Recreating The Wheel: Reimagining America’s Public School System With Dr. Aaron Smith

There is still so much to change with the education system here in America, most especially the public school system. Promoting a school-to-workforce pipeline instead of the school-to-prison pipeline, Dr. Aaron Smith, an active and leading STEM school director and professional speaker, joins host, Jennifer Whitacre, to share with us how he is uniquely bringing the word about reimagining America’s public school system through his newly released book, Blank Check: What If You Were Asked to Reinvent Public Education?spreading This is a young adult novel designed to inspire young people and the next generation of parents to become involved with fixing the public school system in America. He takes us into his realizations and insights about the problems he sees that led him to this vision of a new type of school system—from the decision-makers and the existing inequality in funding to domestic violence—and how he is boosting emotional and mental support within that. Listen in on this great conversation that moves us past the traditional solutions to the problems with America’s public schools and into a fresh and exhilarating approach that recreates the wheel.

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Recreating The Wheel: Reimagining America’s Public School System With Dr. Aaron Smith

We’ve taken a break from the show and we’re finally starting to get some new episodes back out into the world. Hopefully, there’s been enough of a break from the show that we can start having some non-COVID conversations in the world. That’s what I’m hoping to do. Our guest is a return guest. It’s Dr. Aaron Smith and he was on the show before to talk about STEM schools. If you read that episode, then you remember that Dr. Smith is an author. He’s an active and leading STEM school director and a professional speaker with expertise in workplace readiness.

Aaron assists schools, corporate supporters, and community leaders to collaborate so that education professionals understand the needs of the businesses. He is a promoting a school to workforce pipeline instead of the school to prison pipeline. He’s also the author of Awakening Your STEM School. We’re going to talk about his newly released book Blank CheckWhat If You Were Asked to Help Reinvent Public Education? This is a young-adult novel designed to inspire a new generation and the new generations of us parents to become involved with fixing the public school system in America. Dr. Smith, welcome to the show. It’s an honor to have you here.

Thank you so much, Jennifer. It’s an honor to be back. I’m excited.

Thank you for sending me an advanced reader copy of Blank Check. I’ve enjoyed reading it. I was hoping to have some non-COVID conversations and I do think that the pandemic right now is a good segue into this. I think the situation that we are in has shown us very clearly what a house of cards our school systems are. It’s showing us not with our school systems, but with systems across the board, like our whole entire economy, our whole entire society for everything to have this much of an impact in such a short period of time that is so detrimental. We’re living in a house of cards and the illusion is poof. What are some of the problems that you see that led to this vision of a new type of school system?

Everybody knows that education is not perfect, but what I’m sensing more and more is that there are lots of disconnects. We have a broken system. Let’s call it like it is. Through no fault of anybody, when you continue to work with a broken system and you don’t make changes, it’s not going to improve. It’s ultimately going to deteriorate and implode. Here’s a case in point. We have kids who forget the material they learned in June and then transitioned back into September. You’re talking about at least 5 or 6 weeks for a teacher to get back on track in terms of learning, structures and things like that. Three centuries ago, that was done predominantly to help farmers and agriculture. The majority of Americans are not on farmlands. Why don’t we make adjustments and utilize that time in the summer to do things such as exploring careers or continuing the base of skills, where teachers had the availability to keep connecting real-life experiences with kids. That’s one example.

We could go on and on. We’ve got teachers that are overwhelmed. They are literally consumed with the stress already with tests, the mandates of the state requirements to teach all this curriculum combined with testing, and the lack of resources. Unfortunately, we don’t get the parental support we always need and it has become a perfect storm. That’s why we decided that it’s time for a change and to change the way we view education, but to approach it from a fictional perspective. If you look at it from a nonfiction perspective, you’ve got to think about all this legislation, budget restrictions and things that handcuff the possibilities. Writing it as a young-adult book and a fiction book, you’re only bound by your imagination.

I love some of the things that you point out in the book that are problems with the system. Uninspired leadership or the fact that a lot of the decision-makers who are making policy decisions that directly affect our students, our communities, our schools, our families have no flipping idea what’s going on in the public schools. They send their own children to private schools because they know that there’s a problem in a lot of areas in the public schools. There’s this huge disconnect between the decisions they’re making in the schools. I loved the phrase that you put in one scene. As Josiah was quitting his job when he talked about conflict-avoidant cowards. Isn’t that a problem in our schools? Not in our schools, but in society in general.

You addressed and mentioned the school to prison pipeline, which is what a lot of our schools have become especially urban schools. Even in some rural schools where you have some of those traumatized so-called problem children. The school administrators who tend to be yes-men and suck-ups. There are so many things that you’ve addressed here. It’s important to talk about some of these things. How would you overcome just like the decision-makers who don’t know what’s going on in the schools and the uninspired leadership? How do you propose overcoming that?

You have to invite them to your schools. I say this with my hat in hand, the legislators don’t need to see the best schools. They need to see whatever school looks like. They need to be a teacher for a week or month and take the work home, make the phone call to the parents and understand the rigmarole that they go through on the day-to-day experiences. You will never appreciate somebody’s perspective of things unless you have endured it. I will never understand what it’s like to serve our country, but I can only imagine how hard it is for them. I want people to realize the same thing. Being a teacher, you’re doing so many things at once. You’re putting out fires, you’re literally being a counselor. You are becoming a parent of sorts. You’re your mentor, you’re a career aspirer. You’ve got to get people aware of the situation. You to put them in there for an amount of time so that they understand that this is not the same as it was years ago.

You will never appreciate somebody’s perspective of things unless you have endured it. CLICK TO TWEET

We have kids that are smarter now, but part of the problem is they’re more distracted. They have social media that they can flip in a second. They have other problems now that didn’t happen years ago. Until we raise this awareness and we start talking about it as an active community, we’re never going to solve it. When you addressed the school to prison pipeline, a lot of people don’t understand that when kids drop out of school, you’re talking about approximately $293,000 of the economic tax base that they contribute to their community. That’s a lot of money that can help any community. You’re talking about the rural that doesn’t have a lot and the urban. Within the urban, the impoverished areas that are suffering, because number one, they don’t have a champion to help guide them through the process.

Another thing that your book addresses not directly, but indirectly, just by the title Blank Check. What if you had a donor a philanthropist or a benefactor who was a bottomless pit of money who wanted to back this? That’s the ideal. At the same time, we’ve got our schools that are funded by real estate taxes in this country. How can we shift that? There’s a lot of inequality that comes from how our schools are funded.

You do this in a number of ways. Everybody has to understand that it doesn’t always get solved with money. Part of our partners that we have, I know not to ask for money because I know they can’t afford it, but the resources that they can bring in, whether it’s guidance, mentoring, even internships, that’s still part of answering the problem. Education has to understand what the business needs are and they have to feel comfortable in owning up and saying, this is where we’re disconnected at. How can we help you fill these jobs with qualified employees? Four out of ten kids leave their area because there’s no job that interests them. They’re losing the tax base right there. That’s part of the disconnect. They’re not communicating with one another. We don’t have parents that are actively engaged with schools. I get it. We have parents who work 2 or 3 jobs. When I say engaged, I want them to be a phone call away. I don’t want them to hide behind emails. I want them to feel like they’re a part of their child’s education and not as if we’re doing it all by ourselves.

The younger generation of parents that are starting to have children now or do have young children in school, how do you get them to pick up the phone when they won’t even answer the phone when their friends call? If it’s not a text, they look at their phone in horror. Like, “I can’t believe you’re calling me.” How do you get engagement from that mentality and from that generation?

You have to build a relationship with them. You have to show that you care for them as much as you care for their children. You have to let them see the human side of you. You have to make them feel like you’ve known them for years and you keep inviting them to the table. Until that happens and they don’t have that trust built up, they’re not going to do anything. They’re going to be, “Why are you doing this? What do you want instead of coming to the table? Thank you.” Unfortunately, this happens a lot in poverty-related areas.

You have special needs students where parents don’t understand the process so they go through the motions. That’s an important time for the teachers, the administrators to ask the parents questions. “Do you understand what this means? Do you think this will work at home? What suggestions do you have to bring to the table to make these improvements?” It slowly shows them the different side of teaching. It shows compassion, empathy, and it also shows that you want all kids to be well-rounded not only in the academic world but also as a person and as a citizen.

Another question I have and I don’t know how to address this. I don’t know how you would. What I do know as a trauma specialist is that I believe every school in the country faces this issue and it’s a hidden issue. How do you address domestic violence? You know that some of your students are showing up and they live with abusive parents. A lot of times that abuse is hidden with neglect and emotional abuse. You get unintentional neglect in poverty situations where parents are working 2 and 3 jobs to hold it together. The neglect comes in with the kids having to hold it together on their own while moms are at work. It’s not like they’re bad parents. It’s a bad situation and they’re doing everything they can to hold their crap together. How can we address that a little bit better? It’s like ignore it and it’ll go away almost.

It creates a generational issue, generational poverty, and unfortunately, cycles of domestic assaults and impoverishment. I always tell teachers, look for the signs and the body cues. I’m not talking about bruises. Sometimes they’re there. Most of the time, as you said, it’s a little bit of neglect there and that’s where you build that relationship with the child and you say, “Are you okay?” Once they feel comfortable talking to you, that’s when you have the information to take it to the next step. In Virginia, as I’m sure it is in a lot of other cases, if child neglect or child endangerment is a possibility in the realm of things, by law, we have to report that to CPS, Child Protective Services.

If we know it’s a situation where, let’s say, a single mom working three jobs and the brothers in high school, having to keep up everything, that’s where you could bring in a social worker to go in and see what supports that they could bring in from the city or even the school to aid in some of those things. You also have opportunities with crisis counselors, career coaches and psychologists who all work together in situations that they’re specializing to do. You never want to turn away if you suspect something because chances are, if you feel on something, you have to see what’s going on. You have to listen to their backstory.

Blank Check, A Novel: What if You Were Asked to Help Reinvent Public Schools?

I’m remembering in the book, this goes into the shame and the blame, that culture of shame. There is a culture of shame around our lifestyles, especially if somebody is living in poverty or below the poverty line. There’s a societal and a collective shame that comes from that. There were several times in the book that I was reminded of Brené Brown’s work. She talks about the culture of shame and how we subtly shame other people, especially if they don’t agree with us. Some of the backhanded veiled insults that we do to people and bringing it out into the open and talking about it. I love your suggestion of even having the schools or social workers interject to try to help because right now if a social worker shows up at your door, it doesn’t feel like help. It feels like you’re in trouble. It feels like you’re going to be hauled off in handcuffs because you’re a bad parent. We need to shift that whole attitude that we have collectively toward receiving help.

Going back to the social worker, I’ve seen some great social workers pick up the phone and the first thing they say is, “I’m from the school division. I’m here to help you.” They open up the conversation with getting them to ask first, what are things that the schools can help you. They let them know point-blank they’re not to get them in trouble because they understand it’s not a situation of where it’s an assault, but it’s truly an economic hardship that they’re going through. Homelessness is a perfect example. Some families, some parents will think that they’re going to take their children away because they’re homeless and that’s quite different. It’s so far from the truth.

In that situation, the social worker wants to create and make sure that that child not always getting a good meal in school, but also keeping everything as stabilized as possible. Homeless children can be transported, even if they’re not in that school’s zone. That’s a federal law. It’s called the McKinney-Vento Law. They have a responsibility as a school division to ensure that those children are getting the best education possible and keeping their environment as consistent as possible. Once they get back on their feet, then they take away some of the layers of support, if you will.

It seems like it’s going to be a process to get people to buy into this, which you highlighted in the book too, the process of getting buy-in from people.

The buy-in has to be from everybody. A lot of times, society and social media focus on the negative aspects of things or they focus on glamorous things. They fail to realize there are heroes in the classes and in the schools like there are families at home that are heroes keeping things together. Being able to communicate and extend what opportunities and resources they can be receiving while they’re trying to get everything back together.

Your ideal vision of schools, how would that boost emotional and mental support? Let’s say that this is a go at some point. You get the go-ahead to do something like this in the school systems and traumatized communities because some communities are more traumatized than others. When you get into traumatized communities, what type of extra added support would you recommend bringing in that interim to help these recovering communities with not just socioeconomic recovery, but mental and emotional recovery as well?

Schools need to be thought more than middle school kids or high school kids. Schools should be served as a community hub where multiple levels of services can be provided. I’m not talking about like hospital-like services, but if they need treatment and they need services, they need to learn about jobs because they’re unemployed. They need to have therapy there from licensed school professionals and they need to create value-added relationships between the parents and the kids. The schools have the structure to make that happen. What they have to do is be able to have an open door where they’re allowed to do that let’s say after hours or on weekends when we know that there are moments of crisis, that they’re going to need those levels.

They feel like schools can only do, but so much. Schools can do so many things, but we have to think beyond a traditional brick and mortar book sense. We have to think about it as a whole self-serving citizen approach. Having those therapists in the buildings are not only going to help parents, but they’re also going to help the children as well. We also have to make sure that there are more than enough services provided. There’s a way for kids to channel that frustration into something positive. For some, it could be as therapeutic as creating art. For some, it could be having a workout room where they’re going to lift weights or jog or do something like that. For those, it’s having access to a library where they can read. For some, it’s being able to talk through situations. It is the availability to gather that knowledge, share it and convey it so that they are able to hopefully cope through those situations.

I love the idea of having the school be like a community hub. I liked some of the ideas that you put into the book. Some schools are doing this. I don’t think there’s enough. The schools that are doing it, they could probably expand this more. You see it more in colleges with internships or co-ops. I love the idea of bringing that into the high schools and even possibly into the middle school. Can you talk a little bit about that vision? There are some schools that are doing it and some schools that are trying to hold it together, let alone implement something like that.

As a school system, or I should say, like academia, we feel like we should be preparing our kids for the next level in terms of skills but we also miss the boat when it comes to getting kids hooked into something. We have to do more than as one-day career days where they come in or maybe they’ll check out a fire truck. You have to have them feel like they are a part of that building like you would for therapeutic services or job improvement sites or certifications. You have to create basically a hub of information for kids where they can go in like they’re getting a cup of coffee and being able to talk to a recruiter. Maybe listening to somebody virtually who’s an engineer in California talking about additive manufacturing. How cool would it be talking to an astronaut, how their job differs than they were being a pilot?

When you bring a good old fashioned phone call and handshake together, you then create opportunities. CLICK TO TWEET

The more we can make it at their availability and you ingrain it into the curriculum, the more you’re going to get kids hooked into these things. That’s the secret to learning now. It’s not force-feeding it, but getting them to want it, to make that hunger self-driving that they are wanting to come to school every day. They want the grades. They understand that there’s a lot of preparation that they have to do not only when they graduate from high school or college, but even as employees. Every day, something should be highlighted. A career should be highlighted every day, whether it’s through the announcements, whether it’s through the boards or you’re pumping it through social media. Something should be highlighted every day so that, hopefully, one kid at least be hooked from it and they understand this is what they’ve got to do. This is what they need to begin that journey.

Another question I have about the book, I did notice that like in the ideal scenario that every kid would graduate and either go into the military, get a job, or go to college. One of the three. What about people who don’t want any of those paths for themselves? What about the person who wants to become a professional artist or wants to start their own business, which is not technically the same thing as having a job?

It is and it isn’t. It’s a combination of those things. The entrepreneur, for example, if they’re going into business, they have to understand that there are accounting practices that have to be done. For artists, they have to understand that there’s marketing that needs to be done with their products. It can be online, so they would need a little bit of web understanding. It could be creating brochures or it could be marketing it. The thought behind it is you don’t stop after high school. You still have to get some additional training. In the perfect world, I don’t think we need degrees anymore. We need the courses that provide us with the skills and experiences to give us the opportunities to achieve the careers we want.

You answered one of my questions. Thank you. I was going to ask about college degrees because there is this push that college is even as relevant as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. You get people with Bachelor’s Degrees who can’t get a job better than fast food in some areas.

That’s another sad reality we’re in. In America, as I’m sure in potentially other countries, society has been brainwashed to think that four-year degrees are better than two. To an extent, that is true. We’re talking about doctors, aerospace engineers, and the technical level of fields. Now that certifications have come out and you’re able to be endorsed from a two-year degree, like an Associate’s degree, you will find out that they’re going to be making as much, if not more, money than somebody that comes out with a four-year degree. I remember reading somewhere, they call it a 7:1 ratio and they say for every particular profession, and I’ll pick a physician, for example. There are so many nurses that they need, you have to have an IT person, you have to have an office manager. It’s that supports that are neglected because people have been focused on those four-year degrees. That’s why you’re seeing such a pay spike in those jobs because they want them to have those skills to be on the job force.

I have another question that’s related, but not. Whenever you think about what teachers consider to be problem behaviors in schools, like bullying. I know a lot of people in my life, their entrepreneur showed up early in childhood and my sister is one of those people. She would find a way to sell things to her friends at school. Selling things on the playground or in the parking lots or whatever. Whenever you see these types of behaviors, a lot of times as the kids get in trouble for selling things at school or they get in trouble because they’re bullying and because they are more on the shadow side of it.

They are operating more from that trauma perspective rather than from, “How can I take control of this?” How would you take those behaviors? Even the bully, there is some strength that a bully has and they channel that strength to beat down other people rather than use it effectively and turning it into a strength. How would you address that kid? How can you encourage the entrepreneur rather than punish them and get them to shift their behavior so they can still build and become an entrepreneur and not turn away from it? Some of those punishments can derail people from their talents and their gifts.

Let’s go to the example where your sister is an entrepreneur. I think of two scenarios immediately. One is if a school has a bookstore, give them the experience of how an inventory works at a larger scale and get them to be able to do the books for the day and then be able to submit it to the bank. How a teacher would record the deposit slips and record it. Get them to market it and then spin it into something that they want to do. Have the conversation with your sister, “What is it that you want to do as an entrepreneur?” They’ll be like, “I want to be an artist.” “Perfect.” That’s when you would take those moments and you make sure that they have the right courses on their schedule lined up and you pair them with a mentor, whether it’s inside or outside the building so that those roots come to life. They have the chance to develop and get rooted in their dreams.

When it comes to the bully situation, there’s usually a backstory behind it. A lot of times they’re not going to tell you and you’re throwing darts at a wall. Sometimes you hit it, but you have to focus on that situation and make them realize what they’re doing is wrong. At the same time, you have to ensure that the parents are supporting what’s going on at the school. They have to be able to see it from the school’s and the child’s perspective. You have to explain to them, “If we don’t correct this course, this is what could easily happen.” It’s that dangerous line where it could turn into a domestic assault case because they think it’s okay to push people around. They could turn into something eventually could be charged strong-armed robbery because their friend didn’t want to give them $5 to go get a drink.

There are careers in life where that stoicism and that ability to go down on your emotions whenever getting yelled at, or screamed at, or in the face of horrible adversity, where that can be a strength and required for the job. There has to be a way to channel those strengths away from the bullying and the harming of other people into a career path, where they can pull on their strengths. I can share a little tiny snippet. I did grow up in a lot of adversity. I came out of childhood. There’s a test called the ACE test, Adverse Childhood Experiences. I came out of childhood with a 9 out of 10 on my ACE. I learned from a very young age how to be belligerent and tell people off. I have been telling people where to go and how to get there my whole life.

America’s Public School System: When you continue to work with a broken system and you don’t make changes, it’s not going to improve. It’s ultimately going to deteriorate and implode.

Not too long ago, I volunteered at a pretty major conference that had some internationally known speakers. They put me in a spot as a volunteer where I’m like, “This is my strength. I’m not on the shadow side of this. I’m not feeling guilty.” I was the gatekeeper of the green room. I’m like, “What a perfect place.” Being able to funnel the crowd away from the personalities and also a strength of mine, which is that having issues with authority. I don’t fall into that star-struck. I look at celebrities, I’m like, “They’re people too. They’re probably a jerk just like everybody else.” That’s my attitude. I’m not falling into that star-struckness. I wasn’t one of those like puppies trying to follow around the personalities who were there. I’m like, “This would be a great place to put me.”

When you talk about the bullies, you’re right. I call them hidden skills. Once you tap into it, you see some phenomenal leaders that come out and that’s how you deter them from the path that they’re going down. For some, it could be going into the military and leading people and taking the charge on things, such as finding drugs if they’re in the Coast Guard, for example. They could turn into super salesmen because they have that uncanny knack of knowing that they’re going to get shut down sometimes, but they keep thriving. Some of these guys can be phenomenal entrepreneurs. Some of them can be incredible athletes.

If you can tap into that empathy that we all have within us, if you can break through some of those walls that the trauma builds up and get to the empathy within, then they could be great in law enforcement, criminal justice, even military careers where it’s helpful to have both sides. If you don’t have the empathy and you’re all one and not the other, then you’re more likely to go down that path of PTSD. If you don’t manage the trauma as you go through life, it builds up.

There are times when you have to channel it so that you can let go of some of that steam that’s built up if you will. There are times that you have to keep it under rouse because you don’t want to be in the middle of the situation and implode. You’re right. Knowing that balance is supercritical. That is another part of education that teachers need to have, the understanding that we do have kids with PTSD. We have kids that are emotionally disturbed. We’ve had kids who’ve had families, mothers, fathers murdered, unfortunately, and they are trauma traumatized so far and so deep that they’ll never recover from it, but we still have to give them our best.

I wouldn’t say. It might take longer. It’s amazing that my life has turned out the way it is considering what some of the stuff I’ve been through in the past. It can happen. I have a couple of other questions to direct back to the book. Pretty much the whole book focused on this vision of the school system on an island on St. Andrew’s. There were a lot of comparisons to the school systems on St. Andrew’s being compared to urban school systems throughout the country. What about the rural school systems? There are some similarities and at the same time in rural school systems, because I grew up in a rural school where I looked at my high school windows and all I saw were cow fields. That was it. The high school itself wasn’t even in town. There was no leaving. It wasn’t even a campus, it was a building. There was no leaving the building for lunch. It wasn’t even an option. You couldn’t go to the pizza parlor next door because it didn’t exist. How does this translate to rural areas?

In so many ways. You’re going to have impoverished children. You’re going to have some of the same scenarios that you would on St. Andrew’s as you would as an urban school, as in a rural school. There’s a lot of common threads. For picking St. Andrew’s, we wanted to isolate some of the variables and having them on an island where they’re going to be set up for success. When you look in an urban school, there are lots of things that can happen overnight that could change the dynamics of everything that totally deter what the focus or the dream of the school is. In rural, it’s the same thing. You never know what could pop up in a minute. If we can make it right in one area and we can perfect it, then we know it can be replicated everywhere. That’s the point that I was trying to share with everybody in the book. Urban’s what we typically think, but we need to think everywhere.

There was an emphasis on partnering with companies and businesses that are in the area. When you get into some of the rural schools, those companies and businesses a lot of times are 1 to 1.5 hours away. At least that was the reality where I grew up. Would you suggest connecting with some of those companies there? How would you bring that a little closer to home? That can be daunting, especially if you get somebody in a rural area who’s impoverished and doesn’t have a vehicle and vehicles are almost necessary for those areas.

The future work is becoming more and more distance each commute if you will. If I was a school superintendent in a rural county and there was a major corporation may be an hour away from where I live, I would pick up the phone, or better yet, I would go there and say, “How can we help bring employees to you? How can you help us understand what you need?” You start those conversations. Companies that see value in the educational systems that they know are producing are going to put more emphasis on it. It begins with a good old-fashioned phone call and handshake.

When you bring that together, you then create opportunities. It’s being open-minded to new adventures. That’s why I talked about distance learning, but it’s distance learning for an internship. If you love math and you want to help with their inventory system and you’re an hour away, why not give them a sample Excel sheet that they can’t manage and they can see the numbers and work through it. For a company who’s looking for ITs, for those rural county teachers, coding and programming, why not get some of those kids to do some of the work remotely? The distance won’t matter at all.

Another thing that you talked about for this ultimate vision of the school is having dormitories for middle and high school students. I’ll be flat out honest. There were a few times in the book where you referred to it as residential schools. The connotation that comes with residential schools, especially in North America, tends to have a negative connotation to it whenever you hear the term. I don’t think that’s gone away because it took my brain a minute to go, “I get what he’s talking about.” When I heard residential schools, I’m like, “What?” I read on a couple more sentences and I’m like, “I get what he’s talking about here.” There’s that initial reaction that we have because of how we’ve been conditioned. I could see where there would be resistance to the envisioning of what you have for school. The other thing that comes to mind other than residential schools is boarding schools, which have their own connotation and their own stereotypes to them. On either side, it’s a little bit icky to think about.

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This is where social media and the media have skewed things to where reality is sometimes not what it’s supposed to be. When we talk about a residential hall, we want to limit the distractions after school. We want kids to feel safe to learn. We want kids to feel like they are going to be comfortable and that they’re focused on developing themselves as a person. You can only do so much in seven hours. It sounds like a lot of time, but kids sometimes want to learn more about jobs or sometimes kids want to play sports, but they can’t because of the neighborhood that they’re in. When you have residential schools in the setting like that, you create chances for them to do things that they’re not going to be able to have elsewhere. That was the point behind recommending that.

That’s where you can create things like makerspaces and having the halls where everybody can come and combine regardless of grade, regardless of age and ability. You can play like we as kids used to play at the playground. You would have third graders coming from one neighborhood. You and a bunch of friends come over with your bikes and a good, old fashioned football game or being on the swings. It is a collaborative approach so that all opportunities are maximized. It reassures the parents to those that have 2 or 3 jobs that they don’t have to worry about wondering, are their kids safe? Are their kids eating a decent meal tonight? That was the purpose of introducing a residence hall and it still gives them the flexibility where they could go home on the weekends and not feel confined.

Do you think parents would buy into that?

Initially, no.

That’s what I’m wondering. I’m thinking that might take a generation to get the parents to buy into it. I can see parents going, “No way.” There’s so much distrust of other people when it comes to our kids out in the world right now. It’s not necessarily related to the schools. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that there would be people who would be resistant to that. They’re like, “No, you’re not going to take my kid. You’re not going to try to control my kid. It’s my kid.”

You’re going to have those that are going to think it’s for the affluent or there’s something wrong and you need to be in a residence hall. It would be making sure that the parents understand fully all the details. They could go visit their children anytime they want. Kids could go anytime they want within reason. Obviously, if it’s midnight, they only need to be leaving unless there’s an absolute emergency. Marketing it so that the parents realize that this is an extension of school. There’s availability with that. It could be going to field trips that are three hours away that you otherwise can’t do during the day. It could be more opportunities to do internships because the schools have the availability to shuttle the kids to and from the job sites. It could be tutoring because a lot of times parents don’t know how to do Chemistry or Calculus and they have that availability at the residence hall. Slowly and surely, you would win over a lot of people.

I do think it’s a great idea. I was a little concerned about how the buy-in would be for something like that.

There’s always going to be hesitancy when you’re doing something new. I tell people, the only consistent in life is change. It’s how much are you going to invest in yourself and in your family do you want to improve at the next level? You have to be willing to take a risk, but you also have to know that schools want to give them the best.

I love the forward-thinking in the book. I know that there’s a place in the book where you said that we must examine the problems with America’s public schools. We must think about how to avoid traditional solutions because they don’t work. You said instead our mission is to develop a fresh and exhilarating approach. Circling back to the beginning of the conversation, I don’t care what industry we’re talking about. It is such an important point that it’s time to start thinking beyond traditional solutions because how much time have we spent trying to recreate the wheel by putting Band-Aids on holes of the tire? Band-Aids aren’t going to hold that wheel together anymore. We have to come up with a whole new material to make the wheel out of.

It’s not an American problem. It is a global problem. You think about the gender inequality and in countries, think about their narrow, diverse inequalities and the lack of accommodations they’re getting. It’s rare to find school systems that are complete. You’ve got some that are rocking like Finland. If you look at them and they have like a 99% graduation rate and they are doing some incredible things. They’re probably one of the closest countries to Blank Check, but there are always improvements that can be made.

America’s Public School System: In a perfect world, we don’t need degrees anymore. We need the courses that provide us with the skills and experiences to give us the opportunities to achieve the careers we want.

I am not familiar with what they’re doing. What are they doing that’s close to Blank Check?

A lot of little things that add up. For example, teachers are getting paid more. When you are getting paid more, you’re going to get better quality. I’m not trying to say the teachers now aren’t quality because they are. We’re losing good candidates now because we’re not getting them because of the salary.

It wasn’t long after I graduated college that the educational programs that I was aware of went from four-year programs to five-year programs. You have an extra year of student debt in order to get a job where the salaries haven’t increased in how long? The starting salaries aren’t that different than when I graduated long ago. A little bit, but not enough.

It’s in some cases, it’s barely keeping above inflation. The sad reality is this has happened to my wife and me. We get a pay raise and it’s not enough to cover the healthcare change in a year. We’re losing money compared to what we were making the last year. They don’t focus as much on a standardized test and I agree with testing to an extent.

That’s an important point. Not focusing so much on standardized testing.

We need to focus on process and product assessment. It’s through the kids’ modalities, how they learn, not necessarily a multiple-choice test or a short answer test. How you approach these conversations is right now determined by the dollar. It is much cheaper for a company to assess somebody’s paper and pencil than it is for them to submit a project.

You have a good quote about that here because you said something to the effect of, “Are the things we suggest going to enhance the quality of teaching and learning or are we adding more to our plates so we can check a box?” That’s reiterating what you said. That quote is something that can be extrapolated into almost any industry. Look at all the crap that we do in our jobs, regardless of what industry it is, just so we can check a box. Not because it’s meaningful or it’s helpful. It’s checking a box.

Can we say we’ve done it? Absolutely, and then we focus on the next thing.

I’ve been there, done that. I bought a t-shirt. I’m moving on. It’s not helpful at all. I love the idea of having the schools come back into the center to be a hub of the community. In some places, that used to be a thing. In some places, it might still be a thing, but it’s definitely rare compared to what it used to be.

When you read somebody’s emotions and body language, you can tell a lot about how to approach them in a better way. CLICK TO TWEET

Where I am in Virginia, there are those that call it neighborhood schools. To me, that’s a compliment because that means that the school is a part of that community if it basically is part of the lifeline of it.

I love that you highlighted in the book too, getting input from the students themselves. There was a quote in the book where you said, “Adults have led education for eons and don’t let students have any say. If this is going to work, we need a different approach. The students have to have maybe not the final say, but at the same time have input in the direction in which their lives are headed as well.” I bring this up as being super important because it can feed into behavioral problems that we see from our children. In our children, we know what mirror neurons are. Initially, they were called empathy neurons, and then they switched the name to mirror neurons and what they learned more about them. Children are expected to sit in their seats and mirror the teacher all day with nobody mirroring themselves back to them.

That is emotionally and mentally exhausting. When the kids get home and they’re in a place where they feel safe, it’s likely the child might throw a tantrum. It’s not uncommon for little kids to come home and have that meltdown as soon as they get home from school. The parents don’t know how to take the meltdown. Here, it’s because the kid feels safe enough to let their emotions out. The parents don’t know what to do with it. The kid gets in trouble because they melted down. No matter where they go, they have no safe outlet for these pent-up emotions. We need adults who can understand how to mirror back to children the light that exists within them instead of expecting it one way only.

That’s why I always share a reminder with the teachers, “Teach the way you would want to be taught.” Do you want to sit there and watch 60 PowerPoint slides or watch a one-hour movie and with no engagement, no lessons that are going to what I call drill and kill, bore and snore you to sleep, or are you going to bring it to life? That’s one of the issues that I have is that we have lost creativity in schools. Sir Ken Robinson said it best. He said, “Education is killing creativity.” He is right as far as I’m concerned. If we can at least get that back on track, we will be able to solve some of the problems with little misbehavior issues and making things fun, developing relationships again and showing the humanistic side of school and education.

Even that statement was a little too small. I don’t think it’s the little behavior issues. It can extrapolate into the bigger behavior issues because creativity, the more we can play with our own creativity, for some of us, it’s painting or creating some fine art through paints or sculpture. For others of us, it’s like using words and pen and paper. I have a background in bodywork. Having a gift for seeing where people’s bodies are out of places and knowing what to do to help work on that. Same thing emotionally with people’s emotional wellness. It’s important to point out that creativity draws our purpose out of us the more we play with it.

When we don’t have a purpose, when we don’t know what our purpose in life is or whenever we let society define our purpose for us, instead of letting it emerge from within us, then we are more likely to go down that rabbit hole of traumatized patterns of behavior rather than letting that gift emerge from within us. We’re more likely to live on the shadow side of behaviors if we’re not creative. It’s plain and simple. Play as the antidote to anger. Psychiatrists who have studied rage have discovered that the antidote to anger and rage is play. That says a lot about our country right there if you think about it.

That’s another one of Finland’s secrets. They have more time to exercise, calisthenics and playtime. We are lucky to get 30 minutes a day in an elementary school, 45 minutes every other day in middle school when it should be an hour a day easily of doing things. Canoeing, hiking, playing a pickup game of basketball. That re-stimulates your brain for learning. When you do sit down, you’re not distracted and you feel like you can focus better on it. Even now, when we’re cooped up in our quarantine quarters and you’d go out for a walk, how much better do you feel when you come back? I know I feel good when I get up for five minutes and get some fresh air. It’s the same thing for kids. They don’t want to be cooped up on a little 2×3-foot cubicle all day.

It’s forcing them to go against their innate nature as a child. Whenever you can’t let that innate nature of who you truly emerge, you have to hold it in, it’s emotionally and mentally exhausting. It does suck the life out of you.

It turns into regret and then that regret turns into anger. That’s where you see a whole different child.

America’s Public School System: There’s a difference between ‘talk to’ and ‘talk with’ because if you feel like you have buy-in, you’re going to own it better.

Another thing I noticed in your book is that you made many references to noticing body language. I’m assuming that you’re trained.

I’m not, no.

I’ve been trained through the Body Language Institute. I’ve started taking classes through The Congruency Group. I’m hoping to get a couple of the creators on the show in the future. I have studied body language and statement analysis and elicitation and things like that. It’s so important to notice a person’s body language. Even though I’ve been trained by people in the criminal justice system who interrogate the bad guys, I apply it to trauma work because the body language of somebody who’s traumatized is pretty much the same as somebody who’s being outright deceptive. The difference is what you don’t know is the person talking to them is whether or not they’re subconsciously repressing information or consciously suppressing it.

If it’s repressed, they don’t necessarily know that they’re lying to you. Maybe the story is 100% true and their trauma has made their body language. They slump forward or appear closed off. Here I made an assumption because you’ve referred to it so many times, but I know not to assume. It seemed like you’d study body language from as many references that you put in. I was curious, what do you feel about pulling that into the curriculum? It’s so important for healthy communication to be able to recognize nonverbal cues.

My daddy used to tell us as a family growing up, “Pay attention to the details.” When it comes to other people, everybody’s talking. You may not be listening and it could be body language. It could be physically. When you read somebody’s emotions, when you read somebody’s body language, you then can tell a lot about how to approach them in a better way. We forget that a lot of time. When you see somebody, we don’t know what’s happening to them that day. We don’t know if they got evicted. We don’t know if they found out that their mother’s in the hospital.

You have to take the time to know your children. You have to know what makes them work better and when you need to re-scoop them back up and embrace them. Not physically, but let them know that they’re fine. They’re human. We’re going to get through this together and get them their supports. Body language is one of the best ways that I’m aware of that you can do that. Not everybody is going to be able to pick up the little subtleties, unless they tell you directly, “This is why I’m mad,” or “This is why I don’t feel good.”

That’s the thing. We do pick up on the little subtleties sometimes and we talk ourselves out of it because it’s like, “I don’t know. That meeting went okay. There’s something that I can’t put my finger on.” Maybe you were lied to. Maybe something in you notices that there was an incongruence between the facial expression and the words coming out of their mouth or the way they were holding their body and what they were saying. If there are some of those hotspots or tells, if you don’t know, if you aren’t aware of them, then it’s something you can’t put your finger on. You don’t know what’s wrong. A lot of times we can talk ourselves out of it. We can talk ourselves out of noticing those little things and then going with the decision that ends up being detrimental in the long run.

To me, it’s your conscience. I tell parents that your spider-sense is tingling, that something’s wrong and you always need to stop and listen. Even though you don’t know what it is, that means your radar needs to be up. You need to be aware of what’s going on. Can you look at patterns? Can you establish some things that are accelerators? Psychologically speaking, that should be a part of learning. It’s a basic psychology class in education and it helps take reading in the curriculum. We used to have a technology, which is like the old overhead projectors and things like that. I do think there needs to be some course where the teachers now and, in the future, understand that mannerisms vary from culture to culture and body languages. One person may be saying and thinking that their anger that they’re mad about could be quite the opposite and another culture or life. It’s knowing each individual kid and making them feel special.

This is why in any body language class that’s worth its weight in gold, the very first thing they’re going to teach you is baselining, to get somebody who’s normal baseline behavior. The most important thing with body language is to notice somebody’s baseline when they’re calm and relaxed, and then notice when they deviate from it. Whenever you see clusters of deviations is when something’s up. You don’t know if they’re consciously aware of it or not. It’s so important to notice it because if you notice it, then you can adjust yourself and ask a question. You don’t even have to point out and say, “I noticed that your body language changed.” You don’t even have to say it. You can ask a question to get information like, like, “What happened there,” or “Did something shift? I feel like maybe you changed your mind. What happened?”

Keep talking, and don’t stop the conversation. No idea that you have is dumb. CLICK TO TWEET

It doesn’t have to be, “What’s wrong, Billy?” It’s being like, “Come on, give a little bit more.”

“How does that land? How does that sit with you?”

It makes them feel, “He’s taken the time to care. Let me understand a little bit more.” Hopefully, the teacher gets a little bit more and then there’s finally what I call the crossing where you get the whole picture. You have a connection where hopefully you can resolve the issue or at least you can empathize/give support for them to get through whatever obstacle that they’re facing.

Aaron, this is a big topic to talk about. Before we wrap up, what did we not touch that you would like to talk about?

You hit one of the three points. I’m glad you shared it. Kids need to be involved when it comes to making decisions in terms of education. We want this to become ingrained in schools. There’s a difference between talk to and talk with because if you feel like you have buy-in, you’re going to own it better. How many times have we seen great businesses do that? We see phenomenal things take off. That’s a business practice we should be doing in schools. The second thing is kids can overcome obstacles, but we have to realize and identify what they are to provide them the resources and the access to get out. The third thing is in any decision in life, we have to understand that the kids are going to take it to the next level. How are we setting them up for success? What do we need to do to not only have them at the table discussing schools, society, citizenship but what resources do we need to accompany it so that when our time is gone, they can continue the momentum that we’ve started?

That’s an excellent point, that little snippet of what you said that kids will take it to the next level. As a trauma specialist, because that’s what I do, and I work with developmental and intergenerational issues. That’s all that stuff that gets into our implicit mind and our implicit memory, which is our subconscious. It’s not within our conscious awareness. Whatever gets imprinted into that subconscious mind or that implicit mind within the first 7 to 8 years of life, the kids will take it to the next level as they grow older. Whatever impression we leave upon them, whether it’s a positive impression in the kid’s mind or a negative impression in the kid’s mind, they will continue with it until somebody helps them learn otherwise. It’s excellent that all these ideas that you have to shift that and turn it around. We’re starting to see even with the opioid crisis. Let’s talk about the opioid epidemic that we’re having. That is telling as to how badly we are failing our children.

Not only for children, but for adults too. That’s is an incredible crisis. Sadly, people have lost because they’ve never figured out that there’s a way out of whatever that they’re into. We have to recognize that drug overdose is one of the bigger issues in American society. What’s a great way to share it into a story and showing that they can overcome it and recognizing that if people can overcome it, anybody can overcome it. It’s just how committed you are to driving it.

Frederick Douglass said, “It’s easier to raise healthy children than it is to fix an adult.” Did you put that in your book?

I think I did.

America’s Public School System: We need to focus on process and product assessment. It’s through the kids’ modalities—how they learn and not necessarily a multiple-choice test or a short answer test.

I can’t remember, but that quote comes to my mind so often whenever I think of our school system because if our school system would implement even a fraction of some of the things that you’ve suggested, we can do that. We could raise healthier kids instead of trying to fix adults more.

That’s my prayer in all this is that we all can do something to improve. We try to help our children’s teachers because we get it. We know that they’re struggling just like a lot of teachers across the country are struggling. That’s what I want to do. Raise awareness and raise hope that we’re going to do this, but we can’t do it alone. We cannot work in our silos. It has to take a unified and viral approach to elevate the awareness to success.

Aaron, do you have any final tips or bits of wisdom to leave with our readers?

First of all, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. It’s truly an honor. Second of all, I encourage everybody to keep talking and don’t stop the conversation. There is no idea that you have is dumb. I remind the parents, it’s probably some of the most brilliant things we need it brought to our attention. Continue to focus on making our children a success.

That is so important for people to speak up and say what they need or where the gaps are, because if they don’t speak up, how do we know? Aaron, thank you so much for being here. It’s been a pleasure to have you. For all of our readers, you can find me on YouTube. I’m on iHeart RadioSpotifyStitcherApple Podcasts. I’m out there in a lot of different places, so please subscribe. Please share this with your friends and your family. That’ll give me a little boost and if people reach out and check out Aaron’s book Blank Check.

The eBook is on Amazon and paperback will be released on September 8, 2020.

It is a good book and I highly recommend it. Thank you for being here. Please share this episode. There’s a lot of good information. Have a wonderful day. I will see you next time.

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About Dr. Aaron Smith

Dr. Aaron L. Smith is an author, an active and leading STEM school director, and a professional speaker with expertise in workplace readiness. Aaron assists schools, corporate supporters, and community leaders to collaborate so education professionals understand the needs of the businesses.

Aaron is also the author of Awakening Your STEM School, and newly released Blank Check: What if you were asked to reinvent public education, a Young Adult novel designed to inspire a new generation (and the current generation) to become involved with fixing the public school system in America.

Besides the numerous accolades, Dr. Aaron L. Smith’s proudest achievements are being married to his wife and being a dad to his three kids who challenge him to reach for the stars every day.

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