Updated: Feb 25, 2019
By Kate Bachtel.
True power that liberates is born from sensitivity; strength cannot exist independent of vulnerability. Mabel, a kindergarten student, illustrates this beautifully. Mabel has soulful eyes that pierce, framed by innocent ringlets that bounce like she does between intense curiosity and playfulness. At recess one day, Mabel let out a panic-filled scream that sent me into calm, emergency assessment mode; I thought for certain Mabel had been seriously injured. When our eyes met, Mabel shared through tears and pain-laced sobs that her brussel sprouts had touched her mac n’ cheese. The tragedy was foods mixing; for Mabel, this was truly devastating. Students like Mabel often receive messaging from adults that there is something inherently broken about them, that their intense feelings are wrong or bad, that they are “too sensitive.” It is rare to find someone who instead sits side-by-side with Mabel and explains how her exceptional sensitivity is a unique strength that can help her in many ways throughout her life and that her big feelings provide important data. It is critical to model compassion in this moment – profound awareness can feel overwhelming. I am grateful I had the opportunity to help teach Mabel how to self-soothe and ask, “I wonder if some of the world’s best chefs also felt so strongly about different tastes when they were young?”
Reframing sensitivities as strengths is an important responsibility for those nurturing children.
Mabel’s classroom feels different than most; all who enter are warmly welcomed. Student photos, art, writing, action campaigns, and other work samples are brightly displayed celebrating children’s diverse strengths and passions. Only natural or soft-lamp lighting is used as fluorescents can be taxing on children’s systems and negatively impact learning and behavior. It’s cozy but not messy. Mabel’s teacher expects questions and to be challenged, admits when she does not have all the answers, honors different perspectives, and is responsive to student needs as they arise. There is tolerance for ambiguity; there can be many ways to solve a problem and sometimes more than one answer. During group activities all sit in a circle together, teacher side by side with students. The teacher shares power through her implicit messaging; she recognizes the importance of relationships and maintains this as a top priority. Both great accomplishments and mistakes are expected. All children are “seen” and have places where they can take off, where the sky is the limit, and likewise, areas where they struggle while aiming for high expectations. There is a framework for both cognitive and social emotional development and recognition that both are interconnected. Teacher and parents are partners. Mabel’s classroom is not a panacea; however, there is a balance of challenge and tenderness that propels all positively forward. Most importantly, children leave feeling inspired and empowered.
In another classroom, a teacher complains about the “disrespectful and disruptive” behavior of one of her fifth-grade students, Jeremy. Jeremy’s and Mabel’s cognitive profiles are strikingly similar. Jeremy is highly gifted; both his thoughts and body move quickly. The pace of 99 percent of classrooms is painfully slow for him; by first grade, Jeremy had already figured out that schools were not designed for how he learns and experiences the world. To a certain degree, the education system Jeremy is a part of oppresses him. Now age 10, Jeremy senses the energy in a room; if other students are feeling anxious, upset, nervous or scared, he will often try to lift the tension with his quick-wit. He is fully aware of the price of a joke and willingly self-sacrifices. Jeremy knows a quip will bring his friends joy and that laughter heals. He is also keenly aware that it will get him in trouble; he will likely be called out in front of the group and maybe even sent out of the room. Alone. Bad. Not Worthy. A part of Jeremy has already given up; exquisite pieces of his true self wither. The deficit messaging he has received by adults with authority over the course of his elementary school experience has negatively impacted his self-concept. Not once have Jeremy’s teachers named or celebrated his incredible empathy – a sensitivity that would be a gift in any passion work Jeremy chooses to pursue. We all lose if Jeremy isn’t empowered to let his authentic self shine.
In contrast with the experience entering Mabel’s classroom, visitors to Jeremy’s classroom feel boxed in like the students in desks in rows. The teacher stands in front of and above students, asserting her power over them. There is an established system that one must assimilate to in order to succeed in contrast with the co-constructed experience in Mabel’s classroom. In Jeremy’s class, many feel frustrated or stifled. There is tension. Parents and teacher call for a stronger discipline policy, more black and white decisions – a sign of disempowerment. What is really needed is more emphasis on social emotional development, dedication to and accountability for growing authentic relationships, and also a better match between programming and children’s needs. Behavior that negatively impacts others must be addressed, ideally using non-violent communication practices; however, when a teacher’s words and actions are replete with judgment it causes harm to all. We can’t build healthy, sustainable classroom communities while simultaneously oppressing, hurting, or isolating anyone within. It will never work.
Embracing the power of sensitivities is at the heart of the difference in culture between Mabel’s and Jeremy’s classrooms. The greatest growth occurs outside our comfort zone. Mabel’s holistic classroom experiences and teacher’s openness may empower her to become an expert in and advocate for community-based sustainable agriculture practices. Jeremy, distanced from his true self and angry, in part because of the oppressive nature of his school experiences, may become a demanding and lonely supervisor who asserts his power over others like his teachers did to him.
Unfortunately, gifted learners in many traditional school settings have experiences similar to Jeremy’s; they are forced into classroom boxes that don’t fit and the outcomes can range from unfortunate to tragic. We can’t teach children to “Be the Change” while simultaneously adapting to unjust systems, which brings us to the topic of leadership. When describing the characteristics of leaders, most use adjectives referencing power and strength. Few tell the secret that pure, true power can only affect positive change in direct correlation to the corresponding depth of sensitivity.
“Educe,” the root of education, instructs teachers to bring forth that which already lives within each student. Here lies the essence of learning, to reveal and fuel each child’s unique inner spark so all feel connected and honored as we journey together. I am inspired to engage children in our educational dialogue as we work to create more just and healthy systems to nurture tomorrow’s innovators and leaders. Big changes in education can start with little, yet critical, paradigm shifts. The latest neuroscience research can’t pull apart which comes first – our thoughts, feelings, or the physical reaction in our bodies. We all have the power to choose our thoughts, to see strength in our sensitivities. We must challenge ourselves every day to see each other for the beauty of our potential. What we think, we may very well become. Booker T. Washington once said, “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” It’s time for all to rise.
Dr. Kate Bachtel is the founder of SoulSpark Learning, a Colorado based nonprofit dedicated to optimizing the development and well-being of youth and the educators who care for them. Prior to launching SoulSpark Learning, she co-led the opening of Mackintosh Academy's Boulder campus, a K-8 school for gifted learners. She holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in gifted from University of Denver and a master's in education with an emphasis in equity and cultural diversity from University of Colorado at Boulder. She also serves as a director at Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and was president for the 2016-17 term.