As the tail of non-achievement in education steadily grows in New Zealand despite all the theories put forward about what we need to do about it, one thing has been consistently overlooked: Education needs to have a foundation of love.
I can still hear the cynical laughter from my peers after a school principal dismissed me as an “idealist” for boldly stating this during a lecture weekend for a Master’s Degree. I laugh now when I remember how this prompted one teacher there, Peter, to ask his principal the following week, “Do you think the foundation of education should be based on love?” He met a similar response.
One of our tasks during the Masters course was to share what we had written about our school experiences. Peter’s sharing turned into a confession about “getting the cuts” and constant teacher harassment and punishment. His nervousness and pain during this sharing made some teachers uncomfortable. Some time later, Peter shared with me that he had been expelled from school because he’d broken in and stolen a lot of things. He left home at 16, got into bad company, and robbed two houses. When he was caught and sent to a youth training centre, his father managed to get him out three weeks later and take him home.
Peter also told me about his fears, and while he did so, beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. All he really wanted as a kid, he said, was for his mother to love him. Why he became an English teacher is still a mystery to me, but then again, perhaps like me, he thought he could turn things around for students just like him. One of the roles he readily embraced at his school was to deal with discipline problems.
It is now well established in the minds of many people that the children in the tail of education experience various levels of deprivation. Most, if not all, live in poverty. But this poverty is not just material poverty (poor housing, lack of adequate nutrition, warm clothes and shoes), but poverty of experience (social, environmental, cultural, and educational), and poverty of parental interest, caring, and love. But you will probably be surprised, if not shocked with my claim that the worst poverty by far is spiritual poverty.
Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with not belonging to a religion, but everything to do with having a deep and loving connection within oneself. Alla Renée Bosworth defines it as “a meaning system within oneself that belongs to the realm of personal, original, and inward experience.” Spirituality is developed by learning to “know thyself” – Socrates’ famous dictum. It includes having a positive self regard, courage, and inner strength that acts like an anchor to help a person withstand the toughest storms in life. Without this anchor, children are likely to end up on the rocks before they even reach adulthood. From my experience as a teacher, spiritual poverty is the reason why most children fail at school.
What causes spiritual poverty? Think for a moment about all the ways you were able to feel good about yourself as a child. You may have had a sense of safety and security within your home environment with parents who loved you and cared for you. This enabled you to take risks and learn to stretch yourself and grow. It gave you good feelings because it increased your confidence and self-esteem. Your parents may have shown you how to learn from your mistakes and that when you failed at something, to develop the courage to pick yourself up and try again. Feeling loved and accepted by them, you learned to love and accept yourself. You may have also learned that you had strengths and weaknesses and, instead of seeing the weaknesses as “bad,” your parents may have shown you ways to overcome these weaknesses or compensate for them. If all these things represented a certain amount of dollars you could put into a bank account, you would clearly see that you had a credit balance that would give you a good start in life.
Now think about what would happen if, as a child, you had parents who abused alcohol or drugs, who suffered depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine living with parents who became physically violent or verbally abusive with each other and you heard them fighting all night. Imagine how they might treat you. Imagine how you would feel with parents who neglected you in any way, or physically, verbally, or sexually abused you. Would you feel safe and secure? Would you feel loved? What would happen to your self-esteem and confidence? Do you think you would have a secure enough base to take risks and learn from your failures and mistakes? Or do you think you would feel completely demoralized, small, insignificant, shamed, worthless, or that you were no good? With these kinds of experiences, what do you think your bank account balance of life would be?
Now imagine a child beginning school who came from these dysfunctional home environments. He or she may have begun developing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and get into trouble for not listening, not concentrating, being over-active, hitting out at other children, being unable to respect others, or not being able to learn to read or write properly in a classroom with noisy children. Such a child may have so much nervous energy that they need more physical activities to let off steam, creative activities to reduce the nervous tension within them, or a more right-brained approach to learning that was missing in their early home environment.
To get to the left brain, it is first necessary to learn in the right brain. Shutting off the right in favour of the left is a recipe for certain failure. Love, safety, security, attachment, creativity, intuition and a beginning positive sense of oneself as “good” are essential right brain building blocks to learning. If we do not recognise that these building blocks are missing in children who come from materially or emotionally impoverished homes, and attempt to make them ‘perform’ to standards in left brain activities before they are ready for this, teachers and policy makers are not only abusing children through their ignorance of what the essential building blocks of education are, but through their ignorance of these children’s developmental needs.
I owe my understanding that love needs to be the foundation of education to many of my students from impoverished home environments, and to people like Peter for showing me how his own unhappy childhood led him to become angry and disruptive in class. I owe this understanding to the girl in one of my drama classes who gave me a gift of a framed dried flower arrangement with neatly printed words, “A few drops of caring soon grow into a pool of love.” Many of my students showed me the truth of this and especially Betty, who, one morning when I arrived at school feeling that I was failing miserably to turn around a difficult South Auckland class of twelve-year-olds, handed me a parcel on which she had written: Something to light up your day. Inside was a piece of aluminium in the shape of a bookmark on which she had engraved:
When the sun
And it gave me the strength to continue working with children who were missing the vital building blocks to their learning, to be bold in my educational experiments, and learn from my failures and mistakes. Importantly, together we learned that love embraces caring and compassion and empathy, and also helps to develop self-discipline. On the last day of school that year, many of my most difficult students embraced me with a hug before they left. I knew then that they would take their hard-won new perceptions and understanding about themselves into high school to serve them well.
Contrary to what most people think, school is not a place for genuine learning; learning which also encompasses the ability to think and develop the emotional intelligence to succeed in forming successful relationships. School is not even a place where most children can discover joy in learning. For too many, school is a place for learning through punishment, just what their “place” in society is. When children play truant or drop out early, in effect what they are doing is rejecting this hidden curriculum.
Punishing a child does not teach self-discipline. Punishment teaches fear of making mistakes. A child who fears making mistakes will not take risks to stretch themselves beyond their perceived limitations. Punishment also teaches a child to develop a false self and hide their authentic self in order to survive their childhood and schooling. Such children are unable to answer the question: Who am I? They remain in spiritual poverty.
As an example of many children’s experience with school, the following is a diary entry I made while working towards a Masters Degree in Art Therapy (at the age of 54):
Today we began the Research Module with Karen (not her real name). Colin Wilson wrote in the introduction to Bernie Neville’s Educating Psyche: Emotion, Imagination, and the Unconscious in Learning: “Neville shows us that the essence of education is becoming excited about ideas.” So how did we get to feeling traumatised by the end of the day rather than being excited about a new phase of learning? Karen did what many bad teachers do: she goaded us with a stick of fear to make sure we do our work…and do it well. Otherwise, ‘all hell will break loose’. She reminded me of my grade two teacher who hit us over the knuckles with a ruler if we did anything wrong. We were all terrified of Mrs. Glover – a stout woman in her fifties or sixties with short, permed grey hair. I have no idea what I did in her class. I remember the class before and after, but this one draws a complete blank. I guess that says it all. I was traumatised…and I arrived home today feeling traumatised. I am back in grade two where I have become overwhelmed by a teacher who rules by fear.
Paramahansa Yogananda wrote in his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, about a conversation he had with American botanist, horticulturist and a pioneer in agricultural science, Luther Burbank:
The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love…
While I was conducting experiments to make ‘spineless’ cacti…I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. “You have nothing to fear,” I would tell them. “You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.” Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety…
I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillments only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection. In the span of my own lifetime I have observed such wondrous progress in plant evolution that I look forward optimistically to a healthy, happy world as soon as its children are taught the principles of simple and rational living…
New types of training are needed – fearless experiments. At times the most daring trials have succeeded in bringing out the best in fruits and flowers. Educational innovations for children should likewise become more numerous, more courageous.
The most stubborn living thing in this world, the most difficult to swerve, is a plant once fixed in certain habits… Remember that this plant has preserved its individuality all through the ages; perhaps it is one which can be traced backward through eons of time in the very rocks themselves, never having varied to any great extent in all these vast periods. Do you suppose after all these ages of repetition, the plant does not become possessed of a will, if you so choose to call it, of unparalleled tenacity? Indeed there are plants like certain of the palms, so persistent that no human power has yet been able to change them. The human will is a weak thing beside the will of a plant. But we see how this whole plant’s lifelong stubbornness is broken simply by blending a new life with it, making, by crossing, a complete and powerful change in its life. Then when the break comes, fix it by these generations of patient supervision and selection, and the new plant sets out upon its new way never again to return to the old, its tenacious will broken and changed at last.
When it comes to so sensitive and pliable a thing as the nature of a child, the problem becomes vastly easier.” (pp. 411 – 413)
While developing his thornless cacti, what if Burbank had focused instead on how bad the cacti thorns were. Do you think they would have disappeared? When our mindset is to punish bad behavior, we consciously or unconsciously look for bad behavior to punish. But by punishing bad behavior, we are more likely to reinforce it. You only need to look at the high recidivism rate to understand this. Because children crave love and attention they will often resort to doing ‘bad’ things to get it when they cannot get it in any other way. When punishment becomes the only attention they get, they will invariably continue their bad behavior.
In contrast, grafting something new (and positive) onto the will (or willfulness) of a child, can be achieved by providing a transformational experience through the creative arts. Unfortunately, because the creative arts is usually seen as an easily dispensable frill (and many think a “useless” frill) on the hem of education, you will probably find it hard to imagine how the creative arts could have any impact on a child at all – except as a break from doing real work. So allow me to give you an experience of what I am talking about through the following exercise.
Put on some soothing instrumental music (maybe even one track on repeat) in a private place. Lie down on the floor, close your eyes, and breathe slowly into your gut until you feel relaxed. Slowly get up and make a shape with your whole body, then let the music direct you to flow slowly into another shape, and so on. As you change shapes, imagine that you are taking off all the armor you have put around you for protection over the years. With each changed shape feel more of this armor coming off, and what lies underneath it. When you are completely free of all the layers of self-protection, just move to the music and feel who you are, or what your dreams are, or what your potential is.
This will give you a small inkling of how the creative arts enable children to experience transformational insights about themselves. For example, a girl who only thought of herself as “bad,” and also wanted me to think that, excitedly came to me during an art class to exclaim that all the black in the background of her painting was the “bad stuff” in her. “But look,” she said, “all the colorful shapes are all the good things!” Her blue eyes sparkled with astonishment at this revelation and I couldn’t help but smile.
Like Burbank’s cacti, she finally understood she no longer needed her thorns in an environment of love and caring and respect. Not only did she blossom as a student, but she began to love learning. And this enabled many credits to be deposited in her bank account of life.