A Leap of Faith

*This article first appeared in the June 2018 edition of Pagan Pages Magazine.

Early in my teaching career, I was at a crossroads.  After three years as a public schoolteacher, I wasn’t sure whether I was cut out to be an educator.  I loved the kids and teaching, but it was clear from my run-ins with school administrators and colleagues that I was not on the same wavelength as them.  Even during my practicum work as a university student, I was told by my mentor that she would do everything in her power to make sure I didn’t become a teacher. I was upsetting the applecart with the new education ideas I brought with me into the field. Luckily, my faculty associate at university advocated for me, citing my willingness to take risks and try new things in service of my students as being essential qualities of a good educator. After a year of rough practicum experiences, I graduated with a Bachelor in Education and I was ready to enter the profession as a certified teacher. I looked forward to leaving these challenges behind me.

Years after this event, I was sitting at home one Friday night when I got a call from a teacher whose class I substitute taught in the day before.  I listened for fifteen minutes as she tore a strip off of me. She criticized my teaching methods and attacked my character.  I’d never even met this teacher before. What could have been a really good professional development moment where she got curious about my teaching strategies to learn more, turned nasty. She ended by saying: “They should never have certified you.  You are a horrible excuse for a teacher. I don’t know how you made it through your teaching practicums.” I never got a chance to say a word.

I didn’t know if she was right or not. I was in shock.  When I recovered, I reached out to one of my experienced teacher friends. He was outraged when I told him what happened and urged me to complain to the principal of the school and file a grievance with the union. At this point, I felt so discouraged and tired of swimming upstream in the education system that I quit all three school districts I was working for.  I needed to find clarity. I prayed for help and said to the universe: “If I am meant to be an educator, please send me the job that is right for me.”

At the encouragement of a friend who was a horticulturist with her own landscaping company, I started working full-time as an apprentice gardener.  Gardening and farming were in my ancestry; Portuguese people have a deep reverence for the land and find ways to create gardens wherever they live.  It’s not uncommon for apartment balconies to be filled with pots containing edible plants.  My paternal grandpa was a farmer in Portugal and continued that practice in his East Vancouver lot when he moved to Canada. It felt comforting to be walking in his footsteps.

Each day working with the plants in silence, I began recovering more parts of my soul that had left me bit by bit during my years as a public schoolteacher.  I got really clear in my mind about the reasons I became an educator and began questioning all the negative feedback I’d received from colleagues.  Why were they so threatened by my methods?  Why was it so horrible to include parents in their children’s learning?  Why were my students expected to follow unjust school rules?  Why did students have no say in their education and in helping to develop the school’s ethos?  I simply didn’t understand why we as educators couldn’t team up with children.  Why were we at war with learners and families when we didn’t need to be?

After a year of working with the plants, I developed a plan to open a small school. I started talking to professionals in the community who had already done this.  During my research, I found a school and learning philosophy I really grooved with.  I called the founder to see if he would meet with me and teach me how to begin manifesting my dream. Surprisingly, he said, “We’re already doing what you want to do.  Why don’t you just come work with us?”  That was in 2004 and the rest is history.  During our first meeting, I looked around at my fifty colleagues sitting in a circle discussing pedagogy and I knew I’d found the “staff room” I belonged in.  We were all on the same team and we all had similar values when it came to our work with children. I’d finally come home as an educator.

Most of all, I learned from the plants to accept myself as I was and to trust what I knew deep inside of me: I was a good educator with a passion for advocating for children’s rights to learn in ways that matched their sensibilities.  I found a place deep inside that I anchored into to draw strength.  Though I honour and respect my public school colleagues, I don’t regret my decision to leave and take a path less traveled.  Plants stay rooted while they reach for the sun.  They give life without asking anything of us in return.  They stand in what they know with tremendous trust. They showed me that what I was actually doing as an educator was aligning with life and its natural flow.  It paid off big to stop warring with the truth inside me, even though it flew in the face of conventional “wisdom.”

In the years since, I’ve worked with hundreds of children– many of whom are now adults who are thriving. They know who they are as people and they are aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are. They have learned the skills to excel in their interests with confidence. They are not afraid to follow unconventional paths in life. I am so humbled by the fact that I’ve been able to walk alongside them on their journeys for a short while.

Today, I know that I wouldn’t have been effective at guiding children if I hadn’t had the courage to take leaps of faith myself. How could I ask children to take risks if I hadn’t practiced that skill? All those early challenges had a purpose: to prepare me to bring forward the educator I really was in my heart. I learned that it is not how other people see you that determines your character or worthiness. We are all worthy. Today, I respect the kind of educator I am even when colleagues do not agree with my methods. Honouring myself­–like I do each of the vastly different children in my care–was the key that was there all along inside of me. I am grateful I found the courage to turn it and walk through the door into my new life.

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Children and the Seven Generations

*This article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of Pagan Pages Magazine.

Colonial states separate children from parents because they know it works. It destroys and traumatizes for generations. It’s an attack on the future as well as the present.”

-Jesse Wente

In my writing, I make it a point to stay out of commenting on political stances for many reasons. However, when policy starts to cross over into human rights violations that threaten the health of future generations, as a shamanic practitioner, spiritual warrior, and fellow human being, I am compelled to speak. And this article is the result of one of those moments. When the story broke of asylum seekers from Central, North, and South America being separated from their children at the US border, I felt it important to share what I know about child development and early childhood trauma. I also want to add from the beginning that this isn’t a solely American phenomenon but a result of patriarchal beliefs and structures that our world currently operates under. This system is hurting men, women, and children all around the world and it’s time to start questioning its modus operandi.

As an educator, I’ve dedicated my adult life to the thriving of families by supporting children and parents. This looks many different ways that go beyond academics and guiding families in setting up appropriate education models for their children. The truth is, children who are living in poverty and with a substantial amount of trauma are in survival mode: no brain can take in new information when it is in constant fight of flight. Poverty is not a crime nor a result of laziness; it comes out of oppressive policies that benefit the few and marginalize many of the most vulnerable citizens. Parents who struggle financially love their children and most are good parents despite the challenges they face. Poverty is not a reason to separate children from their parents; many social services seek to provide financial aid so parents can raise their children to adulthood. Supporting families means keeping them together, providing resources to help families to thrive, and creating policies that help parents to raise their children without so much stress on the family structure. Currently, we have a worldwide economic system that places undue stress on young families and when family systems start to collapse, parents are often blamed for their “failure.” My job is to advocate for kids and families, look for that support, and put it in place to give families some breathing room while they are doing the most important job on earth: raising healthy, resilient, compassionate, and creative citizens.

Recently, an excellent documentary series came out showing how we humans develop from our earliest years and how vital the first years of life are in creating our self-concepts, attitude toward life, creativity and flexibility of mind. In “The Beginning of Life,” experts in the fields of human developmental stages, pediatric medicine, psychology, and neuroscience come together to paint a new picture for societies that show how important it is to support families and what the effects are to society at large when we don’t provide this support (i.e. increased crime rates, higher health care costs, and higher taxes). One social worker recently told me that it is much less expensive for the government to provide groceries for a family for a few months while they get back on their feet than to pull a child from a home and put them in foster care. If you don’t care for the moral or financial arguments, the science is clear: parents and kids belong together. Many people don’t like the idea of using tax payer dollars to support families, however, when we start to separate families without providing them with the support they need first (i.e. parenting classes, financial aid, job training, good daycare, time for maternal and paternal leaves), the cost to society at large tends to be much greater for all of us. I personally want my tax dollars to be spent on investing in the well-being of future generations instead of on policies that focus on short term financial “gains.”

I made a spiritual vow many years ago to protect children’s rights. My motto is “do no harm.” This seems impossible for us humans and yet I feel that it is a worthy vision to hold in front of me as I do this work. Many people in the world don’t realize that we have a three-decade’s old international document in place that sets out the rights of children via the United Nations called the Convention on the Rights of the Child. icle 3 states the focus of the document: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Most folks would agree that staying with his/her parents is in the best interest of the child unless the child is being neglected or abused, which is not the case here. And even though the children who are separated from their parents are being fed, clothed, and sheltered, we know from longitudinal studies of children who grew up in Romanian orphanages that providing the basic physical needs of life is not enough for children to thrive. For children to be truly healthy (mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually), they need to be surrounded by safe and strong attachments to caregivers and community members who love and know them. When a child is taken away from a parent or guardian, this is a significant trauma that cannot be underestimated and often takes a lifelong toll on the child. If readers don’t know about the decades long Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), I highly recommend watching the TED Talk at the foot of this article. Many children and adults in our “corrections” systems have high ACES scores, not surprisingly.

You might be wondering why I am so passionate about this as a Canadian citizen with no voting rights in the USA. First, I am a child of immigrants who came to Canada looking for a better life for future generations. My family and I have been able to heal from the intergenerational trauma of growing up in a dictatorial state because of the relative safety and support we’ve experienced in Canada. Second, as a shamanic practitioner, I know that what we do today affects the seven generations ahead and the seven generations behind us. We have the chance to shift what we believe about children and their value in a way that our ancestors perhaps were not able to. Respecting the work of parents and the rights of children to explore their new world in safety is actually good for all of us because those kids will be deciding policy and taking care of us when we are elders. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a traumatized, jaded, and perhaps violent person taking care of me when I am an elder. I want to be surrounded by adults who were nurtured when they were children. These adults are more likely to be compassionate, have a strong sense of human and environmental rights, carry love in their hearts, and be active in their citizenship.

I know from researching that this practice of separating children from parents has been happening in the USA and even in Canada for quite a few years now; this is a non-partisan issue. I am not an American citizen otherwise I would be writing my local political representative. I will nevertheless look for ways to make my voice heard as an international citizen. I hope you will join me as a citizen of the world in making sure we protect the most vulnerable members of our society because the truth is that we are all connected to one another. We are all relations.

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