The Only Way To Get There Is Through Belonging
More often than not in our culture, when someone is talking about "success" we assume they are referring to either material wealth or the result of someone having achieved some sort of victory or prize. And often they are. Most of us are less superficial in how we define our own successes. Oh, we'll take the cash and the laurels, but our drive to success tends to be motivated by more personally meaningful measures like a sense of satisfaction about a job well-done or having good relationships with family and friends or an overall feeling of contentment.
As educators, we're widely viewed as agents for the success of the children in our care. Over the weekend, for instance, the parent of one of my former preschool students wrote to me about how her daughter, now a second grader, had boldly stood up to a child who had been excluding her from a game. "She told her how it made her feel and said, 'I don't like that.' And the other girl apologized and started including her. That's all because of you Teacher Tom." Success!
Parents want their children to be successful and most want to see us as allies in making their children successful. Taking a step back, we see that our policymakers have similar ideas about our role in society in that most of them cast us in the role of getting children "college and career ready," which is widely viewed as the surest pathway to worldly success.
The problem is that our obsession with success too often clashes with the far more important goal of education, which is to support children in creating a meaningful life.
In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith proposes four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. The more connected we feel to our family, friends, and community (belonging), the more we are motivated by positive long-term goals (purpose), the more adeptly we can make a narrative from the threads of our life (storytelling) and the more we concentrate our energies on something larger than ourselves (transcendent), the more meaningful our lives are.
It all begins with belonging, which is the only curriculum with which I've ever really concerned myself. It's within the context of community that we flourish. Community is an active living thing, something that requires the contributions of everyone. Success is inclusion. When that girl stood up for herself, she was asserting her place in her community. When the other girl listened, apologized, then included her, she was likewise doing the work of belonging. In many ways, this is the only work there is. It's not easy. And it's almost impossible in an educational system that focuses on individual achievement and competition, which is to say, division. The world doesn't need more division.
Living a meaningful life is the only real success. The only way to get there is through belonging.
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