Students and Well-Being

One of my mentors growing up was the pastor at my small town church, a man I fictionalized in my first novel, Making My Escape. Rev. J. was a complicated man who had spent over 20 years being an English teacher before going into the ministry. He often said he did more actual ministering to the well-being of young people from all walks of life as an English teacher than he did as a minister. He once told me that he confused some people by identifying himself as a humanist, which he defined as a person who cares deeply about the well-being of humans. By his definition, Jesus was a humanist, an idea some people found bizarre.

I think frequently about his viewing teaching in public schools as a kind of secular ministry. Whether you are are religious or secular, ministering to someone means attending to their needs and well-being. Of course, we have differing ideas these days about what “well-being” means, but I still think that teaching, at its best and no matter what the subject is, can be and perhaps should be, a kind of ministry.

Last March 15th was my last “normal” day of teaching before we went off for spring break and never came back. This year has given all of us, I think, a lot of opportunity to think about what well-being really means. But as the powers that be try to bring us back to life as usual, which means data chats and testing as usual, the start contrast between data driven instruction and ministering to the well-being of students has never been more stark.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this trend, but doesn’t it seem that whenever we gather to talk about data, we note which “reporting categories” or “standards” students are “struggling” to “achieve proficiency” in, but stop there. We say, “Okay – Key Ideas and Details! We need to work on that!” We never seem to get around to talking about how we teach key ideas and details. Or how we think about key ideas and details ourselves. Or the learning tasks we give students to teach them the skill of identifying key ideas and details.

And we certainly never get as far as talking about why our students should care about analyzing something they read for key ideas and details. Sometimes I stop and really think about this stuff from my students’ points of view, and I think “Why the heck would anyone read something so they can pick out the key ideas and details?” We stop at “Here’s the standards that they aren’t getting on tests: teach those standards harder, better, stronger, faster!” And are kids are thinking, “What’s happening on my phone?”

But that isn’t really my point here. My point is, I try to think about the Why of what I teach so I can get my students motivated to do these things. And my thought process goes something like this:

I want them to read and analyze what they read. So I try to emphasize analyzing what they read as a way to gather tools for when they write. And I try to motivate them when they write by encouraging them to write about things they care about. And I try to encourage them to read by offering them the chance to find things they care about to read, or I at least attempt to frame the things we read in class in such a way that the become relevant to them.

Here’s where it becomes distressing. For many of my students, there appears to be nothing they are particularly interested in – at least nothing they are willing to bring to class with them, no matter how open and welcoming a space I try to make my class. Many of my students seem, for lack of a better term, sort of dead inside. They aren’t interested in much of anything, not in a passionate, enthusiastic kind of way. When we do enthusiasm maps, some of them write down video games or their phones as their only enthusiasms. Video games can be a legitimate enthusiasm, as long as they are not your only enthusiasm. But I have yet to see a cell-phone-obsessed student who seemed like a fully-alive human being who was full of well-being.

Many of our students who are underperforming are suffering from a lack of well-being. Everything bores them. They are capable of being sucked in by click-bate designed to addict you to your digital device, but being passively controlled is not the same as being engaged.

Well-being doesn’t necessarily mean happy all the time – but it does mean being engaged in life. It means having interests. Having things you care about. Having reactions to things. Being frustrated by things. Wondering and worrying about things. That is why I have students write Enthusiasm Maps, Frustration Maps, Worry Maps, and Wonder Maps at the start of the school year. These maps give them topics for their future writing, but they give me, and them, a sense of who they are. We are the things we love and hate, worry and wonder about.

If your maps are nearly empty, you are now on my Worry Map. I worry about kids who have so little that they admit to caring about.

My students who have full maps are the ones I worry less about. Even if they have problems in their lives – they are at least engaged in their lives. So when we read, they are willing to engage in what we read. When we write, they have things to say. And because they want to say it well, they are willing to pay attention to how the authors we read do things. Things like, you know, choosing and organizing and developing key ideas and details.

We have data chats and think that student success and failure lies in their mastery of skills and our ability to skill and drill them and give them practice with multiple choice question format.

But maybe if we want higher test scores, we should forget about test scores and focus on what really matters: concerning ourselves with our students’ well-being, with their aliveness, with their ability to engage in the world. Because too often I see a sense of deadness, a sense of not-well-being, even in some of our brightest students. They want to gather points. They want to get good grades. They want to be told exactly what to do in order to gather points and get good grades. They want to be compliant. I don’t view compliance as the highest state of human attainment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not topped off with compliance.

Despite this very stressful year, I have many students who are thriving, who are engaged and passionate, who care about more than point gathering, who exude a sense of well-being in spite of everything. But for many of my students, I get the sense that this past year has either taken away their sense of well-being, or deepened their state of un-wellness.

Coming to school to be skilled and drilled isn’t good for a student’s sense of well-being. That’s why so many kids just aren’t showing up this year. Attendance has been a bit sparse this year, especially in my “regular” classes.

My wife has a poster in her room with a quote from Donald Clifton: “Our greatest contribution is to be sure there is a teacher in every classroom who cares that every student, every day, learns and grows and feels like a real human being.”

Theologian Howard Thurman once wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

When I shared that quote on social media recently, a colleague in my building wanted to paint it across the walls of our building.

We need to concern ourselves with the well-being of our students – their engagement with life and learning.

And not just because it will raise test scores in the long run.