I recently had the pleasure to chat with an extraordinary educator (and the interviewer behind the camera in this video from the StartEmpathy video library!) After many years of teaching and writing about safe school environments, David A. Levine, recently took a new position as the Founding Director of the Institute for Social & Emotional Learning at the Ashokan Center, an educational retreat center in the Catskills. In his new position, Levine will be expanding upon his past work, spreading the framework of what he calls a "school of belonging."
Laura Zax: Could you distill the principles behind your what you call a "school of belonging?"
David Levine: In a school of belonging, all staff, students and parents are treated with honor and compassion and the leadership of the school is authentically committed to this practice. In today’s schools, the image of an effective leader has moved away from someone who is merely a good building manager, toward a person who is seen as the instructional visionary. In a school of belonging, the principal is the social and emotional instructional leader who is focused on positive relationship building as being critical to student success and achievement. They model it; they live it; and they expect it. Secondly school of belonging implementation includes concrete and practical baseline and ongoing training in resilience, meeting emotional needs, emotional intelligence and systems thinking, for not just teachers but for all of the adults in schools--teachers, teaching assistants, clerical staff, bus drivers and cafeteria monitors.
There is also a significant focus for teachers on how to work effectively in groups, applying many of the relationship practices we look for our students to demonstrate the classroom with their peers: listening, empathy, collaboration, and dialogue. If we want to teach children about collaboration, we have to be collaborative ourselves. We also must be conscious of building a strong linkage and communication with the parents connected to the school. If parents aren't involved in the loop through open communication, workshop offerings, and collaboration toward the well-being of their children, the system becomes hierarchical and not invitational. A School of Belonging is a consciousness that creates a comprehensive and systemic approach toward building an emotionally safe learning community: you wont make a change that's enduring or sustainable with a curriculum binder or a two-day training.
LZ: What are you doing with "School of Belonging" these days?
DL: Since September 1st, I have brought my School of Belonging work to the Ashokan Center here in the Catskills where I live. At Ashokan, we are about to open a brand new campus on 375 acres with self-sustainable buildings. As I continue my work with schools utilizing School of Belonging principles, I am also spending some of my time talking with funders to run some pilot studies on a School of Belonging. In this part of Catskills, there has been a lot of school consolidation as population lowers and schools struggle with their funding. Some of these schools are in communities that are still feeling the effects of massive flooding from Hurricane Irene. In these communities, the school is the central point of connection and healing on many levels can take place. We have multiple pre-k-12 school districts housed in a single building with a superintendent and principal as the only official instructional decision makers. In that setting, you can truly create systems change that is focused on relationship building, resilience, and emotional safety. My vision is to find 2-4 pilot schools to run a 2-3 year study on implementing social and emotional systemic change so we can get to point where we can bring [the School of Belonging model] to scale. I have created a team to work with me toward that end and I want to know, can we take this initiative from a pre-k-12 school here and apply it there; can we take the essence of this program and implement it anywhere… I’ll answer my own question: I think it doesn't matter where it takes place.
LZ: Do you think we're at a tipping point toward this type of education? Is massive change on the near horizon?
DL: I really do believe it. A friend says he feels like it's the like the end of the Roman Empire. But the Romans didn't see the end coming. The public school archaic system is crumbling before our eyes, only we know it's happening, so we can do something about it.
LZ: What factors led us to the tipping point? In other words, why now?
DL: When I was in grad school in 1984 it was right when A Nation at Risk was published. It basically was the beginnings of the decision-makers saying, "Wow we're falling behind. We're not keeping up with what Kennedy said we needed to do." That was the forerunner to the No Child Left Behind legislation. Though the name sounds great, it really created inequity. It was a widget for all kids, standardization. Empathy is seeing through lens of another person and understanding diversity of perception-we all see things in our own way. This legislation said, "No you all see it in the same way and will be tested in the same way." It creates a coercive and fear-based system as opposed to creating a system that meets the emotional and learning needs of all people. Now we’re into the Common Core Learning Standards, which is a revision on many levels of No Child, though better thought out. All of these things that were and are external mandates tend to devalue the internal urgings of the learner. When you standardize things beyond reason people (teachers and students) get dulled, they fall in line and there’s a lack of awareness that these conditions are often the cause of antisocial behaviors like aggression, harassment, and bullying.
LZ: What can we do about it?
DL: No one is saying we shouldn't be accountable. We're saying we need to be accountable for areas we weren't before. What it takes is passion to create a different framework. What I love about the tipping point is that you don't have to wait 20 years. You say, "Oh, it's here." You say, "Wow we've created x number of schools that have empathy, compassion and mindfulness as part of their mission, part of their school goals, are infusing empathy into their curriculum." And it's not robotic; it's a natural flow of questioning, engaging, responding and celebrating.