No child in grade 1 dreams of living on the streets

On May 14, 2016 I was privileged to share my first TEDx talk at TEDxKitchenerED. Standing in front of nearly 250 people, and speaking was a powerful, albeit nerve-wracking, opportunity to share my experiences and ideas as an educator. For those who like to read, here is a transcript of my talk. Warning: it might not match up with the final product as a few ad-libs may have occurred.

If you’d prefer to follow along with the TEDx YouTube video of my talk here it is for your viewing pleasure.  No child in grade 1 dreams of living on the streets.

Please note that it took an army of kind peer reviewers, patient event organizers, generous family, and an incredibly supportive spouse to make this talk happen. I am forever thankful and humbled by their kindness. Here goes…

I’ve heard a lot of interesting things from students over the years.

“When I grow up I want to be a transformer.” said a grade 1. Another said,“I want to own a castle and an army of monkeys.” More recently, a grade 6 boy was working on an art project when he yelled, “She ruined my character.” I turned my back to laugh, and muttered you have no idea how true that could be. Another asked, “why did early immigrants to North America steal everything from the First Nations people when they shared it?” I shook my head in disappointment knowing I could not offer an acceptable answer.

Like all students, mine are trying to make sense out of things. This happens by asking questions, interacting with one another, and responding to the world as they see it. Our classroom serves as a combination sounding board and brick wall where thoughts are safely shared whether serious or silly. Most of the time, these are positive expressions of youthful exuberance.

I believe students should be free to speak their minds, and be valued for it. Whether we agree with them or not listening to all voices, and being heard are crucial to a happy education.

There is one thing I’ve never heard a student say;
“You know what my dream is when I grow up? Not having any of my dreams come true.”

I think I’d die on the spot if I ever heard that, because that is not something a kid would ever say. Neither would anyone else for that matter. To quote Sir Ken Robinson, “Why would they?”

Yet, despite trillions of dollars spent annually on education to develop and improve the well-being of our world, children are still slipping through the cracks of our systems and into the most at-risk marginalized places of our society.

“No child in grade one dreams of living on the streets.” The long version might sound like this: “No child in grade one dreams of being abused by a family member, of witnessing violence in the home, of being addicted to drugs, no child in grade one dreams of being a prostitute, of being incarcerated, no child in grade 1 dreams of suffering from depression, or living on the streets.”  

Take a walk around any major city and witness for yourself a very public reminder that the system is not working at its best. Seeing people sleeping on sidewalks or waiting out their days until a homeless shelter opens for the night does not scream to me that everything’s alright.

As educators, as a society, we need to reflect on what we’re doing.
And it starts with this question.

How can we help? What motivates any of us to help at all?
I am not naive enough to think that altruism is all that is required because there’s plenty of it in this room to do that already.

So let’s start here.

What are you passionate about? Is it Coffee? Learning new things? Traveling? Saving the world?

I am passionate about education, but in the same breath I have a problem with the word passion. I wrestle with this because there are still those who let it pass over their lips, but do nothing to embody it in their educational lives. If you share a passion for education, then the goal is simple. Use it to impact the lives of students in your community. To stand in the gap where life events are robbing our youth of their dreams.

Isn’t the role of education meant to stop helplessness, hopelessness, and homelessness from happening? Isn’t that the deal of getting an education? So everyone can have a better quality of life?

Do we as educators need to put aside teaching the usual 3 Rs, and they’re not reduce, reuse and recycle, to equip our students with the life skills of relationship building, resilience, and restoration of self so they arise wiser, stronger, and whole after being knocked down by life’s tragedies?

Tonight up to 35000 people in Canada will be on the streets joining another million south of the border.  All despite what we would call progress, and contrary to the fact many who are living in this dreamless state have gone through some version of the educational system.

Because of this, we must claim our share of responsibility for the disappearance of our students dreams too. Until we as educators, and as a society recommit, reimagine, and reinvent what we do in our classrooms to include compassion first, this tragedy will only get worse.

There is an old expression that says, every picture tells a story. So a class photo could fill a library. The one behind me is no different. All of us, gussied up in Sunday best, have our own stories. What you see are 21 simultaneous narratives from 1972 caught on film in the process of being written by mischievously complex creatures with big imaginations and dreams of their own. For most of us, the nostalgia of these old photos evokes happy memories. However, for some the smiles in the pictures may mask pain and sadness that no child should ever know.

Like most other 6 year olds, the future teacher you see was full of his own dreams. In order to make them come true I threatened to run away and join the circus on a number of occasions until my mom started to help me pack. But there was one job that occupied my dreams more than any other and I didn’t have to leave my livingroom. I dreamt of being an astronaut.

With the Apollo missions front and centre on our TVs, it was like boundless imagination had been set free in me. Watching the rockets blasting off took me beyond the moon to the stars each time. NASA showed the world that we weren’t stuck here.That the impossible was possible and dreams did come true. I knew it. I watched them live on TV.

With the world now being beamed into our home each night, came the realization that all things were not the same out there as they appeared in our little corner of Wyoming. I screen-witnessed the Vietnam war,

poverty, and civil unrest. At an early age I ached for those who were suffering. I became very aware of the effects that tragic events were having on the world. And they began to hit me too.

When it got to be too much it was easy to get shooed out of the room and told not to worry, but seeing those stories provided many restless nights. My dreams suddenly had competition from some nightmarish realities. And although I did not like them at the time, my dreams and nightmares helped me to see my students differently today.

From early on in my career, I realized for lifelong learning to happen the well being of students had to come first. That if their mental health was being affected by events too powerful to prevent then they were at risk of flying under the radar and crashing. Sadly, I’m not sure whether I was able to make the well being of my students the priority when I first started. Learning to be a teacher may have qualified me to enter the classroom, but it was only while in the classroom that I began to understand what needed to be done, and it wasn’t found in the curriculum.

Now think about your classroom. Does someone in particular come to mind? I have at least one student that represents the one that got away.

At first I sluffed it off resigning myself that the blame lay beyond my control. I keep asking myself, 6 years later, what could I have done differently?

Watching a child struggle is like having them write a story while someone breaks their pencils, tears their pages, and hurls insults at them. It has led me to repurpose my priorities and look at my students with a different lens.

In her 2014 TEDMed Talk Nadine Burke Harris explained the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs on children. These include abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction. Sadly, children who endure them are at a significantly higher risk for a lifetime of physical and mental health challenges if they go unnoticed, untreated or ignored as misbehaviour.

Burke Harris goes on to share that about 2/3s of us have experienced an ACE or two, but are usually able to overcome them. And these next statistics are worse.

1 in every 8 have suffered through 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. When that is the case children are over four times more likely to suffer from depression, and the suicide rate is 12 times higher.

If the human cost isn’t setting off alarm bells then maybe these next two figures will?

A conservative estimate pegs the cost that have ACEs on our economy at $150 Billion annually. According to another estimate that figure could be as high as $600 billion. Perhaps the staggering financial impact will wake up the bureaucrats making cuts to education services and social safety nets.

Much of the world, and The U.S.A in particular seem resigned to spending 6 to 10 times more money on incarceration than they do on education. What if we could flip that statistic, empty out overcrowded prisons, and offer equitable access to education that will lead to fulfilling the dreams of all children?

Wouldn’t it be better that they never ended up in prison to begin with?

Can we really put a price on the pain and loss of unrealized human potential?

How much better would all of our world be if we invested in education instead of locking everybody up?

We have to remember that behaviour is communication. You would misbehave too if you were going through hell in your life. Teachers, we must learn to differentiate when misbehaviour is really a cry for help and not an act of defiance. If we can stand down, count to 10, maybe 50 in some cases, and then think through these moments we have a better chance at reaching our students rather than driving them further away.

Think of a child in your class who is acting out with defiance, uncharacteristic behaviour or seems to have lost interest in the world around them? Before you take them to task for their outbursts or disrespectful behaviour did you try being kind to them? Did you give them a chance to gather their emotions and retain their dignity?

Maybe your student is hungry? Did you ask them if they ate today? Wouldn’t the cost of a box of granola bars be worth a calmer, more engaged student? Asking “Did you sleep alright the night before?” followed by it’s ok to close your eyes in class you must be tired. Maybe all that student needs to do is talk to someone? We don’t need to provide the answers to every problem when all we need to do is listen. What about a student whose loved one is sick or has recently died? Are we taking time to allow them to grieve their loss?

In my mind it all starts with relationships. If we can foster community in all classrooms by equipping and empowering students to care of one another then we’ll never have to worry about another one slipping through. Did you know that it only takes one person to make the difference. Imagine if a child had several? Think of it as if we are all cords being woven and threaded into a rope. Whether we are 3, 33 or 233 we would not be easily broken when together. That is what I ask of my students. When we weave our community out of kindness and strong relationships we will form caring bonds capable of greatness.

We can ensure that ALL  who enter our schools know they matter, and that they are here to do great things.

Although the scars and memories of negative experiences can never be completely erased, our classrooms could help to reduce the traumatic experiences of our students to only a chapter in their life’s story?

We can do this by choosing to help will we enable students to rediscover their dreams again. It is then, and only then that the nightmares will become faded as an old photo from a time gone by.

So my wish for today is to make a shift in how we use our passion for education with the world. I want us to go beyond the moon and stars when we say we’re passionate about education.

I am talking about making compassion our goal in education. I am asking you to take teaching to the highest level and empower your classrooms with care and commitment to be the difference makers in the lives of one another.

There are so many times during life that could rob us of our dreams. During a child’s education should never be one of those times. Let’s work to restore the dreams of students in our classrooms who suffer from Adverse Childhood Experiences. Let’s overcome this together through Active Compassionate Education.

Join me.

Thank you.



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