Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

Social Emotional learning is great. Character Development is wonderful. So is mindfulness. None of those, on their own, will create true connections in the classroom. I point to Maya Angelou and my turbulent past with toddlers to illustrate why.

School connectedness is a new buzzword in the districts near my home. High performing schools are great at getting (most) students to make the grade, but those same students are not feeling connected to their classrooms or their school in general. Those schools use Healthy Schools, a survey in California, as their method of measuring students’ own reporting of how connected or disconnected they feel in school.

Many schools in my local district have placed student feelings of connectedness as one of four priorities for their next accreditation cycle. They’ve enlisted a wonderful organization that uses character development curriculum as the sole method for creating this connectedness. Schools host inclusion rallies, show character-building movies, and create spirit days that celebrate the “other.”

In the case of my local school district, schools put a video clip on their character development web page featuring a Maya Angelou clip from YouTube as their rallying cry. The clip is entitled “Just Do Right.” In it, Dr. Angelou speaks about the time when she left her mother’s house, at 17 and with a baby, and her mother told her, “Now you have been raised.” She knew right from wrong. “Just do right,” were the words her mother bestowed upon her.

Kids, it’s easy: Just do right.

Um, yeah. Here’s why it fails:

A few years ago, after a particularly grueling day teaching and worse commute home, I stopped at my local grocery store. After stomping around the store to get something for dinner, I made my way to the checkout counter. A toddler with her mother was in the line ahead of me. The little girl stared at me, and I gave her my meanest glare back. The kind I would never have dared to shoot at any adult. The kind that tells you to go F yourself. That’s the kind of glare I gave this three year old. Somewhere, a unicorn died.

Yes, I do work with kids. Yes, I do have my own toddler now and am even more horrified at my actions, but then, as, I suspect, even now, the “Just do right” mantra wasn’t going to change me into someone who recognized how far I had slipped from reality on that day.

When you’re having a bad day, thinking about how someone else is feeling isn’t going to transmute you to connection. Neither is mindfully focusing on how you feel on the insides of your feet. I imagine it is the same for a student whose parents are divorcing, who is neglected at home, or whose brother just went to jail, or…any of the crappy life events that happen because it’s, well…life.

No, “Just Do Right” isn’t the Maya Angelou clip that illustrates how to get to connection. On the other hand, another Maya Angelou interview, entitled, “Love Liberates,” is.

In this clip, Dr. Angelou relates a memory of her mother telling her, again when Angelou was a young woman who was leaving her mother’s home, “You can always come home.” And Angelou says, “I went home every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.” She recalls, on those occasions, how her mother was always delighted to see her, never gloating over the event that made Angelou need to move back. And then her mother told her, “You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” This from a mother who had abandoned Angelou and her brother to her grandmother when Angelou was a small girl.

Dr. Angelou then talks about her mother on her deathbed, and how Angelou told her, “You were a piss-poor mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” Angelou says her mother’s love had liberated her, and she wanted to liberate her mother by telling her how much she loved her and it was okay for her to go. It was a seeing of faults and a gratitude for the love of an imperfect mother.

Mindfulness asks students: How does your breath feel? Social-Emotional learning asks students to imagine how someone else feels. Compassion, Empathy, and Vulnerability asks students, “How do you feel?” Then the teacher listens, and goes to a place within themselves that says, “Yes. I have felt that way at some point, too. Let me sit with you while you feel that way now.” It asks teachers to courageously be vulnerable and talk about their imperfections and sadness too.

“Love Liberates” provides schools with context and vulnerability that “Do Right” misses. When a student is having a horrible day, “Love liberates” says that parents make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Even Maya Angelou’s parent. It doesn’t mean that the student will not become successful. It doesn’t mean that that parent is shameful or will be a person who makes terrible mistakes as a parent forever. Maybe they will. But maybe not. Angelou didn’t forget or forgive her mother for her mistakes in the past, but she didn’t define either herself or her mother by those mistakes either. She clung to the love her mother offered later. People change. Thank God.

When teachers offer their own stories in a safely vulnerable way, especially stories that say, “This happened to me when I was young. It was awful. I wish I had told someone.” And students see that you are okay now, they see that they, too, may just make it through this awful spell. And they can feel like if they talk to you about their tough time, they will be seen.

Oh, and the toddler in the picture is mine. Karma is definitely Team Unicorn.

3 thoughts on “Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

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