#296; Progressive MA conf 2013 (#2)

Newton, MA — Education and the “Whole Child”. Walking into the education panel, I stopped to asked moderator and candidate for Boston City Council Suzanne Lee a quick question. “Hey hon, are you all gonna touch on mental health in the classroom in the panel just now?” I was told the panelists – MTA President Paul Toner, Lisa Guisbond (VP of Citizens for Public Schools), Diane Lam (a teacher/administrator for 35+ years now and the Head of School at the Conservatory Lab Charter School), and Susan Naimark (author of The Education of a White Parent) – would be concentrating on the need for “Whole Child” teaching in public schools. According to Whole Child Education, this is:

A whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, sets the standard for comprehensive, sustainable school improvement and provides for long-term student success.

This seems to me – while a bit flowery in language – a great place to start when we think about teaching our kids. Disclaimer: I don’t have kids, I don’t necessarily think I’ll ever have kids, I’ve only ever been a part of the education process as a peer leader, a tutor, and a student. But even with all of that, having been through the public school system, a way-too-expensive private university, and now almost ten years of the ‘real world’, I like to think I’m allowed an opinion on education, in particular an education of students with needs like mine.

I never had any trouble getting A’s. Teachers thought maybe I talked too much and had trouble paying attention but thankfully this was before ADD medication was the answer for everything. I was too social with my fellow misfits (I was never what one would consider ‘popular’ with my books and my thick eyeglasses), and I was very energetic but not playful or outdoorsy. There wasn’t really anywhere to ‘put’ me, no box to check off that would easily explain to teachers how to deal with me. So they improvised. Gave me extra assignments, advanced classes, in fourth grade I was told to read the dictionary – so I did. But by high school I was abusing prescription pain killers and skipping classes. Even then teachers didn’t seem to see a problem in my behavior – I was still doing well academically and excelling extracurricular-ly. I was an actress, an athlete, an award winning debater. I could look anyone in the eye and lie to them that I was fine, and it was easy to believe because by all public appearances, I was. When I was 16 I was diagnosed (after a particularly bad manic episode and when the school finally called my mom) and medicated. I don’t mean to blame the school or the doctors or my parents – they were all acting at all times in what they thought was my best interest.

But nearly 15 years later I’ve learned that there are some things you can’t sedate, there are some issues of ‘whole child education’ that aren’t easy to diagnose and prescribe for. A friend once told me why he thinks the political issues of education are so difficult. He said it’s easy to understand: because teaching is hard. Teaching multiple students that all need different things at different times and for different reasons is hard.

So what’s the answer? My teachers were thoughtful, attentive, hard working people – some of them I still count among my friends and mentors! My parents were kind, loving, and willing to get me help (and still are even though I’m nearing 30!). Our family was insured. And if a panel as distinguished and engaged as I saw at Progressives Mass doesn’t have answers, well, who do we even ask?

I love this idea of Whole Child Education and I hope that we’ll move (with more Progressive support!) into a time when it’s the norm, not the unanswered, distant, fairy tale ending.

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