Loving Relationships and Education Reform

Current education policy can easily miss the point that caring adults, highly skilled at building authentic relationships with students, very well may be the sine qua non of successful education.
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I recently met Diane Formosa at a Communities In Schools fundraising breakfast in Lakewood, Washington. I was struck by her shock of blond curly hair and quick smile that belied the sheer force of her compassion. Thirty-seven years driving a school bus in Lakewood -- many of those years with special needs kids -- had taught her to see people as their raw, essential selves. And she senses their longing for someone to trust.

As I pumped myself full of caffeine, I listened as Ms. Formosa told me of a high school student she had gotten to know a few years back. The student was homeless. At night he rode the city bus until it was time to go to school in the morning, where he grabbed a shower and breakfast, and headed to class.

Working with volunteers and social service providers, Ms. Formosa found supports for this young man. More important, she pointed out, was that fact that she knew the young man's story, understood he was ashamed and overwhelmed, and believed in him and what he could accomplish. "Now he's in college," she proclaimed proudly.

After retiring from her beloved job, she decided to dedicate her disarmingly enthusiastic leadership to harness her community's greatest asset: caring adults. She founded a volunteer-run organization that mobilizes adults to care for the needs of struggling students -- hence her partnership with Communities In Schools. When I asked her why she chose to spend her retirement this way, she responded with a clear, direct and deeply practical answer. "When you discover how to connect with young people, you unleash their potential and allow them to heal the wounds that they carry and take hold of their lives. Why would I want to do anything else?"

My encounter with Diane Formosa reminded me of an article I read in the New York Times entitled, "The Brain on Love," by Diane Ackerman.

In this encouraging and hopeful article, Ms. Ackerman reports on the emerging insights that neurobiology is teaching us about the brain.

"A relatively new field, called interpersonal neurobiology, draws its vigor from one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you. All relationships change the brain -- but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.

I am encouraged by the emerging science that supports my personal experience that we are never done becoming fully human. Our early life experiences, while deeply important in contouring our lives, are not our destiny. Ackerman points out that "we inhabit a mirror-world in which every important relationship, whether with spouse, friend or child, shapes the brain, which in turn shapes our relationships." I am quite certain that Diane Formosa has known this for a long time.

I also found Ms. Ackerman's article profoundly challenging. Current education policy -- with its rightful emphasis on effective teaching, strong common core standards, accountability, and standardized and powerful data systems -- can easily miss the point that caring adults, highly skilled at building authentic relationships with students, very well may be the sine qua non of successful education.

In her article, Ackerman points out a powerful truth:

"When your brain knows you're with someone you can trust, it needn't waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open."

While clearly we must expect teachers to have this capacity to build trusting relationship with students, Ms. Formosa's life work demonstrates that limiting this expectation to teachers misses the wealth of transformative love and caring available to children in their daily lives. Teachers cannot be expected to go it alone; such expectations potentially set teachers and students up for failure.

Ms. Formosa and Ms. Ackerman challenge all of us in the education reform movement to ensure reform efforts are grounded in a holistic attention to the student, and enlivened by caring adults committed to building authentic relationships with young people and ensuring those young people have the material supports necessary to be successful.

Let's swing the "doors of perception wide open" on our young people and unleash their unimaginable potential.

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