Technology and innovation in education has moved at warp speed for so long now, that we might be on the verge of entering upon a period where “everything old is new again”. About the only constant in the whirlwind of educational reform is change (and many times, it seems, change simply for change’s sake). As long as Race To The Top and NCLB markers (aka standardized test scores) are the primary drivers for determining a successful school from an unsuccessful one, we will continue to settle for a myopic and very narrow view of what’s important and what’s peripheral in our schools. And that is a short-sighted shame! It would hopefully be apparent from studies conducted in the last 30 or 40 years just how vital school climate improvement efforts are for all markers of school “success” (grades, graduation rates, student voice, student engagement, teacher satisfaction, and equity/parity indicators). Indeed, recent exciting and groundbreaking neuroscience investigations have also shown a fundamental relationship between good school climate and academic success. The National School Climate Center (NSCC) provides thorough, valid & reliable, data-driven resources that promote the much broader and much more expansive answer to the question: “what do we want our children’s education to provide?”
In its direct work with schools, NSCC consistently advocates for ways to promote the vital importance of educating our youth to be “Upstanders”. Though bully prevention efforts serve as an entry point to engage youth as upstanders, almost everyone agrees that school-based bullying tends to be a “canary in a coal mine”; that is, student bullying behavior can usually point to more profound issues and challenges connected to school climate. That is why, to date, we have engaged over 2400 schools nationwide in our Upstander Alliance Program. In the desire to highlight the central importance of educating the “whole child”, in the quest to elevate the social/emotional/civic aspects of a students’ development, NSCC is committed to supporting and celebrating Upstanders. Recently, many schools provided video resources in our “For Good” video contest to inspire others in our journey to be Upstanders.
Though the nomenclature might differ for other groups, our basic definition of an Upstander is someone who actively works to do the socially responsible thing in all situations, including bullying situations. Our student leaders at NSCC collaborated with us to identify those qualities of an ideal Upstander. With their lead role, we created the following characteristics for someone who wants to assert: “I am an Upstander”.
I am an Upstander because:
· I talk about who I am and what I believe with others.
· I talk about what I expect from others.
· I talk about what I can and can’t do, what I’m willing to do and what I’m not willing to do.
· I believe that students working together can change the climate of the school.
· I have a vision of where I want to go, and where I’d like my team/school to go.
· I listen to and learn from others.
· I consider what’s best for others in deciding my actions.
· I know what I need to learn and I find ways to learn it.
· I find out what others need and help them meet their goals.
· I know that there are students who are excluded, lonely and bullied.
· I follow through on my commitments.
· I face problems and conflicts honestly, and use many resources to solve them.
· I have a personal support system.
· I have some responsibility to support and protect my peers.
· I look to others for examples of their leadership.
· I openly appreciate those who help, guide & support me.
In a nutshell, all of the positive qualities of an Upstander are included in the amazing trait of empathy. It’s the gift of an empathic person to know what another person might be experiencing and react/respond accordingly. It’s the great gift of an empathic person to withhold judgments or blame in situations until they understand what another person is feeling. And it’s the amazing quality of an empathic person to fully embrace that powerful Native American prayer that states: “Great Spirit, Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his/her moccasins”.
Empathy is the bedrock, the solid foundation from which Upstanders draws strength. Even when the perception is that an Upstander is being weak or backing down or “soft”, the empathy that they practice is powerful and transformative. It’s the ability to practice empathy that gives an Upstander the fortitude to literally change the world.
What a powerful and great example of empathy, mindfulness and Upstander behavior we get from members of the school community at The Harley School in Rochester, NY. Harley’s academic programs are as rigorous as the most competitive schools in the nation. Their commitment to academic excellence and intellectual growth are reflected in their successful college admission and graduation rates. AND, The Harley School is fully aware that this is only part of a great education. This school community knows they cannot merely measure their progress in standardized test scores. Rather, an emphasis on preparing students to be global citizens, a desire to make community service learning a central part of all instruction, and a celebration of diversity in all its forms, all serve as determiners of achievement and success. And all of these values find their core in a dedication to the promotion of empathy. Harley School is so sure that empathy has to be at the core of all they teach and upon which they stand that they have created The Center for Mindfulness & Empathy Education at The Harley School.Immersing students in both global and local initiatives and experiences, education ceases to be a detached, ephemeral pursuit of facts and figures. And I would like to believe that, by advancing a students’ ability to empathize and be part of a larger world, real education takes place.
So much of education reform concentrates on the disciplines and strictures that might (strong emphasis on might) result in higher test grades, increased graduation rates and drops in disciplinary issues. Thus, we impose long periods of time spent on test prep, strict codes of conduct that promote zero tolerance, and even the implementation of school uniforms with the hopes of discovering the “magic bullets” and “missing ingredients” to making schools successful. The Harley School figured out what kind of a school uniform would help out in their quest for a well-educated student. The tagline for their Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education reads: “We don’t have a school uniform. But we do require you to walk in someone else’s shoes”. What a discovery! There is a school uniform that aids in promoting a positive school culture!