There can be an intense pleasure in learning. But there can also be wounds from schools and education that sometimes never heal. We may think we can leave these wounds behind, but they remain with toxic ability to affect our present and future educational opportunities. Recently I read a wonderful book titled Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing up to Old School Culture, by Kirsten Olson. This is worth reading even for those who are not directly involved in education or teaching. The author goes through many different kinds of wounds we can receive through school, but also details wounds that schools receive from parents, students, and the educational system itself.
I have blogged before about educational wounding. (See Have you felt the pain of “Educational Wounding”? and It’s Okay To Fail, My Son). This is an important area to me, as I’ve seen all over the world the struggles people have had. It is an issue faced in every culture, every nation. In my first blog post mentioned above, I told briefly the story of my at that time 70 year old father-in-law. He grew up in Switzerland, but experienced deep pain in his school years with more than one teacher calling him “stupid”. He was anything but stupid, actually a very wise man who created beautiful structures in his profession. He was one of the most engaging story-tellers I have ever met. But when he related to me more openly some of his educational experiences, just a couple of years before he died, he wept.
In my own life, like most people, I have had a complex mix of good and bad educational experiences. I shared in the blog post about my 7th grade history teacher, Mr. Miller, who fueled my life-long passion for history. He was my favorite teacher. But two years before, in 5th grade, I had a teacher who was my worst. It also of course involved history. This teacher, a more general one as I was in elementary school, asked me to stay after school one day. As I stood at her desk, she told me very strongly that I needed to “not love history so much anymore, and be more well-rounded.” (whatever that meant.) Of course this is a childhood memory, and may not be completely what actually happened. But I can remember the hurt to this day. I promptly went outside in great anger, going out to left field and joining the baseball game already in progress. (for those of you not familiar with baseball, left field is the place where the ball doesn’t often get hit, so the least capable players are put out there, at least in my memory!) The next time the ball got hit to me, I turned around, and threw it as hard as I could in the opposite direction and then stormed off the field! (not a very compliant child at times!)
There was of course an area of truth in what this teacher said, but the way it was done and without more understanding, it left a wound in me. I became aware of it and faced it many years ago, but it is an example of a school wound that can deeply affect us. What are yours? Have you faced them? Kirsten Olson writes that we can so easily lose a pleasure and joy in learning when we have not faced the hurts that came to us, perhaps at a very early age. These wounds can cripple us for life, making us perhaps even miss careers or hobbies that are part of God’s destiny for us. Learning takes so many forms, and thinking we are “stupid”, or being punished for creativity can freeze and paralyze our contributions and gifts, sadly even for life.
Here are some of the effects of school wounds in our lives, according to Kirsten Olson (pg. 26).
- Students believe they aren’t “smart”
- Students believe they don’t have what it takes to succeed in school (and by implication, life)
- Students believe their ideas lack value or validity
- Students believe all their efforts, no matter how hard they try, are below standard
- Students believe they are “flawed people”
- Students feel ashamed of themselves and their efforts; they develop “learned helplessness”
- Students show less pleasure, less courage in learning
- Students have lowered ambition, less self-discipline, and diminished persistence in the face of obstacles
Look over that list. Do you see any of them that apply to you? If you do, it is important to face it, and perhaps find a trusted friend to talk and pray with for healing. Bringing these wounds out in the open and weeping over them is one of the most powerful ways to heal and find new avenues of grace.
But we must do more than face our own school wounds, or help others face them. As Olson’s book also discusses, we must look at continuing to not give up attempting transformation of the school environments themselves. If we are teachers, developing the greater sensitivity and skills necessary. If we are parents, working with the schools our children are in to see change or affirmation of what is working well in the learning process. Kirsten Olson writes about what is common to these school wounds, and the contexts they happen in:
- Wounds are produced in school environments that are intolerant of cognitive, emotional, or identity difference
- Provoke feelings of disapproval and shame associated with being different
- Originate in pressure to comply, with unsuccessful (or too successful) adaptations to the educational environment
- Produce alienation from self as learner
- Reduce pleasure in learning
The area of educational wounding is so important. As I have written, it is not happening only in some cultures or nations. It is happening globally. No small matter, it is actually a matter of life and death. Some of these wounds, whether caused by bullying, bad or insensitive teaching, failing exams, or many other reasons, can actually lead to students taking their own lives.
As the cliche goes, we need to be part of the solution in this area, and not the problem. But it must start with facing it first in our own lives, and then giving hope to many others that their dreams of finding a pleasure, joy and contribution through learning can actually be fulfilled.