Ilana, Research Assistant, TX
Think about child in your life that you care deeply about. Tell me about this child and what makes them unique or special?
What comes to mind is my little brother, his name is Yoni. He is turning six and he’s just so full of life and energy. Just being around him makes other people happy. He has that inexplicable joy that children have that adults somehow lose in the process of growing up. He’s such an entertainer, he loves making people laugh--he’s a total ham. He plays it up and it’s a beautiful thing because it’s for him and it’s for other people--he’s just a joy to be around. He’s also brilliant--he speaks Hebrew, French, and English already. He’s amazing.
When you think about Yoni grown up, in his 30s, starting his adult life--what is it that you want for him in his life? What would make it a good life?
I hope that he maintains his vibrancy and that joy that he spreads around, and I think he can do that by having a purpose. I hope he has a purpose for his life that he's able to follow, that he respects other people and respects himself. That he has fostered good relationships with other people--a balanced person that's able to self regulate and find meaning in his life.
It’s different for everyone what is going to give your life meaning and purpose. I think it’s having something that centers you in a way. We can get caught up in the minutia or drama in life, and we often let our innate joy and love of life get taken away by how mundane life can be--we need to be centered in a way that brings us joy.
Do you think that good life you’ve described relates to your own vision for yourself?
I think I’ve been through a lot of stuff with family and personal things--I struggled with mental health and depression, immigrations issues...and through it all, in order to keep my head up and still enjoy life and be happy, I had to find a meaning in all of it. To me, it was to be happy and help people. Having that to ground me when different things happen that can throw you off--it helps bring me back to center and remember what's important. Meaning, that’s what brings me back.
When you think about that good life that you’ve set out for Yoni, what do you think the role of schools should be in achieving that good life?
I think a huge thing that schools don't necessarily do right now but need to teach is emotional regulation--it’s such an important skill growing up to be able to center yourself and stay the course no matter what you’re doing. There’s evidence-based curriculum out there to teach emotional regulation, and not just for kids already showing behavior problems but that you can teach as a whole to a class, because all children need that knowledge.
The school I went to was focused on teaching the “whole child”--they made us do public service projects all the time, which taught us the importance of giving back to the community. All of the students loved it. It became “cool” to volunteer and we had a ton of support from the school community to help others. Schools can help foster an understanding of a student’s role in the community and the importance of giving back.
Teaching about mental health is important--reducing stigma around it, increasing awareness and understanding, providing access to resources. It shouldn’t be frowned upon to go to the counselor. That was something great about my school was the it was normal to go to the counselor, it wasn’t looked down upon. Schools can help students to be more understanding and respectful of each other.
What about finding purpose? How can schools foster that?
Hmm. I don’t know. It’s such a personal journey and I’m trying to imagine how that plays out in school. You can teach about spirituality in school--different kinds of spirituality, that’s where meaning ties in. For me, that’s not religion, but about finding your purpose. We can teach how different people or cultures see life and the purpose of life, and then help build a conversation about that to get kids thinking about what they’re inclined towards.
Do you think that schools are currently doing this for all kids? Some kids? Why or why not?
From my understanding and experience, I don’t know about all the different systems, but from what I've seen there are more private schools that can afford to be a little more, I guess what we call “alternative” or more inclined to the whole child, because the public school system is focused on testing and meeting criteria and standards. It's a one-size-fits-all mentality and doesn't take into account different learning styles.
Why do you think that is?
I think there's a lot more freedom in private schools. For public schools to make change it has to be approved by so many players and stakeholders--school boards, superintendents, administration, etc.--what we’re allowed to teach in public schools is regulated by a whole lot of people. If a private school wants to make that change they just have to approve it through their board. If a parent doesn’t like that, they can just leave.
I’m going to step back a little bit here and ask a more philosophical question. Why do you think we have schools as a society? Why does the government provide schooling?
I think probably the two most important equalizers in life are education and health care. It's so important to have schools so that people can have a basic education. In America, we have this theory that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstrap and achieve the American Dream if we just work hard, but we can only do that if we all start at the same level. We do this through education and healthcare. The first way we thought learning was that it was academic--book learning--but the other side of education that I was speaking about--emotional regulation, purpose, meaning--is just as important. Those skills also help us start at the same level. You'll have a clear disadvantage if you can’t do these things. The way that we acquire knowledge and book learning factors in one important part of the puzzle, but it’s not everything.
Why do you think that’s the case, that we focus more on book learning versus those other skills that we horribly call “non-cognitive”?
I don’t know if it has to do with the way society has developed. We had the Scientific Revolution, and all of the suddenly learning, research, and the growth of knowledge became so important. It has only been in the past decade that people are focusing more on spirituality, wellness, emotional wellness--kind of the less tangible concrete parts of health. I don’t know. I think also we have this idea that there’s a separation of mind and body--we educate the mind and keep the body healthy. However, the more intangible parts are at play, and modern wellness realizes those two things--body and mind--are connected in terms of wellness. The more complicated, abstract parts of health are only recently coming to be researched, and in order for a policy to be implemented, there needs to be a lot of research.
Do you think people agree with you to your answers thus far?
I think it depends. There's definitely people who agree with me and think we need to start look at the whole child, but there's a large section of the population that thinks we should remain hands off, and it's the parent's’ role to teach the child how they think they should be taught. People might believe that school should have minimal influence over anything but the book learning and anything that can touch beliefs should be left to the parents. Should it be the parent's role to educate the child? I don’t know. Sometimes, leaving it to parents and families puts some people at a disadvantage. You can’t guarantee that you will have the best environment. On the other hand, everyone has access to education by the law, it must be legally provided, so it’s more likely that people will be on equal footing.
I just read an interesting article about this, how parents shouldn’t play a role in what is taught in schools because the purpose of school should be to create good citizens. And good citizens share the ideals and virtues of the nation/political system they are a part of. What do you think about that?
It’s interesting because it depends on the way that you think what makes a good citizen. Do they need to be educated, or do they need have their shit together, respect for other people, empathy, etc...and then will that in turn make them better citizens and voters?
Tell me about an empowering educational experience that you’ve had. What made it empowering?
A really empowering experience was in grad school--we had these internships and this class is where we talked about our internship in a group. We got advice on clients we were seeing--because many of the clients could be challenging-- and we would brainstorm how to handle difficult experiences. It was empowering because it was experiential--we would talk about strategies from textbooks, but also get feedback from the teacher and our classmates about the difficult situation. It might be a difficult client who might not respect you, and we would problem-solve as a group about how to deal with that. There’s also dealing with your supervisor on site, and people had some very difficult supervisors. Really, it was just a class on how to deal with life. That was empowering having it be experiential and just discussion-based. I enjoyed that more than the lectures. And I like lectures, I like absorbing knowledge, but it was empowering to get the knowledge, put it into practice, and then reflect.