? And yet…we know it happens all the time. It certainly happened to me.

This is a picture of Rachel, my dad’s mom, Bessie Donsky and my dad (fake sleeping). We had gone to visit my Bubie at Baycrest Geriatric Centre and my dad and I noticed that she and Rach were sleeping the same way. it gave us a giggle so we took this picture. This was in 2001.

Then, later that evening, I took my daughter to a local old age home, the Baycrest Geriatric Centre. This home is where my grandmother lived for many years and we spent many Sundays visiting her. My father and I would find laughter there even though there was so much pain and sadness. My grandmother had dementia and whether she knew who we were or not, we went to visit every Sunday.

Rachel is part of a group from her school called, “Arts in the Community”. One of her friends started the group and these groups go nowhere without staff support. The staff member who supervises the group is their drama teacher. He has a family of his own, kids of his own and I am sure many other responsibilities but on this night, he chaperoned this group of Earl Haig SS students to this old folks home to perform.

Rach singing to a group of residents and Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care

As you listen to her sing, you can hear the residents joining in. When Rach told me what happened she told me of a couple sitting together, holding hands, looking lovingly at each other and singing along. When the performance was done, she told me her teacher, Mr Singer, ran up to her to punctuate the evening and simply said, “This is a moment. You will always remember this.”

Imagine that for a moment. Imagine the experience that Rach had because of the staff member who enabled the wonderful group of talented young performers to make a difference in the lives of all of these elderly people and at the same time, come to appreciate the humanity and love before them. What a profound moment in her life and the lives of the other students, supported by this one man.

Now let’s swing back to my son’s day…he attends a school where the messages from his teacher are that kids are useless and that they hijack his class. I would like to say that Max is new to this experience but over the years he has been subjected to several teachers who were bullies. There have been a few teachers and one particular principal who have supported him, loved him and reassured him that educators can be positive forces in a child’s life but it seems that the negative forces have this direct entry into his heart. He is older now and wiser and laughs it off but I am certain it still affects his confidence, his willingness to take risks, and his belief in education as an institution.

The next day, I was alone with Rach in the car and we talked about what the boys had said. She believes that children will pretend they are okay and joke about it as a defence mechanism but that it still hurts them. Though Rachel has not been targeted by teachers as Max has, she has watched teachers do this to her classmates over the years. She has watched some of her friends disconnect from school and doubt themselves repeatedly. When educators shame students, it affects everyone in the room.

A friend and colleague, Lisa Brown Neale, posted this meme this morning…

And I thought, yes, that’s exactly it. “If it weren’t for the words of an educator…”

This week we started the Brené Brown course, Daring Schools: The Four Pillars of Courage, in our leadership team in our board’s Curriculum and Instructional Services department. My friend Nada and I are facilitating it and were supported by our Superintendent, heather.sears, to share it with the department. It is a bold move to talk about new ways to lead and understand power, shame, and vulnerability in our schools and workplaces. I believe that we have the power to influence our system with this work in the most profound and positive way.

When we started the course this week we watched the first lesson video. In the video, Brené states that, “85% of the men and women she interviewed can remember a shaming event that happened in school that was so painful, it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners.” She goes deeper to talk about how shame changes behaviour. Even if an educator shames another child in the room, the whole room responds to it. At the same time, she shares that “over 90% of the research population when [she] was studying shame could remember a teacher, a coach or adminstrator who re-instilled in them their sense of worth when they had none.” This data reminds us that as educators, we have “incredible power”. Brené tells us that as educators, our power is “only second to parents.”

As adults, interacting with children, whether as educators, parents, relatives or friends, we must always consider how we speak to our children. Do our words build them up or tear them down? Do our words shame our children or offer meaningful feedback in a respectful and kind way? If we slip up, and we all do, do we own it? Do we apologize in a wholehearted way and learn from it? Do we share what we learned with the children? Do we we act from humility and loving kindness or from a place of power and humiliation?

We must be able to reflect on the language we use and our impact on children and youth. They stop believing in us because we give them reason to. What do you want your legacy to be?

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