A Win-Win Situation
Heather Cardin holds degrees in Arts and Education from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and a Master’s degree in English from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She has published three books and has another forthcoming. She and her husband Bernie have settled in rural Saskatchewan, Canada after living for lengthy periods in British Columbia and Quebec. Their three children are now grown up.
Mitra: First I’d like to thank you for agreeing to give this interview. Congratulations on the recent publication of Mind, Heart, & Spirit: Educators Speak, an interesting read. Let me start by asking what was the motivation to write this book?
Heather: You are more than welcome. Thank you for asking me! Honestly, for the book, I thought that in many societies, I hear teachers being blamed for a lot of the problems of the world, or the children’s problems, and my experience with working in several schools was that most of the teachers I knew were completely committed to excellence in their work. So I thought that to showcase some of that work would perhaps help the people who read the stories to see what excellent work most teachers were doing, often in very challenging conditions, and to counteract some of the teacher blame.
Mitra: In 1900 education was for elite class of the world and, now in 2010, it is free for twelve years and universal in most countries. Do you think this is a remarkable achievement of our modern time?
Heather: Yes and no. Certainly we have come a long way, but there are serious problems with using the industrial model of education in what some people think of as a post-industrial age. The needs of education are very different from those in the past, and there are still injustices regarding access to education for all children, a fact underscored by remarkable books like Three Cups of Tea. Sir Ken Robinson says that we don’t really have a clue, yet, about educational needs in the coming century, and I tend to agree with him, given the pace of global change. What most educators recognize now, however, is that there is a crying need for education to address the deepest core needs of a person, not only at obvious levels such as literacy and numeracy, but at profound levels of connection and spirit. This growing awareness could be considered a remarkable achievement, if indeed it is occurring.
Mitra: Is there a difference between learning and education?
Heather: Sure. There are lots of people in systems who are being “educated” but who aren’t learning much. I won’t go into that critique here since much of the ground is covered in my book, as well as theorists I have cited.
Mitra: Very good answer. Most of us think education happens in classrooms, but according to your book, it starts from the moment a mother holds a newly born in her lap. How unique is this kind of education?
Heather: Well, if education starts from the moment of birth, it’s not unique because it happens to all of us, regardless of demographic. I started from mothers because that’s where it starts. I believe that educators, and the public, and students, which is really everybody from a different vantage point, are beginning to understand that education is a universal with many facets, and that in order to educate well we have to embrace the concept, fundamental to my faith, of “unity in diversity.” We are united, in the world, in principle at least, in recognizing the right for every human to participate in an educational process. This is in fact part of the major purpose of our lives. So there is a unity of concept, but not necessarily a unity of vision, and certainly not a unity of method. I prefer diversity in methodology, as well, which I think comes clear in my book.
Mitra: It seems we have much to do. Does society underestimate the value of fathers as educators given that some social ills can be partly attributed to fathers missing in action?
Heather: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer such a sweeping question. I haven’t done particular research in this area. However, I tend to be wary of viewpoints that apportion some general attitude to “society” since that term itself is nebulous. Our societies, globally, are diverse, and I suspect that you would find differences within various cultures regarding this particular social problem. Having said this, no one with any background in psychology, family systems, or spiritual teaching would deny the critical role of a loving father in a child’s development, so if such a father is not available, this could have implications for education, most probably.
Mitra: Let’s move on to another kind of educators. The character of a teacher can make or break the learning experience of a student. You mention in the book enthusiasm and warmth as two needed capacities. Are any other qualities educators must have as part of their qualifications?
Heather: Well, it was Marilee Rhody who cited the research about those qualities in particular. I have a mild academic bias towards an eclectic knowledge base, but I recognize that it’s my own bias. I think that teachers should be constantly learning, themselves. I think that a teacher who can show that s/he cares about students will be more successful with the material. In the school in which I am working now, for example, our senior math and science teacher is a young woman whose caring is evident, and she makes subjects which could otherwise appear difficult, for some students, look easier. Accordingly, they care for her and they care for their work. It’s a win-win situation. I also think that teachers need to have some level of openness or honesty. Kids know when they’re being misled by insincerity, and they will not put their best effort forward with someone who is playing a role. Perhaps some level of passion is important; someone who has lost their passion for education will probably not be able to inculcate a love of learning in the people within their purview. Yet I think it’s important to note that teachers are not meant to be perfect paragons, or to toe a party line respecting curriculum. Teachers can get so caught up in the politics of schools that they forget, or are distracted from, the fundamental reasons why they chose to be educators in the first place. I think that education is a synchronous process of sharing and developing capacities in each other: learning to learn together, if you will. It is a shared enterprise which empowers all participants. When the teacher is warm, enthusiastic, caring, knowledgeable, passionate…well, then the students will reflect and mirror these qualities. All of them become more “whole”, if you will. Oh, and by the way, a sense of humor really helps, too.
Mitra: Many students would love to see these qualities in their teachers. Some think that parents and teachers are custodians of God’s children. If this true how can we become more accountable to God in educating children?
Heather: As a practitioner of the Baha’i Faith, I am personally deeply aware of the importance of enlisting God’s aid. Every mistake I’ve ever made as a teacher is, in the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, directly attributable to my letting my spiritual beliefs be subsumed to something else that seemed more expedient at the time. Because of this, I am now in a greater habit of prayer. I don’t say this as a kind of a confession, but for me, keeping connected with God is the only way I have, personally, of feeling that genuine spiritual love is the underpinning of my role as an educator. So, for me, better teachers are people who are connected to spiritual practice. This is not necessarily religious, and is certainly not meant to be dogmatic, but it’s what I have come to believe and why I felt it was important to write Mind, Heart, & Spirit.
I also believe that the more parents are involved in communicating with those teaching their children, the more we are all accountable. I don’t like to phrase it exactly like this, because it can seem like a criticism of parents and as a parent, that’s not my purpose, but I think that some parents abjure their responsibility to connect with schools and their children’s education unless there’s a problem. Then these parents can fly in full of anger, blame, and self-justification when they themselves have not been paying attention to their children’s needs, and have been treating school like a free daily babysitting institution rather than a place in partnership with them to offer the best possibilities for their children’s futures. Parents and teachers are custodians, yes, but they are themselves God’s children. This field of education needs to be a holistic and united endeavor between all segments. Why do we not have elders in schools to assist the children? We should have schools in old-age facilities. We should have children singing every day for the community’s grandparents, not just for special occasions but every day. Think of how the children would feel. Think of how the elders would feel. We simply don’t have systems in place that allow for the whole development of home and school in synchrony with each other. Yet.
But to get back to your question more directly: I think that to be accountable to God for the work we are doing we have to practice our spiritual beliefs, and that this will reflect in the practice of our lives.
Mitra: Unlike mathematics, physics and economics, moral values differ from one group to another. What are some of the challenges of teaching children character building in a multicultural society?
Heather: I am not sure that I would support the premise of your question, with all due respect. I think it is a bit of a myth that the “hard sciences” are that hard, for example. There’s a lot of controversy, for example, about quantum physics, and economists come from all kinds of different moral standpoints. Maybe math is less flexible, that is either it’s right or it’s wrong, but I am a bit doubtful even of this. I’m not enough of a mathematician to know, but I suspect that even math can be open to some interpretation.
I also believe that there are some universal and fundamental moral values which transcend culture. You can work with these in any venue. Most societies value the importance of love, kindness, respect, forgiveness, charity, helpfulness, patience, and those qualities or, if you will, virtues, which characterize people regardless of culture. Perhaps the best story in my book which illustrates this is Joseph Sheppherd’s. So I think that educational systems that work from such foundations will actually work fairly universally.
However, I do take your point that it is challenging. I think education, regardless of subject or cultural background, is challenging. It is not for the faint of heart. It does require caring, and patience, and commitment. And as for character building, I am a great believer in the power of modeling. You can’t expect honest children with dishonest parents or teachers. You can’t expect children to be generous with one another if they are watching the adults around them be stingy. We have to be the light in order to see the light. Greater minds than mine have pointed out that we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Children recognize hypocrisy; they also recognize love.
Mitra: In Baha’i communities, what can parents and institutions do more to improve the quality of education?
Heather: Goodness! Be responsible, be participatory, be lifelong learners, set up systems which do not isolate children from elders, utilize a diversity of resources, model prayerfulness, use the arts. I think for me that the last part has been truly astonishing in its power to move mind, heart, and spirit together. The arts can be applied to every subject, and they offer a real reason for that synthesis. They make people happy, and they help to develop a much more whole approach to education. Music, painting, dance, drama: they are noble pursuits and a way of teaching that really works.
Mitra: Heather, these are excellent ideas. In many parts of the world getting an education is a privilege, something many cherish. In western societies, students don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm. Is this true?
Heather: There’s actually been some research into this to find out if the widespread public perception of this is true. Andrew Nikiforuk cites some of this research in his book. I think the answer is that the generalization was true but is rapidly shifting as technology shrinks the world. Students in some cultures definitely still recognize that education is a privilege, but as the world gets more connected through Facebook, YouTube, cell phones and other technologies, the perception gap seems to be shrinking. I don’t think we have grasped yet how significantly these technologies are causing shifts in both the methods and the rationales for education.
Mitra: How can parents be encouraged to get more involved in education rather than leaving this important task to teachers and governments?
Heather: Well, if I were being somewhat dictatorial about it, I might tie it to taxation and rebates. The more you do for your school and community, the less a percentage of tax you have to pay. But I don’t really believing in commanding a mandate in this way. I think the key is listening to parents. I don’t think there are enough opportunities for the free and respectful exchange of dialogue. For example, on an average parent-teacher night, the turnout of parents is often very small. Open meetings with school boards, that is to say most of them, since few are closed to the public, are almost never attended by parents unless there’s a compelling concern. I think people get encouraged when they feel like you have listened to them. So how can teachers, administrators and governments convince parents they are being listened to? First, solicit the conversation. Pick up the telephone. Use e-mail. And when the parent has expressed him or herself, take positive action. The listening itself may be enough. I had one parent call me earlier this year with a question. It was a good question, and in answering, and then chatting with the parent, which took me about fifteen minutes, I was informed and the parent was informed, and the immediate educational needs of a particular child were addressed in a very positive way for all concerned. I listened, she listened, we were respectful, and the kid was much happier. I think it’s sometimes as easy as that. Not always, but sometimes. I think we all need to listen to each other much better. We need to pay attention.
Mitra: Becoming a ‘virtues’ school is a new trend of this decade. How promising does it look?
Heather: I have mixed feelings about this. I think it’s helpful to name the virtues and to develop a virtues vocabulary. It’s easier for a human being to practice something he or she understands and can put a finger on. But I think it’s possible to be a little facile with the concept. For example, I have heard stories of awarding a child a certificate in “humility”, and then the child himself asking, “How would you know I am humble?” It’s a very good question, and demonstrates that the child is querying both the judgment process and the sincerity of the movement. So it’s a fine line between trendmaking and hypocrisy. It’s promising if it brings a greater consciousness to people of the need for integrating virtues as part of our broader social values, but I think it takes more than a surface quick fix to do that.
Mitra: Moral education is the central theme of this book. Education also means acquiring employment skills. In the Baha’i Faith, begging is prohibited and work is considered worship to God. To serve oneself, the family, community and the world, one needs both. What do you think?
Heather: There are sections of the book that deal with the idea of a “calling”. I believe that as we develop as global societies, we will begin to really understand that work is not a painful chore but a deep value and a way of fulfilling the heart. I am fortunate to work in education. It brings me a very fair pay cheque, for which I am grateful, but it also brings a daily opportunity to know some wonderful young people, to be a part of their dreams and goals, to celebrate and commiserate with them at a very human level, and to share in the educational enterprise with them and with my colleagues. It’s a very rich and blessed place to be, and if I don’t feel like that about it, I won’t do it anymore.
I think that as people find their niches, we will discover more and more the rich feeling of being needed, wanted for our skills, and collaborating with others from a deep place of satisfaction with work and skills. Doing our best and being happy with that. And our societies will evolve to allow for our diverse human skills to sustain us. It will take time, but this I believe to be both true and possible.
I have a student in grade eight. He has discovered that he loves to work with metal, and is setting that as his career goal. I have seen some of the tools he is making. He is already a master craftsman of knives. They are exquisitely beautiful, functional, and skilled work. He is justifiably proud of them, and he is serving a purpose. He sells his work, and because of the intense effort and love he has put into them, people are very happy to buy it. I hope for every person to find that kind of calling, and a society which supports it.
Mitra: Many were not lucky enough to be schooled and found life itself as an educator. Any comment?
Heather: Life itself is an education, but the principle of universal education is not only a spiritual one, it is a legal and moral one, upheld by important global concerns such as the United Nations. To be well schooled and to be educated beyond school are both a part of a fulfilling life. Neither is enough without the other. They are light upon light. We all need both.
Mitra: Baha’u’llah, the prophet of the Baha’i Faith, establishes Himself and other prophets as the Divine Educators. Unfortunately, teaching religion has become a contentious issue in public schools. What can be done?
Heather: This is probably more true in the United States than it is for us here in Canada. We have excellent programs of moral education in a variety of jurisdictions which educate people very broadly in all the religious traditions and in the importance of having a spiritual component of their lives. Certainly teacher training needs to be sensitive to nuance in these areas, but it is completely possible to teach the moral foundations of religious belief without advocating a particular dogma. Places which seem to fear such education, such as is my impression of many U.S. jurisdictions, would do well to study successful models, where religion is well taught, and to reinstate such programs. It is short sighted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, if you will forgive the cliché.
A lot can be done and is, in fact, being done.
Mitra: Well rounded education is the foundation for prosperity for individuals, society, nations and the world. In fact, the success of any industrialized country depends on a sound education system. Any thoughts on that?
Heather: We have a lot of work to do.
Mitra: However, in the last few decades, the progress in education systems have been lagging behind other human concerns such as information technology, medical sciences, team work management, to name just a few, which are going through revolutions every decade.
Heather: Well, I have a few thoughts on that which you will not find in this particular book because it was not the slant of the work. I don’t think it’s just about money, although surely better minds than mine have done excellent critique of the vast sums given to bombs over books. I do see redundancy; for example, in each province in Canada there is a different system which, if federalized, would reduce some of the overlaps in curriculum change. For example, I now work in Saskatchewan after several years in BC and Quebec. Quebec is way ahead in its moral education, and the insights in that province could inform and shorten the process of curriculum revision in Saskatchewan, but the two areas seem somewhat unaware of each other’s work. BC has been implementing, for many years, some of the research around career education through pilot programs like CAPP, or Career and Personal Planning, derived from the work and research coming out of Harvard. These programs are not without their glitches but could inform Saskatchewan’s curricular development teams; again, there is not a lot of cross-border collaboration. This is a limitation, I suppose, of living in a large country. I don’t know whether the United States is also dogged by such inefficiencies.
The internet revolution is also changing teaching practice. I now routinely use YouTube in my classes, and innovations such as the Smart Board. The implications for connectedness are only beginning to be understood by educators. The entire playing field has shifted. I think an educational revolution is on the immediate horizon. Maybe we’re already in it, but don’t know it. There are still some teachers who seem stuck in 1950s mentality, but for the most part, we are willing to learn and to learn with and through the changes. I just don’t believe that the technology should drive the curriculum; I believe that we should be working from a deep philosophical foundational vision about what we believe is right, in education, and then using the tools to drive the vision. That’s not happening yet, that I know of, but I could be very mistaken. I also think that as we reintegrate the consciousness of a whole person as having a spirit, and that their spirit is very important to their learning, that we will see necessary educational change. Education is, perhaps, more than most other fields, about philosophy.
Mitra: Tell us briefly about your upcoming book.
Heather: It’s a companion book to my second work. The second book was published by George Ronald, and is entitled A Warm Place in My Heart: Young Voices on Faith. I collected and edited; I didn’t really write it. The young people wrote it. It’s quite lovely, listening to their voices. One young man liked it so much that he has translated it into Persian, so that the Baha’is in Iran, who continue to live under persecution, might be encouraged. I’m proud of that. So after I did that book, I realized that I wanted to collect elder voices. There are more, and they have more to say, so it looks like there may be several volumes. But the first one will come out soon. It’s called The Bright Glass of the Heart: Elder Voices on Faith, and it consists of amazing and inspiring stories of people who have found the Baha’i teachings, either generationally or through investigation at some point in their adult lives, and the implications of this practice in their lives. I’ll tell you honestly, many of the stories, as they came in, had me weeping. It’s very powerful.
Mitra: And your passion for poetry.
Heather: I have always loved poetry but didn’t train in it particularly until my Master’s work, and it was while reading poetry rather eclectically that I decided to write it. I should say, more accurately, that poetry began to invade me and I just scribed what came, and then learned the editing process. It’s a gift, and it’s absolutely blissful to play with the language to communicate the deepest responses of your soul. So I have a couple of poetry manuscripts ready for publication, but also have been published in several compilations in literary magazines and so on. I also have developed the habit of reading poetry, everywhere I can, and have new favorites, one being Tim Lilburn, who won our Governor General’s award for his book Kill-Site, another Lorna Crozier. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that some of my favorites are from the Canadian prairies; there’s a home-sense about them.
Interview with educator/author/poet Heather Cardin, by V. Mitra Gopaul of BW.
Heather Cardin's Blog.