By DR. JEFFREY L. MITCHELL
In a series of Extra Credit articles, I will explore some important contemporary issues in education. Inspiration for this series of articles comes from What are the 10 Most Critical Issues in Education Today … originally a blog post by Bernard Bull. Due to its popularity, a book resulted, called What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education.
The fourth article in this series focuses on self-agency and self-advocacy. That is, in physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially, legally or culturally risky situations, how well do you stand up for what you feel is just and moral.
Chances are you can remember an event earlier in your life that sticks out because you went
out on a limb and advocated.
I remember, as a college student, writing a letter to the Canadian equivalent FAFSA, the student
aid branch of the Federal Government. I was a financially-challenged college student who
needed to work and secure other sources of income while making my way through college.
At one point an opportunity to secure a bursary (need-based aid) became available. So I went through the cumbersome application process. Back then, there were no online applications. A
few weeks later, I received a letter indicating that I did not qualify for the bursary. As I read through the rationale, the refusal was based on the value they placed on my automobile at the time: a shabby nine-year- old 1976 Pontiac Lemans.
So, out of principle…but really not thinking a lowly college student’s ramblings would sway a federal bureaucracy, I wrote a letter. I thought my arguments were sound … but again, the only function I thought it would serve was as catharsis for me.
A few weeks later the decision was adjusted, and I received a helpful bursary.
This past life event was fresh on my mind as I sat down to write this article because my older son just went through a similar situation. His employer decided to move him to part-time status, without informing him, and just ahead of a major life event, in which having full-time status makes a significant difference.
He was upset. (I wondered if I was this upset when I went through my situation. Thirty years later later I have this memory of calmly going through it but I doubt I was calm as I remember.)
Interestingly, my guidance was to handle the situation by not getting too emotional. But he had invested so much in the company over the past four years as a solid and reliable employee there was no taking the strong emotion out of it.
So, he dealt with it head-on and firmly but with respect. He had his status changed back to full-time.
Small Victories with Large Implications
In one sense, the events described are relatively small examples in the grand scheme of things.
Would I, or my son, be OK if the decisions were not changed?
However, I do think these small victories have large potential for future agency.
Agency and advocacy are skills, not facts to learn. Yes, you can learn the definitions in a dictionary and read about their implications in articles like this. But really understanding agency and advocacy is to understand how it pervasively impacts behavior across contexts and relationships.
The maturation of agency and advocacy aligns with the capacity for people to understand that they often have choices in life. There’s an evolving predisposition for viewing situations that are not optimal and asking what might be done. Contrasting a more fatalistic or deterministic mindset, there’s a recognition that you can make choices, not without risk, that can have a large and lasting impact.
Connection to Education
In my four years at Currey Ingram Academy, I have been amazed by the number of students who are willing to go way outside of their comfort zones and try something different.
For example, a huge proportion of our students, Lower School to Upper School, are willing to stand up in front of their peers and perform musical solos at assemblies. I could be wrong, but I just do not remember this kind of laying it on the line in my educational experience. I, for example, was afraid to dance, at a school dance.
This is especially surprising because many of our students come to us from education situations in which they did not get a lot of opportunity to exercise advocacy and agency and thus develop the immense confidence it must take to be vulnerable in front of your peers. What I see know is the powerful impact an intentionally supportive and safe culture can have. Almost like it’s built into the HVAC system, there’s an atmosphere of positive feedback, acceptance and celebration of each student for who they are. In this culture, the natural inclination of human beings to ever improve themselves and seek out life-enhancing experiences thrives.
Without question, there’s many things beyond our control, but nurturing agency and advocacy
positively modifies how life is perceived. From engagement in civic life, to how we approach personal and professional activities, our lives and our society are better off with thoughtful
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.