There is much to be learned from Davis Guggenheim's, "Waiting for 'Superman' ". Yes, our system of public education needs help. Yes, there are excellent, proven education models available (KIPP School, Promise Academy, and Green Dot Public Schools being wonderful examples). Yes, the teachers union needs to do a better job. Yes, we need to replace incompetent teachers with more qualified educators. But, there is a very important piece of the education puzzle that was not only overlooked by Mr. Guggenheim, but also is only paid lip service to by most educators, administrators and politicians...the untapped, powerful resource that public school parents could be in transforming public education by:
- Playing a key role in influencing school policy.
- Creating a home environment which supports academic excellence and the social/emotional well being of children.
After 18 years of presenting our Parent Leadership Training® to over 4000 public school parents, I can personally attest to the unbearable environment of the urban ghetto, as well as to the loving heart and incredible dedication the parents have for their children. There is no more powerful force in our nature than a parent's love and concern for their children. Principals, teachers, politicians all care about the welfare of children but, I think those of you who are parents will agree, no one cares more than parents. Because of this, parents have the potential to positively influence their child's well being at every level, and at the same time become the most powerful change agents in schools. The problem is, this raw energy of love and caring is not being tapped to transform our system of public education because a vast majority of these urban public school parents are not yet empowered.
Being empowered requires, what Howard Gardner termed "personal intelligence"; which can be taught and learned like any other type of intelligence. Several of the attributes of this type of intelligence are: being aware of habitual negative patterns of thought, behavior and communication and then making more positive choices as a way of better serving ourselves and others; being quiet inside and really listening as a way of being connected to our own as well as the feelings of others; living a life based on taking responsibility and being accountable for our experience at each moment rather than being a victim and blaming others. As we embrace these qualities we become more empowered and have the ability to make positive changes in our lives, enhance the lives of those we love, and become meaningful contributors to society.
I agree with "Waiting for 'Superman' ", teachers unions could do a better job. But, if parents were empowered there would not be incompetent teachers in schools. Would a private school parent tolerate sixty-eight percent (the national public school average) of eighth graders in her child's school not being able to read at grade level?
A question I had while viewing the movie was; Why were there so few applicants for slots in such successful charter schools? Why weren't there 1000's of parents applying? I answered my own question when I realized that this phenomenon mirrors what takes place in the average public school (although there are a few exceptions) where the same 25 parents show up at a Parent Association meeting even though 1000 children attend that school. The five parents in the movie are very similar to the parents who attend our programs, and are the same ones that attend the Parent Association meetings. Even though small in number, these are the parents, when organized, that can make a tremendous difference in their schools, homes and by serving as role models and mentors in their community. It is unfortunate that the "engaged" parent represents a very small minority of the public school parent population.
There are many complex reasons for this lack of parent participation some being: parents not trusting or valuing the education system, poor past experiences with their own schooling, meetings conflicting with work, and fear of exposing being an illegal resident of the United States. But, in my opinion, the main reason is that many people who have lived for generations in poverty are angry, have given up and see no way out. In the end, they don't feel they have the power to change their lives or the lives of their children.
Yes, "Waiting for 'Superman' " does bring out an important piece of the complex puzzle...we need to get rid of incompetent teachers. Yet the movie does not give a balanced perspective. We have conducted our Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs for parents in upwards of 150 public schools; as well as having more than 400 teachers earn masters credits upon completion of our Leadership Training for Teachers and Administrators. I can tell you that the vast majority of public school teachers are there because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. But, in order to make a real difference in others' lives, we must first take a deep look at The Man in the Mirror. I have watched teachers and administrators, just as parents, benefit greatly from SEL programs.
Why is it so difficult to be a great teacher? I have also presented our SEL program to middle and high school students. From first hand experience, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to teach when three or four of the 32 students are dedicated to disrupting the class. Yes, there are a few teachers that can overcome, but many can't. I thought this quote by Dr. Gene R. Carter, Executive Director of ASCD (an education organization with approximately 170,000 members) was quite relevant: "I've seen successful international education systems, such as that in Finland, where there is a direct correlation between student achievement and teacher respect."
So where do our students learn how not to value education and speak disrespectfully to each other, their teachers, and other adults in their lives? For the vast majority, the answer can be found in their homes. As parents, we teach by example. Research has consistently shown that a nurturing family environment is the key element in furthering a child's academic performance as well as enhancing their social and emotional well-being. The previously mentioned "personal intelligence" and the qualities that lead to personal empowerment are the same ones that foster a nurturing family environment.
A key factor in improving our education system is to improve the lives of parents. It has become evident to me that the disenfranchised will never move out of a lifestyle based on poverty and survival into a world of possibilities and abundance until they are self-empowered; until they view their lives through the eyes of what we feel we deserve as creative and powerful human beings rather than viewing reality through the limiting filter of past pain, negative beliefs and unhealed suffering.
Like math, English and music, this is a type of intelligence that can be taught and learned. I have observed parents respond more positively to life's challenges as they realize there is not just one habitual way to approach a given situation; but instead different choices to be made in communicating, listening, forgiving, achieving goals and dealing with conflict. Their children benefit academically and socially by growing up in a home where reflecting before acting, compassionate communication and taking self-responsibility are being exemplified.
Children do not come to school in a vacuum. I have been, and continue to be committed to, presenting Social and Emotion Learning programs to assist parents in developing the skills that make personal empowerment a reality. I believe this type of learning must become an integral part of the educational experience of parents so that they can more actively participate in creating a more positive school environment as well as enhancing the academic and social/emotional well being of our children.
I look forward to sharing specific segments of our program in future blogs. I welcome your feedback and comments.