Monday, June 2, 2008

On nurturing

As an Oakland public school parent, I’ve seen many changes in my local schools over the past several years. Various methods are being tried to improve the academic achievement of students. A number of the changes have been about increasing the testing of students, subjecting schools to penalties, and revamping school communities. Unfortunately, many problems continue because important pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

When I contemplate this situation and think about possible solutions, I often recall an experience I had in college. It was in my last year of nursing school when a guest lecturer spoke to my class about “nurturing.” As nursing students, we had been studying diseases, procedures, and care plans for the past three years. A lecture about nurturing was unlike anything we had heard before and seemed lightweight and slightly irrelevant to me, the soon-to-be critical care nurse.

But as it turned out, time after time I have learned from experience that nurturing is the essence of care-giving. Now thirty years later, the issues at these schools remind me of the wisdom of that lecture once again. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle for helping the schools, and one that is never mentioned, is nurturing.

The schools are expected to give an excellent education to the children, to elevate their social status, and to also repair the harmful effects of family breakdown, poverty, illiteracy, violence, values that have lost their moorings, and living in a neighborhood with a thriving underground economy – all on a meager budget. To me, the schools aren't necessarily the thing that is “broken” but that everything around them is sick. Individuals can be sick, and systems can be, too. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling and that so many children are doing poorly.

The children’s low academic achievement is just one symptom of the illness. Unfortunately, members of the society far outside these schools have concluded that the schools are the cause of the problems, not the other way around. Their mandate is for the schools to be “fixed” and they call the current attempts which are inadequate “reform.” So far, it seems as if the people inside these schools, who know better, are too few and too weak to effectively battle the misconception.

The fixes being imposed have been a “left-brain” approach that has been dictated by bureaucracies and businessmen. It goes along these lines: “Let’s collect data about all the different parts and analyze it. Then we are going to solve the problem by remaking the schools so that they’ll work more efficiently. We don't trust that anyone in the schools is working hard enough, so we're going to force them to work harder, too. It’s all very logical, you see.”

Sadly, this approach is narrowly focused and punitive, and it is doing more harm than good. Some people believe this the underlying intent. Limited in its view, it completely ignores other things that are needed to create health and build more human potential in these schools – in the students, their parents and their teachers. It completely disregards the wisdom that the “right-brain” has to offer.

Sick people are human beings; they are not just numbers that are occupying space. Restoring health takes much more than drawing blood and taking vital signs (or testing kids and closing/reopening schools). The students, and their schools, will need consistent, compassionate care – and plenty of it in order to get well. Both the urban public schools and their students desperately need acts of kindness done for them, just as sick patients need to have their hands held, sips of water offered, and kind words of encouragement spoken to them. The schools need nurturing.

Nurturing is action. It means to nourish; to feed. It consists of many, small, physical acts of kindness, quietly done over time, that make people feel better, and let them know that someone cares. This type of care can’t be measured or mandated, but the results can clearly be seen. If they choose to, members of the society who are stronger can do this for members of the society who are weaker.

Middle class families are lucky. They have less of a struggle to make ends meet so they have the time, money, and inclination to nurture their children’s schools. They contribute additional resources by providing the school with things that are enriching and morale building, such as student awards luncheons, teacher appreciation events, classroom help, meaningful input at meetings, community work days, multicultural fairs, talent shows, refreshment sales at performances, newsletters produced and sent to parents, small grants to teachers, etc. Eliminate these extras from those schools and watch them start to wither.

Less fortunate schools simply don’t have enough of those kinds of things; in addition they’re often criticized and attacked by community members who don’t fully understand the dimension of what is going on behind their walls. The inhabitants are trying to cope with an immense amount of stress by themselves, with not much to offset it along the way.

I remember the first time I felt the envy of not having those things that would have made it nicer at my daughter’s middle school. Coming from an elementary school that was well nurtured, we found ourselves in the harsh environment of our local middle school that lacked enough parents to do very many of the extras. Most of the parents were poor and uneducated. Many wouldn’t consider joining the PTA or attend school meetings, and a number of them were even hostile at the suggestion of it. The vast majority wouldn’t ever offer, or even consent when asked, to help at the school, not to mention take the initiative to organize something special for the students.

I soon entered a phase where I felt resentful towards them. From my perspective they were neglecting the school and its children. I was at first disgusted by their lack of participation but started to understand it when I read “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life” by Annette Lareau. People from different backgrounds have different points of view and abilities, and that’s just the way it is. In the meantime, the school was crippled by, and was suffering from, a lack of adult attention – even though most of the staff was doing their best.

I would like to see members of the wider community, and the organizations in them, tapped so that they would provide acts of kindness – and nurturing – to disadvantaged schools. Their participation should be institutionalized. This would help with lowering teacher turnover and building the community.

I would also like to hear the word “morale” spoken by school leaders more often than it is, and for them to demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to this extremely important feature. Teacher morale is continuously and devastatingly eroded because of the extraordinarily difficult work conditions in urban schools, conditions that very few teachers are able to tolerate over time. The high levels of job dissatisfaction lead to teacher turnover and apathy. So with the resulting loss of support for students, why is this problem so minimally addressed?

To help find our way out, perhaps we could look at the model provided by the U.S. military, an organization that recognizes the tremendous importance of morale. For generations it has known that strong levels of morale (of both the servicemen and their families) are essential for functioning; it even has an office called Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR). This is the type of support that the education-reform-minded-billionaires could have provided to OUSD which would have made a difference.

A few years ago, a friend told me what happened when his church decided to help an East Oakland elementary school. One of the first things they did was to give the teachers a luncheon. He told me how one teacher was near tears as she expressed her gratitude, “I’ve been here for 20 years and no one has ever done anything for us.” Just stop for a moment and imagine yourself in the position of that teacher, then you'll be able to understand how nurturing can help morale.

Arrogant minds might find it odd or silly to hear, but wiser folks will realize that I am right. By finding ways to provide more nurturing to these schools, the people in them would be helped a great deal and more progress towards wellness might be made. When acts of kindness are done for people in need, they tend to respond beautifully.

1 comment:

The Perimeter Primate said...

This comment was submitted on the SF Schools Yahoo group in response to a segment of this post that was posted:

"There is a lot thats true here, naturally.

On the other hand, there is a lot that is arguing way beyond the

One of them is the complaint about the "left brained approach".

The problem with this complaint is that there is no other approach.
The educational problems everyone is complaining about manifest
themselves in the data, at the macro level these are statistical
phenomena, as are crime rates, poverty rates, etc. Any improvement
should be visible in the data, otherwise there is no improvement.

The other is that, granting the reason for the discrepancy is an
underlying cultural deficiency that schools are never going to be
able to address - and governments in all other respects have little
to no capacity in this area either - this does not mean that marginal
improvements can't be made; there is dreadful and there is somewhat
less dreadful."