Lesson Learned Column "2019-2020 School Year"

Our Upshur County Schools are officially into the 2019-2020 School year. Our Board of Education began the year July 1, 2019, with a compulsory meeting, yet a meeting with high expectations. From my West Virginia Wesleyan College liberal education days from 1966 to 1970, I recall Philosophy Professor Joseph Mow describing “tabula rasa,” a concept that can be used to describe for our current opportunity.

Tabula rasa (“blank slate”) is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception. Certainly Dr. Mow rightly presented the theory traced back to the writings of Aristotle, who writes in his treatise “On the Soul” of the “unscribed tablet.”

In one of his more well-known passages, Aristotle writes, “Haven’t we already disposed of the difficulty about interaction involving a common element, when we said that mind is in a sense potentially whatever is thinkable, though actually it is nothing until it has thought? What it thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing-tablet on which as yet nothing stands written: this is exactly what happens with mind.”

What does this have to do with lessons learned serving on the BOE?

Well, we are about to get excited. For the first time in many years, we start the entire Upshur County Schools system with many new employees, including bright, motivated young educators. We are living in a growing community with more students, including pre-Kindergarten students. And we have a new teaching tool giving us a significant chance to nurture our staff and students. From the Board of Education down to cooks and janitors and bus drivers as well as central office administrators, local schools’ principals and teachers, we are awakening to a concept that will dramatically change how we will approach our precious students. We are acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room—traumatic stress.

We have been brought to our knees in West Virginia with a perfect storm of an opioid epidemic causing trauma. Our response is just as compelling in opposing the storm winds blowing against us. We are becoming a trauma-informed school system addressing the roots of why many of our students until now could not learn. The blank slate of a student’s mind has been written upon by traumatic events beyond our control. Certainly, a child filled with fear must have safety to learn.

We are mounting what is both radical and healing.

Speaking as a physician, we now have both a diagnosis and a treatment that matches what ails us. We are providing powerful medicine, cleaning traumatic wounds and applying healing balm.

On August 8th our entire staff gathered, unified by new tools. This includes our administrators, teachers, staff, parents and law enforcement.

In addition, students—from day one of this educational year—are provided with clear expectations and communication strategies to guide them through stressful situations. The goal is not only to provide tools to cope with extreme situations, but to create an underlying culture of respect and support.

Our West Virginia Legislators and our Governor have provided more dollars for counseling support as well as a professional educators’ raise, recognizing the importance of writing on a blank slate of our young students’ minds and soul tabula rasa!

So let the learning begin this academic year. As Aristotle said, this is a matter of mind and soul. With a blank slate, our BOE will foster safety. We will quiet the storm and provide calm. We will recognize each child’s value, leading to self-efficacy. The family-church-community connection will be sought. And above all, hope abounds.


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