Democracy in Schools 2: A Conversation with Helen Beattie

Conversations on Participatory Democracy

Innovative democratic professionals are encouraging greater participation in some of our most fundamental institutions, yet what they are doing is rarely the focus of political theory, social science research, or what politicians talk about when they are talking about renewing American democracy. The conversations in this series aim to shed light on new democratic practices taking shape and to find out more about the dynamic people involved.

Helen Beattie is the founder of YATST (Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together), a set of ideas and tools she and her colleagues have developed with schools all across Vermont to increase and deepen student engagement through collaborative action-research teams.  YATST teams, made up of students, teachers, and administrators, have conducted and analyzed dozens of surveys on school practices and facilitated school-wide conversations on their results; sparked changes in student government structure; created pedagogical videos; helped reform student assessment processes; piloted a classroom assistant program giving students a role in instruction; and altered the ways many teachers consult students for guidance on technique and course themes.  We talked recently about how she got involved in the work of transforming institutions and about why it is important that youth and adults are working together as partners to change their schools.

Albert Dzur: You began your career in health care, not education, but you noticed early on certain debilitating problems shared by these domains.  In health care organizations, you experienced how disempowering the organizational structure could be, how people were sometimes treated as objects rather than human beings with independent voices.  When you subsequently went into school psychology, you discovered that educational structures sometimes blocked rather than enabled development.  Can you tell me more about these early institutional experiences?  What did they mean to you?  Why did they prompt you to try to change organizational practices?

Helen Beattie: I worked for the American Cancer Society, an independent nonprofit, in two capacities.  My entry job was program director, but then I became director of service and rehabilitation for the state.   It was all patient and family related programming.  My next job was coordinator of the Cancer Information Service, a toll free hot-line.  All day I listened to phone calls from patients and family members about their experiences with their healthcare institutions.  I wasn’t based in one hospital or clinic; in fact, I was hearing from patients and family members throughout Massachusetts, about what was happening for them.  So a lot of my understanding and my deepening concern about the loss of empowerment and voice of people in the healthcare system came from those professional positions.

What made my going to the cancer society so meaningful was that my dad had just died of cancer.  I had had some very powerful experiences both with extraordinary providers and a couple of horrifying instances when he was utterly stripped of his dignity in situations where professional power and personal ego played big roles.  So I guess if you really peel this all the way back, my passion and my intolerance comes from that as much as anything.  I’ve just followed that thread throughout my life.

AD: One way of handling a disappointing experience with a professional institution is to chalk it up to some bad apples, but you took a more organizational viewpoint and held institutional structures responsible.

HB: Right.  So I had this deeply personal experience and then I started to understand it and explore it very much at an institutional level as I listened to patients and family members.  I developed programs for them to help them feel as if they could be more valued and integral to decision-making in their health and I started to work with providers to help them see the importance of that.

AD: Were there things that institutions were doing that shut down patient voice?

HB: The system of medicine in general offered very few opportunities at that time for patients to raise their questions and concerns, or to be partners in decisions about their health. They were basically passive recipients of their care delivered by well-intended practitioners—who really do have this extraordinary field of knowledge to do their work.  And so much like the parallel in education, there was the power structure.  Though inadvertent, often in both situations the outcome is learned passivity, helplessness, hopelessness, and the devaluing of one’s voice.  Individuals start to believe quiet compliance is the only way they can survive in the system.

To me it quickly became an institutional issue: not one of fixing the bad apples but rather fixing a way of providing healthcare that did not highlight or even take into consideration the healing power that comes with giving people, who are subject to that system in such a vulnerable place, their dignity and voice.  I immediately began to see on an institutional level that you could choose to attack the bad apples but that’s really going to go nowhere.  Firing the bad doctors or teachers would be ineffectual.  Instead, we need to change the paradigm under which they are working to elevate the role of the recipients and really see them.  In both situations the desired outcome of healing and learning happens better when you ignite the capacity within individuals to be players in it.  We know that patients do better when they feel like they have some control over their healing process and have hope.  They do better than patients who just feel utterly powerless in the face of their disease. It’s the same thing with learning.

I felt as if my impact would be far greater if we really looked at root causes and the deepest one is the cultural shift around the fundamental relationship between the provider and the recipient whether it’s physician-patient or teacher-student.

AD: This same kind of issue came up when you became a school psychologist.

HB: It did.  It also came up in between, when I did my doctorate in education.  In fact, that doctorate involved helping cancer patients and family members understand how to deal with going through radiation or chemotherapy from the position of the patient.  I created two teaching videos from information provided by patients. Instead of a nurse saying, “This is what’s going to happen to you and this is what you should do,” the videos had patients in a focus group sharing what they’d experienced, what they came to know, and what strategies had worked for them.  The videos affirmed, “You’re not alone in your questions; you’re very capable of finding these answers; other people who have been in your situation can help you do that; and there’s a provider in the room who’s ready to listen to you and coach you and be there at your side.”

That was an interim part of my story about trying to make tools.  Then I became director of primary care with five health centers up in Vermont and they were pretty community-oriented.  Much of what I saw as the needed paradigm shift existed in the way these people practiced in that primary care setting.  That was really wonderful to see a model that was patient-centered.

AD: So you saw that things could be different in practice.

HB: Right. Certainly on a primary care level.  I think it gets much tougher when you get into acute care settings with their level of sophistication and knowledge. The knowledge base is big everywhere, but it’s packed when you get into acute and tertiary care facilities.  But, anyway, that’s the story about my institutional experience in health care.  So then, lo and behold, I leave that job and go into education and I see very quickly the exact same thing happening.  Through doing evaluations with students, I notice that those who are struggling most are also feeling voiceless and often hopeless, and they see no way that they can influence the system for their or others’ betterment.

AD: You see the exact same thing happening with students that you had noticed with patients.  Can you help me understand that a bit more concretely?

HB: Right.  As a school psychologist, my referrals were children who had cognitive struggles with reading, for example, or with content areas because of disabilities or social and emotional issues.  And often what I saw was that they felt that they were the problem.  It wasn’t just that the system wasn’t addressing their needs, which it wasn’t, it was that they saw themselves as the problem.  And when they lived with the weight of being named in this way, they often progressively withdrew.  They felt as if they had no venue to influence what was going on—they essentially lost their voice.

Most heartbreaking was when they just started to feel hopeless: “It’s me,” “I’m deficient,” “They’re right,” and “There’s no way I can fix it.”  They couldn’t advocate for themselves because they believed what the system was implicitly telling them.  These insidious messages—which are really loud when you’re the one who’s the recipient—say it was their inability to be a “good” student that put them in that place.

That was equally as intolerable as when patients felt as if they had to be good, with “good” meaning “being silent and taking it as it was provided without question.”  So that was the parallel that was pretty pronounced to me.

AD: Instead of seeing the student who’s in your office as the problem, you’re seeing the institutional environment as a contributing factor.

HB: Huge contributing factor.

AD: The institution is labeling them and, in a sense, encouraging them not to succeed.

HB: Right. It was not the intention, but it was too often the outcome. By stripping them of their ability for self-advocacy.  By not acknowledging a primary responsibility to listen and respond rather than tell and instruct.

AD: Just to get more clear on what might be happening at a typical school that would serve as a barrier, can you say something about a specific student who comes to mind when you’re talking about this? You don’t have to use a name.

HB: One student comes to mind who exemplifies a number of system issues.  When I took her family history, she had been in 18 foster homes within 6 years.  She was extremely withdrawn: her bangs were hanging over her face and I could barely even make eye contact with her.  And she engaged in the whole evaluation process with me.  She wasn’t resistant to participating, but she just seemed so hurt and so hopeless about being understood, being met. The system had no idea what to do with her.  That’s an extreme case of withdrawal and in her case, too, mixed with anger and acting out.  And that’s really hard for schools to deal with. They don’t know what to do with that.  Those who become quiet and disengaged just fade away.

AD: So you’re saying that there was nothing especially problematic about the school, it just wasn’t reaching out to her.  Teachers weren’t able to get through to her.

HB: Right.  They were overwhelmed and unable to reach her—to create a relationship so that they could sort through, from her perspective, what she needed both as a learner and in the much more complex social and emotional realm.  She had been “the problem” for so long, in so many settings.  Some were judgmental of her, given her difficult behaviors, perpetuating the message that she was a “bad” person rather than a person who was struggling.  Most cared, but felt unable to help.

AD: What the school was seeing was a package of deficits.  And at least partly because of this standpoint, it was not able to form a relationship with a young person struggling to get through some problems.

HB: Right. There were some really good people in that school who were trying to do that.  But in general, if you look at intake systems for schools they’re generally deficit-based systems.  We create a problem list and then we pick away at that problem list.  Rarely does a school say, “Okay, let’s name and look at your coping strategies and the strengths that are reflected in your resilience in this situation and then let’s construct a problem list. We’re going to look at that problem list but we’re always going to be cross-checking with those things we know already are strengths of yours to be able to shrink that problem by building on those strengths.”

Affirming strengths has not been the approach of schools.  Their deficit approach goes along with the punitive behavior management systems, which are often in place.  Thankfully, schools are starting to go more to the positive psychology side now, but for years and years we would punish bad behavior and relate it to bad students.  That line needed to be broken.  I did a ton of work in Vermont using the resiliency model, which gives very pragmatic ways for people to say, “I should be looking at strengths first.  I could look at this person as oppositional or I can look at their strong will as a potential strength and try to work with them to try to have it work more on their behalf.” It’s that half full or half empty adage: it’s so simple, but that’s not the frame that education institutions tend to use.

AD: It’s what you would do if you had a friend or relative who was having these troubles. You would seek to understand the whole person.

HB: Right, and particularly help them see what strengths and anchors they already have as they grapple with an issue because so often a person feels totally overwhelmed and inadequate.  So first help surface those pieces of resilience for them—and for you—to create balance in a perspective of the situation.  Those pieces of resilience can be evident for an outsider but may not be to the person experiencing difficulty.  And also listen to the deep concerns or problems and really unravel them in balance rather than in isolation.  Psychology has driven us to a deficit approach and our institutional practices have been designed using that, too, but we now know that we don’t have to do it that way.  When we do it this other more balanced way it better serves the child.  The whole field of resiliency helped take certain kinds of judgments away from the practitioners.  We needed a different set of tools that can help us have this new lens.  That’s been the approach in medicine, too.  The bottom line for me is to assume best intentions: nobody’s been doing this because they wanted to hurt a child or hurt a patient.  It’s the way the system has been, and now we know better, we can do better with some pretty simple strategies that reshape our thinking.  That’s also what YATST or Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, is doing.  This is the initiative we developed for schools to promote youth-adult partnership.

AD: Another thing that is interesting is that instead of simply saying standard practice—well-intentioned as it may be—is not helping students with certain learning problems, you have made a larger claim: the struggles students bring into your school psychologist office are a window into problems all students are having.

HB: Right.  Absolutely.  Everybody does better when they feel valued, they feel hopeful, and they’re engaged in meaningful work in a meaningful way.

AD: Help me understand that.  You refuse to see this as a just a problem with poorly performing students.  What are you seeing in well-functioning students that makes you think that they need a different program?

HB: There are lots of students who are just playing the game, getting their A’s and B’s, building their portfolios for college.  They’re never questioning the teaching or what is happening instructionally in the classroom, which may actually be very poorly designed for learning.  Those students are learning the skills to play life’s games but they’re not learning the skills to be active advocates for something better, something that has integrity. And if there’s a life skill that we want to have—not just talked about in a civics class but rather have students live every day—it is their assessing the integrity of a situation and advocating for change.  Without their voice and their honesty—which is really risky for the game players—we’re not developing that skill. I think our world needs this.  People feel better, too, when what they think and feel can be expressed and help shape their world—to have personal agency.  So that’s every student.

AD: Do you ever hear that from high performing students?  Do they ever say,  “Look, this doesn’t feel authentic to me?”

HB: All the time.  All the time.  There’s a field of research about this issue.  One of my leadership team members was a principal who interviewed the high flyers in his high school and they all said, “Our getting A’s does not have a correlation with learning.”

AD: That’s fascinating.

HB: Rob Fried, who’s on my advisory board, wrote a book called Playing the Game of School.  There’s a lot of research out there that says there are a ton of students who are playing it.  That’s not a bad life skill, but it’s sad to me that you are basically submitting to being disengaged and subject to less than engaging teaching and learning so that you can survive and move on—“doing your time.”  Although it bothers those students, they see the risk of giving voice to their concerns and the potential costs of speaking up.  It shouldn’t be a risk to give good feedback to a teacher that what they’re doing isn’t quite working for that student and probably for other students.  Or, the other side, to be able to communicate that what the teacher is doing is awesome and please do more of it.  You know, help them in partnership shape an engaging classroom.

AD: YATST teams have piloted programs in which students play a larger role in classrooms, as teaching assistants for example, and teams have sparked curricular and administrative changes as well.  Isn’t this collaborative, power-sharing work kind of counter-cultural, given current demands for greater accountability to state standards, school boards, and concerned parents—demands that have fueled the high-stakes testing trend?  If the dominant institutional culture tends to be hierarchical and top-down, how can YATST thrive?

HB: The paradox is that students will do better academically when they are actively engaged and valued; our job is to help adults see the reasons for an alternative route to a shared desired end. The good news is that everyone wants to help young people develop the skills and confidence to pursue their interests and reach their goals—we have the same vision.  But you are right, the path to get there that we have chosen requires a shift in the dominant mental model for adolescence in America. That model underestimates the desire and capacity of young people to play a more meaningful role in shaping their world.  So, if we can demonstrate, through both our process and our outcomes, that it is a “win-win” situation to tap into the natural desire of young people to make meaning of the world—to make a difference in the world—we will be successful.   And I have seen enough instances of adult “ah-ha’s” in this regard to be hopeful.   The bottom line is that most adults care deeply about young people and want to help them be successful, whatever the chosen path.  When shown a means to that end—one that brings out the very best in young people and surfaces untapped potential—they generally are responsive.  In fact, when a youth-adult partnership in learning is fully embraced, both students and teachers thrive.  Our job is to help people experience this different route to a shared end.

AD: You mentioned earlier that when you came to Vermont you experienced a primary care facility that treated patients with respect and permitted them a kind of voice that you hadn’t seen as strongly previously.  This leads me to ask my standard “this is Vermont, after all” question.  Vermont has a history of participatory democracy, with town meetings and progressive politics.  Is YATST successful because it is in Vermont or can students and educators in other states effectively use the tools you have constructed?

HB:  The YATST model is based on a core attribute of human nature; thatpeople have a natural desire to feel valued, have a voice, and be engaged in meaningful work.  YATST is also firmly grounded in current brain research.  This means it crosses state boundaries.  I do not have evidence of YATST being replicated in other states, but I do have a compelling example of how a similar initiative I have been leading for the last five years based on the same principles has thrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, an urban and culturally diverse setting.

YATST is under the umbrella of the bigger organization, UP for Learning–or Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning.  A common thread through UP is having young people utilize data as a platform for them to create community dialogue and initiate change.  Data gives them immediate credibility and heightens community intrigue—who doesn’t want to know about what the survey they took revealed about their school?  So, five years ago I implemented an initiative called “Getting to Y: Youth Bring Meaning to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey” in partnership with the Agency of Education.  It is now under the UP for Learning umbrella.  The YRBS is a national survey out of the Center for Disease Control in Washington, DC.  Young people develop the skills to lead a student analysis of their own Youth Risk Behavior Survey (or YRBS data), facilitate a community dialogue night, and take action.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico were following this work in Vermont and decided to replicate the model.  They secured Kellogg funding to help them implement the process in a Native American school and a large, urban predominantly Hispanic school, which was fairly notorious in the district for the level of behavioral and academic challenges they confronted.  Ultimately, the students in the Native American school decided that they would bring the data analysis process back to their individual reservations over the summer, as many travelled into the city from different pueblos and wanted to have a more immediate impact on their home community.  The principal at the Hispanic high school, who was initially reluctant to give the students the time off to attend the trainings, has become an ardent supporter and is helping one of the students implement a mentoring program, which was initiated as a direct result of the program.  Both schools have embraced the model and decided to institutionalize it on an annual basis.  Adults can not help but be inspired when watching young people take on these meaningful roles—to see the potential of tapping into their wisdom, passion and optimism.  It reminds us, as adults, to remain hopeful.  This phenomenon crosses state borders.

AD: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the value of student partnerships and more participatory cultures in schools that we haven’t discussed?

HB: I would just like to talk about our choice of focusing on youth-adult partnership rather than “youth voice,” which is a fairly typical title for similar work.  For both adults and young people, the term “youth voice” often invokes an image of a youth-only “take over”—a complete swing of the pendulum from adult dominated to youth dominated control and decision making—a sort of antidote to the existing power imbalance.  We think the answer is when the pendulum rests squarely in the middle, with a partnership between youth and adults as the means to the ends.

If we believe that learning must evolve to partnership, with students the co-creators of their learning and teachers as their guides, then the change process should mirror this same dynamic of partnership.  Youth and adults bring differing skills and life experiences to the table.  There is an unmistakable synergy when you meld the creativity, insights, commitment, and optimism of young people with the systems savvy and organization skills of adults.  As with any group, it must be nurtured so that old patterns do not take over.  It can be hard work to change our own mental models of that relationship.  But when youth and adults share their work and their passions in this way, both equally empowered and equally humbled, it can be quite magical.  It is as if we all become our better selves.

Work on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.
Images provided by Albert Dzur and Helen Beattie.
More of this interview can be found at the Boston Review.

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