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The Avocado Jungle is a source for current events, politics, arts and culture on the web. Editor In Chief David P. Kronmiller, along with a talented staff and guests, bring you news, commentary, analysis, interviews, humor, music, art and more. Our deeper mission is to seek truth in understanding, offering current events, arts and culture as paths to that understanding. We value and promote creative thought, intelligent dialogue, elevated debate, and informed action. If you see something that interests you on the site, please take the time to leave a thoughtful comment. Thanks for visiting.

Jungle Writers

David P. Kronmiller, Editor-In-Chief
Notes from the Jungle
Matthew Tullman, Current Events Editor
On current events.
Joyce Chen Blogging from New York.
Tharuna Devchand Blogging from South Africa.
J Lampinen
Our resident comic strip, Congo & Steve
Joanna Lord
Blogging on life, art and spirituality.
Jeremy Olsen
Director of Development emeritus and occasional commentator.
Dan Rickabus
On things musical.
Nicky Schildkraut
On poetry.

Plus guest writers and past staff, including Zach Fehst, Amy Reynolds, Aaron Vaccaro, Jae Day, Sarah Jawaid, Scott Martin, and Bronson Picket.
March 10, 2009, at 12:00 pm — Audio | audio interview | Blogs | Interviews /

Teaching the Right Things

I took this week’s theme for The Avocado Jungle and styled it into the question, “Is education part of the solution to almost every problem the world faces?” Then I asked a great friend and great teacher, Ria Kubota, that very question. I got a wonderfully unexpected and insightful answer, even with a restless infant wriggling in her arms. It’s under two minutes long and you can listen to the audio here.

Ria is a creative and thoughtful woman who has been inspiring young music students for ten years now, first in public middle schools and elementary schools and now in private schools. She’s also a mother of two—one school age girl and one baby girl (the one you can hear fussing in the background from time to time). And Ria says, yes, education is the answer. More specifically, she says, “It can be the solution to the world’s problems, but only if you choose to teach the right things.”

“First and most important you have use and teach compassion and treating others with dignity.” Whoa. Not the first words I expect to hear. “If people started from that,” she adds, “I think a lot of our problems wouldn’t be problems.” Now, we can’t just head into the tribal areas of Afghanistan and teach the future terrorists of the world our version of compassion and dignity. But of course, that’s not what Ria is arguing. She’s talking about school education, and I think it applies to that familial and generational and community kind of education, too, where parents and family and neighbors and church members function as role models who can teach things like compassion and dignity to the youth around them. Compassion and dignity are concepts that grownups may have an easier time describing in words, but that children learn about everyday and come to recognize and understand at a very young age. Those who don’t learn to recognize it early tend to grow up with a pessimistic view of the world at least, and sometimes emotional and psychological problems beyond that. There’s research to suggest that (as with almost anything) one can have a
genetic predisposition to these sorts of issues, but there’s also lots of evidence that children simply learn empathy and compassion by watching and interacting with adults (see Van Hasselt and Hersen’s dry and academic but thorough “Handbook of Social Development” around page 235). So I can’t help but agree with Ria. I also can’t help but wonder how we go about doing this systematically, nationally, even globally. I think it starts with training teachers well, hiring teachers intelligently, and providing parents with knowledge and resources.

Ria continues on with some more broad commandments. Each one, as I hear it sounds so worthwhile and even crucial, and each challenges me to even begin to describe how American schools, for starters, ought to achieve these things. Teach children to listen. (So incredibly important… almost on par with the compassion and the dignity.) Teach them to work together. Teach them history with the goal that they learn to ask good questions that help them think about the future. Teach them to write so they can learn to reflect on their own lives. (I wonder what the world would be like if we all took
a few minutes a day to reflect and to work through our problems on paper.)

And lastly, being a music teacher, Ria knows the power of art. “You don’t even have to speak another language, but you can communicate with others,” she remarks. It made me think of the significance of moments like the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s landmark 1956 visit to the Soviet Union. This and other huge moments of artistic (in this case musical) diplomacy are highlighted in this
article on Art conveys so much, connects us instantly to our emotions and sensory perceptions, and grounds us in our own humanity. This connection truly can overcome obstacles like language, race, class, and nationality. I know Ria is not alone in believing that raising a nation of artists—or at least of men and women who understand and deeply appreciate art—could go a long way toward solving the issues we’re struggling with, especially when an initial connection like the one art can achieve breaks down barriers like fear, mistrust, isolation and hopelessness.

Thank you, Ria, for your thoughts. I know you are doing your part to teach the importance of dignity, compassion, reflection, learning from the past, and of course, art.


4 comments to Teaching the Right Things

  • Insights and Resources

    I would respectfully argue that Parents are the ones who need to give teachers insights and resources about how to teach their children. Not the other way around as stated in your article. The way teachers are taught to handle a class is geared towards dispensing factoids and maintaining control via crowd management techniques. Teaching is a priesthood of sorts, yes, but who knows the students more intimately?
    Who stayed up nights with them? Who was there to wipe snotty noses and administer cough syrup? Who was their for the first steps, first words? Who feeds them, clothes them, loves them? Who bought the students their very first alphabet book and taught them “ABC,” and “123?” It wasn’t a teacher, and that’s ok.
    Parents are the ones who know their kids best because they watched from the beginning how the children internalize the stimuli. So the way I see it, if a child seems to lack compassion, or an apparent lack of treating others with dignity, I would ask: how does an institution really know if the child has compassion or not? Are they intimate enough with the child adequately to understand how that particular child expresses compassion in the first place? I doubt it. And that’s ok too. Because teachers are not the parents. They couldn’t be any way.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Thanks for your thoughts. As a parent and former teacher with lots of teacher friends, I feel I can speak to these points.

    I agree that parents can help teachers better understand and meet the needs of their children in school. I’m a strong proponent of active parental involvement. Parents are the first and strongest role models.

    This doesn’t mean that teachers don’t also set examples. During a typical school week, a child is around teachers and coaches maybe 30 to 60% of the time. Students in extra classes or extracurricular activites might be away from their parents the majority of their waking hours. If we can improve the message they receive during this time, we ought to. I’ve never met a teacher that feels their job is to replace a parent, though.

    Your view of teaching reflects a certain distance from the situation. I hope you don’t mind if I correct a few of your statements. You talk about the way teachers are taught to handle a class. I think “crowd management” might not be the best choice of words, and “dispensing factoids” is a severe oversimplification of what teachers do. We are taught many, many different ways to present information and these days we’re encouraged to allow for student choice and involvement as much as possible. “Classroom management,” the commonly used term, refers to thorough preparation (which is at least 50% of the work of keeping kids on task) combined with an enormous array of techniques to prevent and to address lapses in attention and behavior. Teachers often call it the “bag of tricks.” None of this, to me, makes teaching a “priesthood,” as you assert. It is a profession (albeit one unfortunately dressed up as a trade).

    From your tone I imagine you are a parent. It sounds like you took offense to what I said, but I think you’ve misunderstood me. Of course it’s “ok” that teachers don’t know students as well as parents do. That’s absurd. How could they, except maybe in exceptional cases involving neglectful or absent parents? But just because parents know their children *better* doesn’t mean that teachers don’t know them enough to recognize compassion or respectful behavior. That also sounds absurd to me.

    I took action whenever a student was ruthlessly picking on another student, or when a child was speaking to me or her peers in a disrespectful way. On a fundamental, black-and-white level, it’s not difficult to determine. And it’s not “an institution” that sees it, as you say… it’s individual teachers. People. I understand that as a parent it might feel like you’re dealing with “the school,” but you are always, in reality, dealing with people who see your child for hours every week and are supposed to be proficient at recognizing and comprehending their behavior. To answer your (reworded) question, then: Yes, we are typcially intimate enough with your children to see whether they are exhibiting traits like compassion or treating others with dignity. Absolutely. I certainly made mistakes—as a teacher, I wasn’t right about my assessments 100% of the time. But I’m finding I’m not right all the time as a parent, either.

    Lastly, I can at least speak for myself in believing that compassion cannot be “taught” in a direct way like algebra or biology can. Compassion, like most traits we hope to teach our children, can be modeled. It is taught by setting a great example, and by encouraging students when they live up to that example. And while parents are the first and most important role models as I said before, I think it’s crucial that teachers focus on this element of their job, too.

  • Ria

    Thank you Jeremy for so artfully conveying my thoughts on education. Blogs like this are a fantastic thing because they encourage the kind of dialog that spurs thought, which spurs more dialog. Reading the comments in addition to more on this site I have to agree that parents are a child’s first, and life-long teachers. I cannot emphasize enough that my goals to teach compassion, listening skills, reflection, and art are highest on my mind as a parent. It is in those first five years of life that a child’s world view is formed and I work hardest to create a world for my daughters where I model the best .

    Good teachers are constantly seeking new ways to do things, honing skills, learning about new research and experimenting in their classrooms. Good parents do the same at home. If only every parent could find the time to really stop what they are doing when their child tells them something and listen, REALLY listen to their question, comment or problem. Then, while giving that child the opportunity to feel what they feel, help him/her find a resolution. Parents and teachers who truly care about other points of view seem to have the fewest discipline problems and children who learn respect others as well.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Ria! What a pleasure to have you commenting on the blog I wrote… about you! Thanks for leaving your thoughts and your kind words about the site. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here, and I think that you’re doing a superb job of achieving these goals, both as a parent and a teacher. You made me really think about *listening* when you spoke about it. It really is almost as important as compassion and dignity, and to some extent a component of (or even a prerequisite for?) those very things.

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