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Education Feature: Keeping Doors Open for Our Students

Lockey Coughlin is Founder of the micro-school, Education without Walls, and an educational consultant. She is President and Founder of Webb Youth Services, a 501(c)(3), which provides services for students at risk. For more information, visit www.EducationWW.org

By Lockey Coughlin

“Tomorrow is a brand-new day that’s never been touched.” This is one of the many quotable quotes from episode one of the television series Modern Love. I found it – and the episode – inspirational and affirming. To me, this sentiment is the essence of a forward-thinking mindset, one that is invaluable when working on a close, personal level with other humans, as we do in education.

Forward-thinking is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “thinking about and planning for the future: forward-looking, as in a forward-thinking company”. This may give the impression that it is a term most appropriate when discussing business or finance, but it should always be at the forefront of every educator’s mind. This is a positive, hopeful mindset, one that looks to problem-solving and positive change as the necessary work of building a better tomorrow. I use it as a personal mantra and reminder when faced with particularly contentious or emotional conundrums, constantly asking “What can we do better?”

Human beings, for whatever reason, are easily pulled into the blame game. We all seem to revel in the idea that, if something went wrong, then someone must be to blame and then the finger-pointing begins. Kids do it all the time. “It wasn’t me,” is often their first and knee-jerk response. There is nothing more contentious and divisive than a group of people trying to place blame on another group, individual, or, in the worst cases, on someone within their own community.

Of course, it is just as important to dissect a problem or incident or issue, as well; to look at all the moving parts and pieces that helped bring it into the forefront of the day. If you are examining the situation with the intention of finding a solution, however, then your view is not encumbered by guilt, shame, blame, nor the many other unproductive emotions that tend to surround conflict.

As an educator, looking forward instead of looking back helps me to stay focused on positive outcomes rather than on punitive action. It keeps me from falling into the all too easy finger-pointing trap. Asking “Why did you do that?” should only be a means to a forward-thinking solution. This turn from past to future and positive change helps everyone to shift their perspective, moving from blame to possible solutions. It helps to frame the question into a future-oriented and optimistic one, which then, of course, requires a future-oriented and optimistic answer.

Frame the issue in terms of future thought. Yes, ask “Why did this happen?” but then ask, “Where did we go off course? How can we refocus on what is important?” This begs the follow-up question, “What is important?”

Importance is subjective, of course, but suppose we focus on the future goals of the individual or group in question? Setting goals, both short-term and long-term, is another way to use forward-thinking as a tool for positivity and optimism. Goals need to be massaged, adjusted, discussed, and tweaked often to keep them both relevant and mindful. They may change drastically from month-to-month, especially for students who have many interests or who have the benefit of a Renaissance-style education.

The actual goals, themselves, are not the most important thing. Setting those goals and looking at how to achieve them is the forward-thinking piece. Almost every long-term goal that a child might have will necessitate a strong, foundational knowledge base, which requires an education, degree, or certification of some kind. In working towards a goal, any goal, there is also the requirement of positivity, discipline, and many other valuable lessons. When students have the choice of where to focus additional efforts, that is when you achieve the coveted buy in on their part.

One of my students hopped around between wanting to be a professional dancer, an artist, a musical theater performer, a musician, or a translator at the U.N. Today, she is majoring in Computer Science at Connecticut College, with a double minor in Asian Studies and Dance. This is goal setting and adjusting at its finest, but it is imperative that we keep the most possible choices available, keep those metaphorical doors open.

When choosing a curriculum for students, try to keep in mind that a broad base of experience and opportunity is what keeps those doors open. For example, we are all aware that beginning ballet training at thirteen years old is an uphill battle, as is the choice for physicist or engineer if you have avoided math most of your educational career. Unless you are Elizabeth Parkinson or Albert Einstein, this lack of early preparation has already closed doors. Allow students to choose a direction with the certain knowledge that these choices will almost always change course. Make sure to keep the foundation of their education broad and varied, so they can try another door and another and another.

It is our job as parents and educators to plan for changes in direction; to keep goal changes or adjustments as easy and seamless as possible. With strong preparation, experience, and broad foundational knowledge comes deeper confidence and the assurance that those doors will be open for our students; that they are prepared to take full advantage of the myriad of opportunities available to them when each new day arrives.

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