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Brave Teaching: Bringing Emotional-Resiliency Skills From the Wilderness to the Classroom

Wednesday, March 6, 2019   (0 Comments)
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Reviewed by JP Hemingway, Head of Upper School, Altamont School, Birmingham, AL

Last summer, a number of teachers at Altamont School decided to read a book and attend training on mindfulness practices in order to create a healthy learning environment for students and teachers. The level of interest in these voluntary activities made it clear that teachers want and need techniques to coach students not only in academic skills but also in life skills that support their intellectual and emotional wellbeing. As the expectations of the outcomes of independent school education grow in complexity, our schools are increasingly called upon to prepare students to meet challenges not necessarily related to classroom topics such as algebra or the rhyme scheme of a sonnet. Because we now acknowledge the connection between emotional wellbeing and readiness to learn, we must adapt our thinking about how schools should serve students in preparation for life beyond the classroom.

Krissy Pozatek and Sarah Love’s book Brave Teaching meets us at the intersection of academic success and emotional regulation. This brief text is an extension of the work Pozatek began in Brave Parenting where she translated what she learned working in wilderness education to coaching parents who want to foster more self-reliance in their children. As schools are looking beyond simply preparing students for higher learning, we must look for new methods to equip kids with resiliency and skills for self-regulation and emotional maturation. Love, a 4th grade classroom teacher, has found in practicing Pozatek’s techniques that building emotional awareness in students can actually improve other seemingly unrelated challenges in the classroom: closing academic gaps, achieving higher test scores, and teaching students to make good decisions. We all want to foster more resilience, independence, and motivation in our students and this book offers potential solutions by positing a framework for the right learning environment (which Pozatek calls the “learning container”) and creating partnerships between educators and parents. Pozatek and Love state in the introduction, “The goal of this book is to help teachers not just have compliant students, but students who are respectful, accountable, and independent”. Through listing immediately implementable activities to create student accountability, they demonstrate that classroom management, internal motivation, and student responsibility improve in an environment where students are self-aware, understand their feelings, and empathize with others. Creating a safe “learning container” means creating a space where students feel they belong and where they can be challenged and supported simultaneously.

The biggest leap of faith for brave teaching is the no “rescuing” rule. According to Pozatek and Love, students must be allowed to struggle and even fail if they are to become truly independent and emotionally secure. While educators may understand the benefit of struggle and failure, many parents are not willing to let their children fall down academically. Parents are often so intent on positive outcomes for their children in the short term, they may not realize they are actually hampering their children and fostering dependency which makes children less capable of making good decisions. Pozatek argues that inappropriate behavior in children is often a response to a feeling of helplessness and lack of control. To give students autonomy, we have to encourage parents not to “rescue” their children (delivering the poster a child forgot at home, emailing the teacher about assignments the child failed to complete, arguing with teachers about grades, etc.). We as educators should not “fix” things for students, and parents shouldn’t either.

For brave teaching to occur, there must be a partnership forged between educators and parents. In my experience, parents often want to be told what their role is or should be in their child’s schooling. If we invite them into a partnership and educate them about the benefits of struggle and failure, they might be a little more willing to allow their children room to make decisions with adult guidance rather than attempting to extract from the teacher immediate success for their children.

Pozatek and Love know it takes faith and courage to let go. As educators, we have to learn to be brave in the classroom so that parents and students can be brave there, too.

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