George Lucas had a very wise mentor named Joseph Campbell who said, “If you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it.” “Help this world?” “Teach how to live in it?” Big subjects, aren’t they? If you think about it carefully, learning how to live purposefully in this world is indeed the skill a child, as well as an adult, needs. This “how to live in it” quandary has been the subject matter for religions, philosophers and societies since our beginning. While “living in the world” is a favorite topic of mine, I will narrow my focus. This perceptive challenge issued by Campbell (if you really want to help this world) needs to be the cornerstone of what we teach.
The conventional concern most people have with education is academic achievement as proven through standard testing. However, we’re now seeing the best path to success is by helping kids develop the most important type of intelligence: emotional intelligence. Having emotional intelligence is the primary requirement for living a purposeful life in a world that is not easy. The challenges and exposures a child faces today require new skill sets. With each passing day they face new difficult choices. We adults know that nothing worthwhile is easy and never has been. Finding my true and best self does not happen by going through the door of consumption and “ecstasy,” but rather through the door of dedication, commitment, effort, sacrifice, discipline and giving to something other than myself. These are the life lessons needed to learn. Having emotional intelligence is the best tool we can equip young people with to survive in the new economy, as well as all the other tough challenges they will face.
Today everyone, including politicians, says they support education. Who is against education? No one. However, I don’t think it is enough to simply say, “I’m for education.” The real question today is “which education?” My answer is the one that helps students gain emotional intelligence. Some of you may be thinking this type of learning is not the function of schools. I am not suggesting schools can replace what families do. The unfortunate reality is that for so many children they are not in a family where they receive nurturing emotional intelligence. Quite the contrary – far too many receive emotional abuse. Developing the skill of emotional intelligence is so important, schools cannot ignore teaching it if we want to make headway on academic achievement. I’m sorry, but to ignore it is to ignore the evidence. If you want better results in the classroom start by dealing with a kid’s emotions.
Their Job is Not Easy
The approximately 850,000 students in Minnesota schools have test scores which like themselves are diverse. Tragically, zip codes have become predictors of academic success. I often hear, “Schools are failing.” No, schools are just real estate. The implication is teachers are failing. As in any industry, some people perform better than others. But bashing teachers and stereotyping they are failing is simply not accurate or justified. Most teachers in Minnesota are competent and devoted to their students. Many teachers spend their own money on students. They have no control over the students who show up in their classroom. In some cases, kids don’t even know their name in English. Their job is not easy. Teachers did not cause the problems of society. These problems get revealed through a great number of students. Despite that, we can improve outcomes. We citizens need to respect and trust teachers who in turn must embrace change. Teachers, what you need to keep asking yourself is, “Do I love kids?” Some days that is not easy to do. Nonetheless, if there are too many days when you don’t love the kids you need to change vocations. Some jobs can get by without people loving their work. Teaching is something else. Children are the future and you have chosen nothing less than a sacred venture. We need to start calling it sacred, respecting it as such and treat education accordingly.
My dad was a very competent educator in St. Paul his entire working life. He had a student in the 8th grade who subsequently sent him a Christmas card for fifty years continuously. How do you top that? I have always been interested in education in Minnesota, including funding my own public school foundation in St. Paul. For the past two years I have had assistants helping me dig very deep into the many facets of Minnesota public education, including our colleges and universities. I have had the privilege of in-depth discussions with many of our best educators. This includes Education Evolving, The Search Institute, Minnesota Board of Regents member, former and current legislators, Chamber of Commerce and Business people, teachers, principals and administrators. I have come away from these encounters very grateful and hopeful. As you will hear me so often say, we need to begin the discussion with gratitude for the many talented people we have in Minnesota education. What these smart folks are telling us is that struggling kids need a “relationship” experience with some adult at school. They need to know someone cares about them. Also, since so often what they experience at home or on the street is tough, the best way to combat hard life experiences is with tough emotional intelligence. This new emphasis on curriculum change can be called by many words. Don’t get hung up on the word to describe it, but understand how important this new emphasis is. Words to describe this new curriculum could be mindfulness, focus (focus is a muscle that must be developed), mental practice, concentration, etc. We need to make a shift to emphasize this student-centric model within education. If we want better test scores we need to make students practice mindfulness and being emotionally intelligent (think of it as homework). This will translate to better test scores and job skills.
Appropriately, people paying close attention to Minnesota’s economy are very concerned about the quality of our workforce. We know the quality of our workforce is the most important thing to our economy, end of story. All employers want employees with life skills that include showing up to work regularly and ability to focus on work. School should help children view their lives with confidence and excitement. From there the choice of college, the trades, the arts or whatever career they choose will develop more naturally. If a kid is connected and wants to learn you can’t stop them. If they are disconnected and disengaged nothing will make them want to learn. The studies are clear, once a child wants/enjoys learning, test scores climb dramatically. Paradoxically, we need to teach children how to enjoy and then they will learn.
I understand it is not likely any candidate for the US Senate is talking about education like this. I will not insult you by giving you the same “We need to prepare for the future,” “No child left behind,” “Every kid deserves the best education” rhetoric. You have heard all the clichés about education, yet frankly nothing can guarantee every student will be a high achiever. What I can guarantee is, if we don’t change our focus the results won’t change either. Like Einstein said, how do you expect things to change if you do things the same way? As your US Senator my involvement in Minnesota education will be where my heart is, very much at home. I have a genuine and innate interest in Minnesota education. I serve myself best when I am serving the best interests of a child. If we want to lead the nation in something, let’s lead the nation in being the best lifelong learners. Staying hungry to learn is the best plan to keep Minnesota great.