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The Silent Pandemic

So, I did a thing the other day. I attended a political caucus for the first time. I decided to attend for a number of reasons – none of which were political. I attended because it’s important for me in my position to hear about the issues facing our communities, counties, state, and nation. It’s important for me to hear the stories of the families of our school district, and learn of ways in which we can better serve their children and grandchildren.

I respect the passions and the service of all those running for respective positions in their districts as well as those running for state and federal positions.  I commend those that are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.  I applaud all the candidates for doing so last night.

But quite honestly, the other night was an eye opener for me. My passion (as many of you well know) is education and what I believe to be the world’s number one asset — our children. I truly acknowledge and understand that there are other polarizing topics (especially in my region) that are near and dear to the families that work in those industries and to all us that rely on those industries to (for a lack of a better word) live. I’m not minimizing any of those or any of the folks that spoke to them in writing this post. It’s all undoubtedly important.

My frustration has, and continues to be the lack of conversation and urgency surrounding education.  The future of our nation is in the hands of educators around the world – and educators are leaving the profession at an alarming rate.  One can point to a number of factors leading to the mass exit but I’ll spare you some time and write about most of them another day.  But I can’t help to mention mental health as a major factor.  Why do we not talk about this more?  Adults and children alike are suffering at alarming rates.  Mental illness continues to take the lives of remarkable people around the world.  It’s what I call the “silent pandemic.”  We all know it’s there.  We all know it’s important.  But it takes a back seat in the political realm.

And that’s why I’m blogging today.  Many of you might know this, but it’s been on my heart to possibly one day run for the North Dakota State Superintendent position.  No, I’m not announcing my candidacy for any future race by any means.  But yesterday, I lost a bit of the luster of doing so.  I realized that my only chance to ever hold that office would require me to dive head first into the political world, and that, I have no desire to do.  But I calculated my years to retirement the other day and found that I have 19 years until I could take my wife for coffee every morning at the local café and enjoy 18 holes of golf with her after and our only dilemma being what we would indulge our taste buds with for dinner every night.

Anyways, I have a choice. I go 19 years of conforming to what education currently is or I go 19 years of making education what it should be. And boom shoka locka – I chose the ladder. But dang it guys, I was dealt a blow a few days ago realizing that I’d likely have to enter a world in which I don’t want to enter. Even though it wasn’t mentioned last night, and it frustrated me – I just don’t think politics has a place in education. But the mental health of our youth is just as an important topic as any other – and to truly address it, we must change how we do school and what we prioritize in schools.

My passion to make connection just as important as content and relationships just as important as arithmetic is challenged by the systematic processes of school. We still require our students to take standardized tests even though I couldn’t give you a definition of what a standard child is. We still use tests scores as a major accountability factor in scoring how well schools are doing. This is despite the fact that the home environment at any given time plays a vital role in a child’s ability and stability to do well on these assessments. On any given day children walk through our doors with a number of extrinsic factors that inhibit them from doing well that day.

Not only that, teachers are human too.  They are expected to be superhero’s every single day despite the fact that they have lives too.  They are not immune to mental illness or the constant pressures life is throwing at them.  We tell them to fake it until they make it.  Such poor advice.  It’s certainly ok to be real and feel.  We expect them to put their whole heart into their craft, but many of their hearts are broken as well.  We think they go home at 4:00PM every day and they are done with work, but yet they lie awake each night trying to wrap their minds around their own traumas they are dealing with, and if not their traumas – they are lying awake worried about your children. 

We need immediate change. We need to make social-emotional learning a top priority. If the heart is well, there’s a great chance the mind is too. If the heart is broken, the mind can’t function at the levels we are expecting it to. And the expectations are placed on school districts to ensure all children learn at high levels – knowing full well that all children are not loved at high levels. The pressures are real and many folks are walking away from what they were called to do and education as we know it is in jeopardy.

We know the answer.  Folks, we have a crisis on our hands.  But we shouldn’t have to jump into the political world to fix it.  If someday down the road – a person does decided to put their name in the hat for State Superintendent, they shouldn’t have to jump through political hoops to do so.  It’s a humanitarian thing – not a political thing.  But it really starts with all of us prioritizing our needs and the needs of our children.  And quite honestly, it starts with love and kindness.  If there are to be any standards in school it should be those.  If we fix hearts, we fix minds, and if we fix minds, we will have set folks on a path to do great things.

Thanks for reading, and once again thanks to all of those that are standing up for what they believe in (including all that spoke last night). I envy all of you for doing so.

Lastly, please don’t take this as any sort of announcement. I love my job as a school superintendent. My passion takes my mind in all sorts of directions and I often wonder what if, why not, and how on many things. A change is not in my near future.