Self-Regulation and Evangelism in Education

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond?

Dr. Stan Kutcher

Many years ago I travelled to the Dominican Republic with some of my students. This was easily a transformative experience for me. I witnessed true poverty and injustice in the streets of Dominican towns and especially in the hovels of the sugar cane plantations called bateys.

a batey in the Dominican Republic. Modern-day slavery

Everything is wrong about how people, especially Haitians, are treated in the Dominican Republic, but there is one thing that really stuck out during my visits. One constant presence on the bateys were the evangelical churches.

I bring this up here for a post on the self-regulation movement because there is a link I want to explore. The evangelicals were very popular on the bateys because their ministers did not call into question the injustice of their situation on the plantations. Their reward was elsewhere – not in protesting against the grinding poverty they suffered so we could all have cheap sugar.

Here is the link. Self-regulation never calls into question a system that lends inadequate support to educators in their struggle to teach in a peaceful environment. Rather, self-regulation or mindfulness calls on the educator to transform their inner self and the inner selves of their students to create a peaceful environment in the classroom.

There is no need to advocate for change because the change is within us.

In the past few days, I have received a fair amount of push back for posting about the self-regulation movement. Fair enough, the conversation is a healthy one. We are gearing up for an episode of the Class Struggle podcast on this topic, but we aren’t ready yet. More conversation is needed.

What I find interesting is the push back. People are writing about how self-regulation has transformed their lives and has saved their careers. People write stories about how they were able to transform a situation with a hug while other staff looked on.

Statements like this make me uncomfortable. They have a certain whiff of evangelism. You just need to see the light and your classroom will be at peace. Nothing else is necessary.

My former school board loves self-regulation. Why wouldn’t they? By putting it back on educators to transform their students there would no longer be a need to spend more on educational assistants. There would be no need to lobby the government to change the way we approach the education of our children.

It’s a simple solution.

At one point, our local ‘self-regulation consultant’ came to see me to complain about a new teacher in our school. During her observations, she did not see any ‘evidence of self-regulation in the classroom.’ I think she expected me to march right in and get that fixed. To be honest, I really didn’t know what she wanted or expected. I did know that we weren’t following the new orthodoxy and that this needed to change.

Nothing changed and the consultant moved on to spread more of the good news.

Self-Regulation is based on Mindfulness and Mindfulness is heavily influenced by Buddhism. I think Mindfulness is really great and I have practised it for many years. It is intensely personal and takes years of practice to get good at it. From a Buddhist perspective, you never really get good at this, your whole life is spent working on getting better.

Paul Bennett has written a series of articles (Teaching ‘Stressed-Out’ Kids: Why is the Self-Regulation Movement Spreading?) on self-regulation. They are worth reading. I won’t summarize his writing here, but he makes some very good points about the nature of the self-regulation movement and the approach it is taking in our schools.

I got into this most recent debate not because I wanted to write about self-regulation. I wanted to highlight the important CBC piece on the Sunday edition about violence in schools. This became a bit of a rant about self-regulation when it was suggested that the solution to violence in schools is self-regulation.

I have to push back against this idea. No one idea will save our education system. An idea based on developing a stronger sense of self puts an undue burden on the educator. There is a strong current of evangelism in the current self-regulation movement that blurs our vision when it comes to what is truly needed in our schools.

Violence is tearing at the heart of our education system, we need to keep a clear focus on the problem and avoid distraction.

 

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Why I have Trouble with the Self-Regulation Movement

Yesterday I happened to pick up on a story on the CBC’s The Sunday Edition. Just like the Globe and Mail and other media sources, the issue of increasing violence in the classroom was being highlighted. I retweeted the story and we listened to the episode.

It is an important story. It is a frustrating one as well because no one in positions of real authority seems to be listening. What might surprise people is the fact that the problem of violence is most pronounced in elementary schools. On top of that, these incidents of violence go largely unreported.

These were the results of an online survey conducted for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario in relation to the 2016-17 school year. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The article attached to the Sunday Edition episode includes an upsetting statistic:

Results from ETFO’s members showed only 22 per cent of teachers said they would report cases of verbal or physical violence, and less than a quarter said steps were taken to prevent future incidents.

The report continued by stating that many teachers felt that no change would take place so why bother reporting?

As a former elementary administrator, I understand their reluctance to report. People at the most senior levels of school boards are not comfortable with this kind of information and they have no answers for teachers who have to deal with violence in the classroom.

I am not making this up. Schools are generally on their own when it comes to violent incidents, especially at the elementary level. To complain does not do any good; you are reminded to rely on the resources you already have.  These resources continue to be cut back all the time. High schools have more specialized programming and more support staff. Elementary schools have the principal, a resource teacher, and the all-important educational assistant staff. That’s all.

One comment on my retweet struck me.

While I respect what Lisa was saying here, her comment misses the point. I am sure the teachers talking on Sunday Morning are good teachers trying very hard to do their best. Learning about self-regulation would not change what is going on in their classrooms.

I do think self-regulation is useful. It is always useful to learn about what motivates people and it is very healthy to acquire a deeper sense of self-knowledge. Most ancient religions are based on ideas of developing a deep sense of self.

There is a danger with a reliance on any one system of belief and the danger here is that we are really pushing the idea that the violence in schools could somehow be solved if teachers were just a bit better trained. The problem with this approach is this – the system will never be improved by political pressure or social advocacy, therefore, change must be on the backs of educators. Nothing else will change so we need to be the change.

This is why, I think, self-regulation is so popular amongst senior administrators and some consultants.  We are taking an ancient idea and asking educators to become agents of personal transformation. If educators are the only agents of change there is little need to call for the resources we truly need to make our system more effective, more humane and more peaceful.

Social change is hard to do and hard to understand. It is easier to give up on change and get teachers to take up the mantle.

That is why I am uncomfortable about waving the flag of self-regulation in front of the angry school.

I know there will be blowback against what I am writing but I want to be clear. I am an advocate for educators. I have seen the struggle they go through every day and I have dealt with my fair share of very violent incidents in elementary schools, some so dangerous that parts of our building had to be cleared to keep students and educators safe.

I also understand self-regulation. I have listened to and read really good material on self-regulation and acquiring self-knowledge and have undergone my own very painful journeys to understand myself and those around me. Yes, self-regulation is important for everyone – no it will not solve the problems experienced by educators in our schools today.

My point is simple – don’t put school reform on the backs of the educator. Self-regulation is simply not a panacea, it is one tool to help educators better understand themselves and their students. We are relying on this movement too much and it is crowding out the necessary conversation we need to be having on how schools can better serve students, parents and educators.

Let’s focus on a system that needs to be changed, let’s broaden the conversation.