VTDIGGER 09/10/20
By Michael Shank

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, a resident of Brandon who teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He is an independent candidate for a Rutland District seat in the Vermont State Senate.

As a university professor, I’m constantly thinking about how to best equip my graduate students with life skills. I’m always taken aback when they struggle with how to communicate effectively, handle conflict constructively, think critically, or engage civically. Not only is a degree less valuable now, it’s also less applicable. Especially as it becomes commonplace to bully online and offline, accept anything shared online as “fact,” avoid dialogue and engage combatively, disengage from the public policymaking process, and refuse to view the world from someone else’s perspective.

Setting up students for success, then, requires a doubling down – by school and community – on five fronts: skills-building in conflict transformation and resolution, critical thinking, interpersonal and professional communication, civic engagement, and compassion.

In Vermont, we’re shifting towards more “transferable skills,” which, according to Vermont’s Agency of Education, include clear and effective communication, creative and practical problem-solving, informed and integrative thinking, self-directed learning, and responsible and involved citizenship. They’re taking a front seat in the state’s educational standards, which is exactly what’s needed, though it’s often left to the discretion of each educator to integrate. And “trickle down” training that accompanies shifts in programmatic focus, where a few people get trained and “bring their learning back,” isn’t scalable.

Schools need resources for systematic, schoolwide, skills-building if we want the transferable skills initiative to have real impact. Training for administrators, teachers, paraeducators, mental health staff, substitute teachers, board members, and more – i.e. any adult that regularly works in school. Families will benefit from that skills-build, since that’s where learning is modeled, so this should be a community-wide agenda.

If we want our students to develop these skills, we need the state to formally give local communities, schools, and teachers the resources necessary to make it happen and set explicit expectations for this work.

Take conflict skills. Several districts recently received a state grant to implement restorative practices with support from Vermont’s Restorative Approaches Collaborative. This is good. Conflicts are common in classrooms. Practices to address them and restore relationships are not. Canadian schools show that peer mediation programs successfully resolve 90% of conflicts and reduce physically aggressive behavior 51%-65%. That’s significant. These programs make schools safer and more conducive to learning and set up students for success, as adults, when resolving conflict and restoring broken personal-professional relationships. These skills are helpful with de-escalation on social media and in resolving workplace disputes. That’s why they’re transferable skills; there are lifelong benefits.

Take critical thinking skills. The frenzy around whether something is fact or fiction, and the propensity of politicos to push unverified agendas shows how in demand critical thinking is. When my students fail to back up assertions with good data, I push them to cite legitimate sources. That training can start young, helping students poke and prod for proof. It takes a confident administration to embrace student-led change. If we want our students to enter the world with a critical lens, then we must support informed thinking early.

Take communication skills. We know the digital world and Covid-19 have undermined our ability to have constructive in-person conversations and experience the socio-emotional feedback that attends face-to-face interactions. The competition from the smartphone is fierce, and social media made it easy to communicate impersonally and antagonistically. Requiring that curricula prioritize interpersonal communication skills-building is a start, and school districts, like mine, are now rolling out social-emotional curriculum. But it must be prioritized and practiced frequently to put kids on a more communicative path.

Take civic engagement. There’s no curriculum for Vermont’s “global citizenship” content area. A weak connection between our lived reality and the school curriculum can leave students uninspired to change that reality. There’s a need to embed civic engagement in classrooms, incentivize it, and build apprenticeships for youth across all aspects of public service. In Vermont, we’re approaching a problematic transition if we don’t tee up the next generation to serve. Unless those relationships are established now, in towns and cities, we face more attrition. Let’s build a mentor corps and transfer generations-worth of expertise to the emerging leadership – translating that opportunity in ways that appeal.

Take compassion. Adult behavior change is tough. If empathy is built early, then perspective-taking becomes possible and the mind more malleable – attributes helpful in crisis situations. In addition to districtwide additions of social-emotional curricula, let’s add a service corps to help those in need. Make it a part of the school curriculum. This is something I grew up doing as a Mennonite, learning to serve and see the world through others’ eyes. Getting our students into public service could do wonders for cultivating compassion.

This is the essential stuff on which successful personal and professional environments depend. Let’s teach it with the rigor and resources it deserves. This is what gets you hired because you communicated flawlessly during an interview, keeps you employed because you know how to manage workplace conflict, saves a relationship because you know how to understand a partner’s pain, or transforms a community because you’re actively involved in leading it. Let’s make sure our students are set up for success. The world needs them now.