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Dr. Grauer's Column - An Education Of The Heart

An Education Of The Heart
A Book Review on Permission To Feel (Brackett)

There’s a New Yorker cartoon I enjoy of a farmer in front of the barn, holding his pitchfork, talking to his little boy. The barn door is locked up tight with heavy chains and padlocks. He says to his boy: “This is the barn where we keep our feelings. If a feeling comes to you, bring it out here and lock it up.” I often felt that way as a classroom teacher, charged with racing through the State curriculum and knowing that the emotional and spiritual development of my students was treated as a digression. No matter that once we’re done with this schooling, our emotional intelligence and balance is a better predictor of what psychologists define as success in life and work than grades will ever be.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US and depression is the leading cause of disability in the world. Sure, some people have a greater propensity to get hit with these than others, and it’s true that many forces are hard to bear: and yet both are primarily created by humans. Thankfully, especially in the past 40 or so years, we are learning a lot about how to avoid or combat them.

Grauer Seniors sitting together the morning after pulling their "Senior Prank" of sleeping on campus overnight - June 4, 2021

For the most part, these afflictions are bred inside organizations like schools, businesses and families that intentionally adopt practices that we know very well will promote them. Many of the anxious people I meet actually think they have to accept anxiety, that it comes with whatever turf they are on. They don’t.

Anxiety and its close relative, depression, change the brain and they are changing the way many kids experience education and family life: an anxious mind is narrower, less creative, less fun and joyful, more exhausted, and less purposeful. As a school leader, I routinely have to say “no” to practices people want me to undertake: emotionally and educationally damaging practices that in some school environments are considered “normal” and expected. Much of these pressures come from people—parents, teachers, and students—who just need more permission from people like me, to live their life with greater freedom, to walk more peacefully, to get out of the race, to abandon other people’s expectations, or to leave their own fears behind.

Permission To Feel is a recent book by Marc Brackett that will be read by the Grauer Faculty this summer. If you want to have a greater school and community, you will read it with us. If you don’t have a chance to get a copy, let me know and I will get you one. 

To those of us in leadership at Grauer, we find this book to be the next in a line of books that we keep bringing in to infuse us with “permission.” Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” (1999) brought us the tools to separate our thoughts from our feelings, along with a huge vocabulary of “feeling” words to help us identify our emotions, hence, to channel them. Dan Goleman brought us Emotional Intelligence (1995) as a way of reminding all of us that if you balance your emotional intelligence with your mental intelligence—balance your heart and your head—both will end up a whole lot stronger and so will your organization. Brackett is the heir apparent to Goleman and Rosenberg’s crucial research.

By teaching people to tune in to their emotions with intelligence and to expand their circles of caring, we can transform organizations from the inside out and make a positive difference in our world.
— Daniel Goleman

I am stunned every time people treat anxiety through more drugs without significantly changing their lives and purposes—as if our job or “role” is more important than our spirit or consciousness. But I just keep seeing this.

Grauer 10th graders Adrien and Juna painting artwork on the posts supporting a garden bench - June 8, 2021

Powerful emotions impact everything we do, but we often act as though they are mere digressions or dark distractions preventing us from what we “need” or are “supposed” to do. Our teens are now the world leaders in violence, binge drinking, marijuana use, and obesity (UNICEF). For me, it is at least as heartbreaking to meet teens who are just plain glum, apathetic, tired, sullen, discouraged or troubled, because all these emotions purr in the background, enabling the teen to pretend they are “okay enough,” and functioning, fulfilling their expectations. 

The Born this Way Foundation (founded by Lady Gaga) found that three quarters of the emotion-oriented words teens use today are negative. How okay is that? Permission to Feel provides a great, thorough and inspirational cataloguing of ways we can intentionally address the state of our emotions and use them in positive ways. For starters, just identifying what we feel rather than the norm, i.e., blowing them off, has a dramatic impact on our mind. Of course, that takes practice, and this book provides a ton of that.

Permission To Feel comes out of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and gives all of us a leg up in identifying our emotions, understanding the impact of those emotions on all aspects of our lives (including getting what I would call a “real” or “whole” education), and then developing simple and powerful skills for using our emotions in healthy and productive ways. Most teens, teachers and parents could use more permission to support these goals.

The emotional intelligence movement and discipline is the same age as The Grauer School, and the balance of heart and head has been our essence all along. Pretty much all of this “permission” is pervasive across The Grauer School website, and we know this is what draws people to our school, but it does not make the challenge to achieve emotional intelligence less great. It takes significant courage on the part of parents and teachers to give this permission to teens and to really mean it. Sacrifices have to be made, egos have to be surmounted, and expectations may have to be altered. 

In reflection, “permission to feel” also means permission for all of us to let go—of a lot of baggage: the race to turn high school into a packed resume calculated to “impress.” It’s permission to trust that our kids are natural learners if only we let them be.

Grauer 8th graders Asa and Samara using the bubble balls to bump each other during an afterschool celebration - June 4, 2021

Brackett has two great questions for you, to stimulate your curiosity about whether you want to devote yourself as a parent or teacher to the systematic development of and focus on emotional intelligence for your child:

  1. Is it math skills, scientific information, or athletic prowess you are after? Or,
  2. Is it confidence, kindness, sense of purpose, and healthy, lasting relationships you are after?

We ask pretty much the same questions on The Grauer School's “Application for Admission.”

When I say, above, that egos may have to be surmounted to start our recovery from the current epidemic of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and joylessness we are finding in so many youths, what I mean is that it is common practice to think that only question set #1 is “real” in a curriculum, and question set #2 is somehow soft or less tied to success and achievement in the long run. Nothing could possibly be farther from the truth.

After you have read Permission To Feel, will you come in and talk to me about it?

According to the agencies regulating us as a school, we can go back to live, in-person gatherings as we are vaccinated against the scourge of COVID-19. What if the Grauer Parent Association hosted a live talk or just a conversation about the book? What about the Grauer Book Club? I’d be happy to visit your book club if you read it and want to talk more.

If you are not feeling inspired, proud, lively, loving, and blissful, here is the news: you probably can. Maybe this is the permission you are looking for:  your child cannot fulfill their best destiny without these.

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Dr. Grauer pretending to feed ice cream to the "Grauer Gorilla" at an afterschool celebration - June 4, 2021

Grauer Seniors sitting together the morning after pulling their "Senior Prank" of sleeping on campus overnight - June 4, 2021

Grauer 10th graders Adrien and Juna painting artwork on the posts supporting a garden bench - June 8, 2021

Grauer 8th graders Asa and Samara using the bubble balls to bump each other during an afterschool celebration - June 4, 2021

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