Column: We need to focus on kids’ strengths in school and beyond

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Seeing all those back-to-school posts on Facebook is making me more than a little misty this year. 

As a mom, I know my days of having a “little kid” are dwindling. And as a former teacher, I feel a rush of emotions. Guilt about not being there for my students. Sadness about missing out on their stories, their experiences. Concern over all the challenges they’ll face. Enthusiasm for all the things they’ll accomplish this year. 

But I have to admit I won’t miss the pressure.

Teachers make more than 1,500 educational decisions every day. That’s four decisions each minute, most of them made in the moment, most of them made under pressure. A lot of what we learn in teacher preparation classes, believe it or not, isn’t how to laminate posters and color inside the lines. It’s how to navigate a classroom in which we’re the trusted adult. And while we learn a lot in those classes and on the job, we get a lot wrong, too.

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That’s just one of the reasons teaching is such a stressful profession. Regardless of whether our hearts are in the right place, the odds are pretty high that some of those thousands of decisions are going to be, well, wrong. And the start of the school year, when we’re just developing relationships with our kiddos, is the time when I always felt most likely to fumble.

So when I saw the description of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s 2019 policy forum, I thought to myself, “Damn! I wish I’d known about this when I was teaching.” Our policy forum is a free, annual event that draws hundreds of attendees from all over the state to learn innovative approaches to addressing social and political issues. 

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At the League, we strive to achieve economic, social and racial justice through our research and advocacy work. And if you’ve never been to our policy forums, I’m here to tell you they’re inspiring — and constructive. This year will certainly be, as the topic, presented by nationally renowned keynote speaker Trabian Shorters, deals with “asset framing.”

What is asset framing, exactly? Well, it’s the idea that we should define people by their strengths and potential, not by the ways in which they are disadvantaged. In a world where we’re inundated with terms like “low-income” and “struggling” and “high-risk” and  “vulnerable,” we can get caught up in labels that define our kids’ challenges and lose sight of what makes them shine.

Before school starts, teachers are usually asked to examine student data, looking for “achievement gaps” and “academic challenges” in order to identify how to help them grow — a noble and worthy plan, of course. And as the year goes on, we begin to know more about our students and what makes them special.

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But why do we only focus on kids’ challenges before we meet them? If we’re going to look at their standardized test scores, we should also spend time looking at all the ways in which we can see them. Do they love singing? Playing soccer? Fishing? Baking? Solving equations? Writing poetry? Painting? How can I use those strengths to help them grow as students? 

If we focus on what students lack, we’re missing out on so many amazing things kids can do. That’s why asset framing, which really just asks us to shift the way we view  people, is so important. Instead of using language that stigmatizes and focuses on the negative, we can make the decision to highlight value, worth and positivity.

As our little kids head back to school, they’re going to hear about the basics of asset framing, just as we did at a young age: Treat everyone equally and with kindness. Keep an open mind. Don’t judge one another or make assumptions. 

And speaking again from a teacher’s perspective, know that how you talk to and about kids — and all people — influences how they think about themselves.

This last point is just as relevant in my current work in communications with the League as it was in my teaching career. As a data-driven organization, we rely on numbers a lot. But they still only tell part of the story. 

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Our efforts to promote economic security and racial equity often mean we’re talking about the challenges facing Michiganders with low incomes and residents of color and the dramatic data disparities in their well-being. But it also continues to attach a negative connotation to being a person of color or someone dealing with poverty and their experiences, leading people to feel like nothing can be done to change things.

But we’re trying to make improvements for all Michigan residents through better public policy, which is why asset framing is such a valuable tool. 

Trabian Shorters, the man behind the concept of asset framing, is the founder of BMe Community, a national network that runs fellowships for Black people and invests in aspiring communities. 

When he started BMe, Shorters found that many partners were urging him to focus on the problems that Black men face, not on the assets they bring. In a June 2019 article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Shorters wrote, “This is not only insulting, it’s inaccurate and ineffectiveEighty-two percent of black men in America are not poor, and 57 percent are solidly middle class. They serve our country in uniform at the highest rates and are the most actively engaged fathers in the nation, according to federal statistics. So why does philanthropy only convey the image that they are absent or a problem or a threat?”

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As we all work in our classrooms, our communities or our Capitol to create equitable outcomes for all, Shorters encourages us to start by defining people by their aspirations, not their challenges. It’s a decision that can make a huge difference.

We all make decisions — whether as parents, friends, teachers, neighbors or colleagues — that impact the people around us. Sometimes creating change includes changing how we think and approach issues. Let’s take this opportunity to grow and adjust the way we see each other, so we can make those decisions with a better focus.

The Michigan League for Public Policy will hold its annual policy forum, Reframe and Reclaim: Addressing racial equity through asset framing, at 1 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Radisson Hotel in Lansing.

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