Every year, the Greater Good Science Center’s Summer Institute for Educators welcomes education professionals from all over the world to the UC Berkeley campus for 6 days of learning, discussing, and putting into practice the science of a meaningful life.
This year, for the first time, we invited past Institute participants representing Kindergarten through higher education to share how they had used what they learned from their time at the Institute.
Jay Turner, a 7th and 8th grade history teacher from Southern California, gave a particularly moving account of the lessons he took back to his school after attending the 2014 Institute. Here’s what he said:
On a vacation a couple of years ago, I drove through a small town that had several hanging plants hanging from a bridge. It was very pretty and I thought I might hang plants in front of my classroom and down my school hallway. My co-teachers balked at the idea. They told me the middle school kids would hit and knock them down.
So, I didn’t try. And in not trying, the only thing that was knocked down was me.
However, the first day of school this past year, I hung six hanging plants down my hallway to match the two large planters I had put in front of my doors. The plants stayed up all year and the teachers down my hall took ownership of the ones in front of their doors. As a result, our hallway has large plants in front of all of our doors. The best part is that one of the teachers bought two plants, one for her door and one for her neighbor because she knew he wouldn’t do it on his own.
The lessons I learned were that kids live up to or down to your expectations and that you lead by example. The plants weren’t mine; they were ours. Together, the staff and students nurtured and enjoyed them.
One of my goals coming to the GGSC last year was to learn how to implement systemic change at my site from the top down, and I thought after attending the Institute that I would have both the tools and the message. But when it ended, I had a new perspective—something that I’d like you to consider:
You can only change you. As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
One of the lessons that resonated with me at the Institute was that I could be like a pebble dropped in the water and that my ripple of change could spread. I have always thought of change in education in a systemic way—that we needed to tear it down to its foundation and rebuild. I have tried to change education before, but not as the pebble, rather as a cannon ball. From experience, I have found that the cannon ball way isn’t very effective and doesn’t win over a lot of people.
I left the GGSC with the only real plan I had: I would work on myself. My staff and the world-at-large could wait. That idea was really liberating—to give myself the opportunity to process what I learned and to work on me. Back in the real world my new principal asked me to present to the staff what I had learned. I respectfully declined.
After the Greater Good, my teaching partner Lynne (who also attended the Institute) and I enrolled in the Mindful Schools program and used mindfulness as the anchor for what we were trying to implement in our school.
I taught mindfulness to every 7th grade student and Lynne taught it to every 8th grader. We started in November and averaged two or three 5-minute meditations a week. The kids sat motionless at their desks and we discussed some of their feelings. Of course, implementing a mindfulness program at your school is scary, so we took our time and followed the trainings.
We’ve had successes and setbacks, but I can tell you that the message of “live in the moment” has become a theme our kids have embraced and it has been one that we have revisited often. Adolescent minds tend not to focus on right now and their world can be a difficult place to navigate. Being able to help them refocus on what is going on right at this moment was a tremendous gift that we were able to give them.
As a result of this practice, one of my 7th grade students starting taking a meditation class, choosing to skip her karate class when there was a scheduling conflict. And then a mom came and hugged me, thanking me for teaching her son about mindfulness. Middle school teachers rarely get hugs.
Sharing a common goal
One of the gifts the Greater Good Science Center gave me immediately was that I saw I wasn’t alone on my path. Everyone here shared a common bond and a common goal.
In a typical day at the Institute, I would get up and do yoga or tai chi, eat breakfast, and attend seminars. Then we would eat a communal lunch, more classes, and dinner. At night, a group of us would go out for cocktails. I remembered our closeness and thinking, “Why isn’t my staff like this? Why don’t we all eat together more or be more of a community?”
Some of that I realized was me. I can’t make people come to lunch, but I can drop what I’m doing and go myself. I can listen instead of push my own agenda. I can share the positives in my life to try to make the conversation a positive one. In the end, I wasn’t changing the staff; I was changing myself.
But hopefully there is a ripple effect. Combining the idea that I could change and that they didn’t have to live by my unrealistic expectations is allowing me to do what I want and them do what they want. Instead of wondering why more people don’t come to lunch, I can celebrate with those who did.
Creating educational communities of love and acceptance
The themes that resonated with me from my experience with the Greater Good Science Center were love, community, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion and peace—at an educational conference. Not Common Core, not test scores. Love. Community. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Compassion. Peace.
Imagine if your students felt those in your classroom—if you showed them what love looks like and feels like. If they heard it from you, because you might be the only one who tells them “I love you.” If they felt like they were part of a community. If they felt accepted. We have seen the dire consequences of children who have not felt that.
What if kids felt forgiven and knew how to forgive? If you could forgive them? What if you learned how to forgive yourself, too? If we could feel compassion towards one another, and realize that the mom I spoke of was trying to do the right thing and that she loved her son? If somehow kids knew peace?
And—if you could create a classroom or a place on your campus where love, community, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and peace were the focal point, wouldn’t test scores and Common Core take care of themselves? (applause from the audience)
The truth is you are part of a ripple of change called the Greater Good Science Center. It is a movement that focuses on social-emotional learning with the understanding that everyone has value, everyone can learn, and everyone is worthy. Your job is to make your students feel that, and in your effort, to understand that you have value as you are, that you can and do learn as you are, and that you are worthy as is. That human value, like grace, is given freely, not earned.
So where do you go from here? The truthful answer is only you know.
My recommendation is to follow your heart and make the small changes you have wanted to make in your classroom and in your life. I recommend that you take care of yourself and make that a priority. Educators often put themselves last, but how does that make you more effective? Give the world your best you, which requires you to take time for you, for your mental and physical health.
I also hope that you get as many contacts from this institute as possible. We are all on the same journey and networking with one another is an amazing opportunity.
I recommend that you start with the pebble’s ripple, not the cannonball, but don’t be afraid to be the cannonball or even the wrecking ball if that is what is needed. Our children need brave leaders who will put them first.
Lastly, I hope that you realize you are at the start of something life changing and that you embrace it. Be the change you want to see in the world.