Growing up, I always loved school. I loved my teachers, and I loved my friends; I loved putting my pencil case on top of the laminate desk, tearing paper out of spiral notebooks and filing my assignments away in pronged folders. It all just made sense to me. Now that I’m a senior in college, I’ve had to consider more seriously what school means to me. With nearly 17 years of public education under my belt, how will I use what I’ve learned?
Public education is still what makes sense to me. Now, I think about the strengths and weaknesses of our public education system, a system full of dedicated and determined teachers and staff yet ripe for improvements, change and support. Currently, about 90 percent of American students attend public elementary and secondary schools rather than private schools. This amounts to 50.7 million students entering public elementary and secondary schools across the country this past semester.
With this many children and teenagers affected by public education, we must seriously consider the knowledge and values we instill in each coming generation. Public schools don’t just introduce us to American history, algebraic expressions and science experiments. Our schools also attempt to teach us positive character traits as we grow up through the system. We are taught to speak honestly and complete our assignments with integrity, to always try our best and to learn from our mistakes.
However, I believe our lessons lack one important trait we gloss over in our quest to be the best student and make the top grades: empathy. In an increasingly competitive academic and professional national culture, it can prove challenging to remain considerate and respectful. It’s a constant race to the top in which only a select few can ever win.
I believe we see the consequences of this mindset quite clearly in our public schools. A lack of compassion for our fellow human beings results in bullying, especially on social media, when children and teens fail to understand how their actions impact others. Further, when we don’t encourage students to practice mindfulness — to think before acting, to stay in the present instead of dwelling on the past or the future — we miss out on teaching kids effective, healthy coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety and feelings of negativity.
One summer while volunteering with a local educational program for elementary schoolers, I watched as each morning the lead instructor would put on a “Sesame Street” music video featuring the iconic trio of Elmo, Common and Colbie Caillat. The song, “Belly Breathe,” will forever be engrained in my memory. For one, it’s catchy and probably etched into my neurons at this point. But more importantly, the song focused on calming down in the face of anger or sadness. It taught children to take a few moments before reacting to breathe deeply. Essentially, it broke down a major element of mindfulness into musical, bite-sized chunks for kids.
Watching the kids mimic the choreography of the video, placing their palms on their stomachs as they inhaled and exhaled to the music, I was reminded of how useful mindfulness techniques are in practicing empathy and compassion. Instead of immediately lashing out at someone, pausing for a few deep breaths requires kids — and adults— to respect other people and deal with emotions in more constructive ways.
With so many children and teens entering public schools each year, we should take advantage of the enormous opportunity we have to teach them the often-neglected value of empathy. In the face of so much national division — including our political, social and economic differences — a little more empathy built into the next generation of leaders and scholars certainly couldn’t hurt.
Mia Gettenberg is a UF criminology and philosophy senior. Her column appears on Mondays.