As educators, there has been some point in our own educational development where this colorful pyramid displaying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was displayed on a PowerPoint (or an overhead projector if your schooling is slightly dated like my own). A teacher or professor walked you through the foundational levels of the pyramid describing how the “deficiency needs” of esteem, belonging, love, safety, and other basic physiological needs must to be met before an individual can transcend to a self-actualizing being, able to be motivated and reach his or her true potential.
Somehow, as theory turned into practice and we all transitioned into our classrooms, the need to support students’ foundational needs morphed into a sense of urgency to build fluency, enhance literacy, or cover curricular content. I’ll entirely own up to this reprioritization as a young teacher!
Now, please don’t infer from my tone that these academically-focused elements are not important- our job as teachers is to ensure students learn and grow into knowledgeable, meaningful contributors to tomorrow’s society. Without fluency, literacy, or curricular knowledge, what would tomorrow bring? In my current role as an educational researcher, however, I hear time and time again from teachers and administrators how kids “just aren’t getting it” or “no matter what I do, it’s never enough.” We work harder and harder, year after year, only to keep coming up short of the benchmarks on whatever standardized test we are blessed to administer that year.
So what, as teachers, are we supposed to do about this? Work more hours? Hold more tutorials? Call yet another parent/teacher conference and ask for more comradery around the student’s academic success? This perpetual cycle of disappointment only seems to move faster and faster until you either check out, toss up the white flag, or hit the retirement benchmark and gracefully walk toward the sunset.
I think it’s time to try something new. We all talk about 21st-century learners and the importance of innovative teaching and learning. Yes- power to reform and improvement! But bring your eyes back to the top of the screen and have another look at Maslow’s pyramid. How many of the kiddos in your classroom are safe? How many feel love or feel that they belong at school or at home? How many have the self-esteem to be proud of what they do, or who they are? How many of them are “well” enough (for lack of a better word) to reach the potential you tirelessly work to promote? In my limited experience, unfortunately, not very many.
As public education ramps up and latches on to the idea of innovative 21st-century learning, I feel that it will become just another educational trend that comes and goes unless we all band together and tend to students’ deficiency needs- you know, the truly hard part of the work we signed up for? If kids aren’t well, how can we expect the fluency, literacy, or curricular tools that we tirelessly toss out there to be caught?
It’s time to leverage the power of our leaders still fighting the fight, our colleagues who truly love what they do, our parents who do whatever in their power to provide for their children, and our surrounding community to collectively support students’ holistic well-being and build the foundation needed to reach the self-actualizing pinnacle of the pyramid. Then, and only then, will innovative 21st-century learning truly flourish.
Andria Shook, PhD
Research Associate, IEE
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