February 22, 2021
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching
Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.
Father Greg Boyle is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. His organization supports over 10,000 young people in Los Angeles each year as they strive to break the cycle of gang violence and reimagine their futures.
Recently I listened to Father Greg on an episode of Alan Alda’s podcast Clear + Vivid. From the way he talks about his work, it is clear that he is a teacher. His insights about engaging young people who are living in the most extreme situations were extraordinary – and mostly focused on authentic listening and empathy.
Father Greg offered a powerful way of reframing our work as educators when we engage with students, especially those who are in distress: “Stop trying to reach them.” Instead, he asks, “Can you be reached by them?” He went on to say, “You’re not fixing anybody, you’re not rescuing anybody, and it is not about you.” He challenges us to allow our “hearts to be altered” which requires us to “listen to” and “receive” our students.
This past week, my colleagues and I led an Inspired Teaching Institute focused on Mental Wellness. We chose the topic because a few weeks earlier, students in our Speak Truth program had selected Mental Health as their discussion topic, and their conversation was illuminating. My colleagues and I thought deeply about what kind of guidance and what strategies we could offer teachers to support their students at this moment. Drawing from our teacher workshops over the years, here are some of the things we shared:
A Wellness Check-Up tool.
A framework for understanding unmet student needs.
An invitation to brainstorm strategies to meet those needs.
But the highlight of the Institute involved listening to and receiving the words of students. High school students Leah and Markaiah told us about initiatives they created and currently lead at their school. Each day they check in on their teachers to show them compassion and caring. As they explain it, “We came up with a system to give our teachers a constant reminder they are appreciated, just how children would love a constant reminder from their teachers.” Recent high school graduate Mira told us about an activity she had created and led with her classmates: through a survey and storytelling, students were able to share, anonymously but powerfully, their personal experiences with mental health issues in a way that helped their teachers better understand them.
One participant in our Institute commented, “I especially enjoyed hearing from the students about the initiatives that emerged organically from their concern for the well-being of others.” Another said, “I will be following Markaiah’s suggestion of investing the first few minutes of virtual teaching to check in with students.” Like Father Greg says, our “hearts were altered” by the words of these young people.
In March, our Institutes will feature even more students speaking directly to us, their teachers. Our topic will be Making School Worth It – and we’ll hear from students of all ages about what they’ve learned during the pandemic; what they need and expect from their teachers as we return to in-person learning; and how we might collaborate to remodel schools moving forward.
The change we seek, the better future we desire for our students, is possible if we put them at the center of the redesign. We must be as open to being reached by our students as we are focused on reaching out to them. They have so much to teach.