Podcast: Teaching Human Skills in Primary and Secondary Education

March 20, 2024
  • Brent Stewart
  • Brent Stewart
    Digital Strategy & Content Leader at Barry-Wehmiller

On several episodes of this podcast, you’ve heard about Barry-Wehmiller’s efforts to transform how business education is taught. If you want leaders who have the skills and courage to care, that should be part of their education before they are out in the world and in positions of responsibility.

But what if we can reach people before they are in business school? What if these skills of Truly Human Leadership are taught alongside history, math, science and grammar in primary and secondary education? It could make an amazing difference in our neighborhoods and communities and in the future of our world.

This has become a focus of our CEO, Bob Chapman, and to kick-start this effort, we recently hosted a very important group of friends and allies at our St. Louis office to reflect on the purpose of education and formulate a vision to inspire our efforts as we begin in earnest. An “education summit” if you will.

This group included representatives of Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, Bob and Cynthia Chapman’s non-profit, Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities and our internal Barry-Wehmiller University. Anne White of Chapman Foundation is our point person in this outreach effort.

We also invited Jennifer Wallace and Sarah Bennison of the Mattering Movement. As you may have heard on a previous podcast, Jennifer and Sarah visited us last year in St. Louis and our BW Papersystems facility in Phillips, WI when the Mattering Movement was in its infancy. You’ll hear more about what they’re currently up to later on.

Also joining us was David-Aaron Roth, the Director of Student Leadership Development at Charlotte Latin School in Charlotte, NC. Several of Bob Chapman’s grandchildren have attended Charlotte Latin School and a few years ago, after several of the faculty read his book, Everybody Matters, he became involved in something of a pilot program to institutionalize leadership development in the everyday lives of their students.

At the end of this education summit, from this day of thoughtful discussion, we landed on this as our vision of the purpose of education to inspire our work: Ignite the Power of Me to Embrace the Responsibility of We to Create a World where Everybody Matters

On this podcast, we feature a collage of takeaways from that special day from Anne White, David-Aaron Roth and Sarah Bennison.




Anne White: My name is Anne White and I'm here because I have the wonderful opportunity to work on primary and secondary education with the Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities.

I think we have a wonderful opportunity to really focus on a movement, as Bob says, which I fully agree with, which is developing human skills alongside academic skills, and really nurturing the essential human skills that right now we don't focus on in education. Often, I think there's that toxic achievement culture and we lose half of what's essential to be human, or if not half, maybe a significant portion. It's great to have academic information, but if you can't apply it with our interpersonal capacities and relationships, then what we know doesn't go very far in the world. So, I'm hoping that education, the movement is about prioritizing essential human skills of caring, connection, belonging, the capacity to know one another, to know ourselves, alongside our academic skills.

I'm excited that there are some remarkable people like Jennifer Wallace and Sarah who are working towards supportive tangential roles to what we're doing, human flourishing, the mattering movement. There are a number of really remarkable people who also are hearing this calling and are contributing to education in different ways. So, I'm really excited about meeting like-minded individuals who can contribute to the conversation and the movement, and build excitement and understanding in the greater world, to actually implement these initiatives in schools.

I think getting a sense of the people who make up the movement, those who are supportive, and the incredible skillset and capacities and collaborative initiative within the company and within the foundation. I feel like what I'm learning being here is more how we can work together to build greater impact, scale of impact. I think in terms of the conversation today with Charlotte Latin, it's really apparent to me where they're starting to be receptive to understanding more about what it means to build a culture in which people are cared for and how to care for others.

And so, I'm excited about the relationship with Charlotte Latin and how we continue that as a pilot program. I also, I think it's a really difficult topic to try to pin down the purpose of education, especially as it's changing. And I really appreciate the input of the group in exploration, and I hope that, again, that's the beginning of a larger collective movement towards changing education to include human skills alongside academic skills. 

David-Aaron Roth: My name is David-Aaron Roth. I'm the Director of Student Leadership Development at Charlotte Latin School in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Well, what I think is most salient about today is the recognition that when we try and understand education, and we try and understand how we can best serve our students, our communities, the world, that you need to be bringing together a group of individuals who come at it from a very different perspective and lens. Because when you are in your silos of your own respective fields, you find that you start to group think. And I think it's relatively important that we consider the different ways in which different individuals conceptualize the purpose of education so that we can have a definition and a conceptualization that can meet a much larger group of people rather than one particular subset of individuals.

I think today has really been about the importance of bringing together people who care. People who care about what the future of education looks like, people who care about the ways in which we can support education now, but also in the future, and sense making around the best ways that we can then develop moral, ethical, and responsible individuals as children, as adolescents, as emerging adults, all the way to adulthood, thinking about it holistically, but also being very explicit about what do we want to ensure happens throughout education in the context that we see it, such as college and higher education, all the way to primary and secondary school.

When it comes to the things we can do, I think we have to start at the obvious, which is recognizing the humanity and those around us. Sometimes we think about these ideals as aspirational and something that we want to achieve towards, when in reality there are actionable steps that we can take today. And it's those micro activities and experiences that we can engage in every single moment. It's talking to somebody, it's saying hello, it's giving eye contact. It's recognizing the ways in which we are together in this moment, I think is the way that you begin the conversation. You begin the dialogue around mattering only to hope that it further is developed through much larger scale experiences and programs and communities where you're thinking more about collaboration beyond a one-on-one dialogue. 

Sarah Bennison: My name is Sarah Bennison and I am the CEO of the Mattering Movement. And I came here today with Jennifer Wallace to talk really broadly about our aligned shared commitment to mattering, to fostering mattering, both at Barry-Wehmiller and what we're trying to do, mainly through schools. We've had a very broad, open conversation today about the purposes of education, and really just brainstorming and thinking together about our shared commitment to core values and mattering.

Essentially, we create communities where people feel that they matter. Mattering is feeling valued at your core and adding value to the world around you, and we provide tools and now a curriculum to bring mattering to schools, both for kids and for teachers.

Actually, what we've seen... Initially, when we started the mattering movement, we thought our primary audience would be families and parents. And we do have quite a few parents who reach out to us, and we have tools for parents to bring mattering home. But what we've seen since we launched is a real outpouring from educators all over the United States, even around the world. And we're not even sure how they're hearing about us, but we've had teachers from Singapore, South Africa, Australia, India, reaching out to us basically saying, "How can I bring this to schools, to my classroom?" So we've responded to that need and really have pivoted, and that's what led us to thinking about this curricular piece. And we realized, too, that kids spend so much of their life in schools, and what we're seeing in the United States and even abroad is a real issue with retention, absenteeism, both for teachers and for kids.

And we think that that is rooted in a real mattering deficit that we're seeing in schools. So with our pilot program, for example, we are piloting with 13 schools, we've had to limit that. We've had lots of schools reaching out to us. So I think there's a deep need for bringing something like this to schools. Teachers really want tools. Kids really want space to talk about the issues that are most important to them. You read about the mental health crisis every single day, and some schools have task forces, but the way I've been thinking about it is that sometimes, those task forces are very siloed. So the solution to mental health is always only rooted in a health program instead of thinking about it in a more holistic sense about who that individual is. If we shift things and center the individual and how the individual matters at their core and rely on them to contribute, the end result of that will lead to better mental health.

In other words, the solution to the problem is not necessarily a direct path. And interestingly, there is some new research coming out. Of course, Jenny writes about achievement culture and all that kind of stuff. But there's a whole body of research coming out now that correlates mattering with academic achievement. So, in an irony, we've been trying to get beyond achievement pressure. So instead of just grinding away at this success narrative that is so narrow and often detrimental to kids, in terms of their mental health, our argument is try centering mattering. Think about someone's core values, how they can contribute. That will elicit a positive mental health cycle that will yield the academic outcomes. It's another example of a more circuitous way to a solution to the core issue.

Brent Stewart: So, why is it important to bring the principles of Truly Human Leadership and the idea of mattering into primary and secondary education? Anne, David and Sarah discuss this, with Anne following back up at the end of this section. 

Anne White: I think in the past, they've been referred to as soft skills, and what I love is it's moving into more of a dialogue around essential skills. And I just recently read an article about C-suite skills, the most essential C-suite skills being that of communication, connection, all these human skills. So, I think that it isn't about schools not being ready. As a matter of fact, I think, teachers, everyone who comes into education does it because they love children and they care about them, and I think it's a really difficult environment. Having been head of school, what I found was parents are so concerned about the wellbeing of their children, and they often see wellbeing related to achievement and success. And I think that there's a lot of pressure from parents, especially in the independent school sector.

The public school sector would have a different issue or challenge, and that would be how is it scientifically supported? I mean, you hear all the conversation around eliminating books and all kinds of, there's a lot of what should we be teaching and what shouldn't we? And often, those human or interpersonal skills are perceived potentially as manipulative and not as hygienic as most would think. Academic institutions are there to teach technical skills. I think independent schools are more interested in the character development, but I think that they are tasked with parents having a higher expectation of testing and prep for getting into a good college. So, I think the soft or the interpersonal skills go by the wayside, and that's where I really appreciate what Jennifer's bringing in the toxic achievement culture, to really name that as competitive and isolating and self-interest and so forth. 

David-Aaron Roth: The one thing I think schools are getting right at the moment is that we recognize that things have to change. And there's an element of naming the behaviors that you're seeing that plays such a significant role in being able to actually create change. And so I'm very cognizant of the realities of what we're facing in our schools today. And that's not only at Latin. I think that's across the world, is we're seeing students need different. And so being very intentional about what that difference can look like.

And in terms of mattering, I believe that what we are doing right is taking that moment... And before we start to throw new interventions into the space, which is a very common practice, is we see a problem. We immediately try to address it. We recognize that the causation of some of this need for mattering requires a much larger initiative and requires a much larger sense of purpose. Because what we're actually starting to do is shift the paradigm of what education is and should be for. And in order to actually make that drastic and dramatic change, we need to be more thoughtful, we need to be more intentional, but we also have to undergird that thoughtful and intentionality with a sense of reason. And it has to be fit for purpose. And so what excites me about where we are is that we are starting to take a genuine look at what education is and how we can better support our students. 

Sarah Bennison: One of the goals right now with the pilot is we are taking a lot of survey data, which we think is going to be really helpful for schools and really helpful for us. We want to track if we can move the needle, especially around... Mental health is such a big bucket, but that's the measure that we're thinking about. So if we see moving the needle significantly, we will feel like we're making progress. Does that mean we'll ever be done? I don't think so. But if you look at the history of education, zooming out, you see that there are cycles in the history of education that have made big changes.

For example, if you look at the progressive education movement at the beginning of the 20th century, it shifted the way that schools worked, fundamentally, from a more traditional, factory model of education to a child-centered approach. In many cases, the structure of classrooms changed the way teachers were thinking about schools changed. So there's precedent for these shifts in education, and I think that the time is ripe for another shift and we're already seeing it. But for us, mattering is the forefront of that. Before Brene Brown, people didn't talk about vulnerability in the same way. Before Angela Duckworth, people didn't talk about grit the same way they do, or growth mindset. You can see... Mattering for us is the next frontier. Does that mean it will be ever be done? I don't think so. But we hope that it's a fundamental shift in the way people are viewing what they're doing and the skills that they're learning to navigate not only school, but their life and relationships.

Anne White: I mean, a mattering movement is really, at core... There's a quote that, when I did a lot of nonprofit work when I was working with at risk and underprivileged youth, there was a quote that I had on my desk that said, "It's better to be wanted by the police than by nobody at all." And often, when I worked with kids, that was sort of where they found that they mattered when they didn't have a positive recognition of who they were in a way that contributed positively to society. So, I would say that I love... Here's something I learned today that I love. I loved hearing about Bob saying there are a thousand positive things people do in a day, and we try to catch them as they do positive things. I think it's really a huge gift, and it's not just related to how we function as an entity of a company or a business, but it really is how is it that I bring my full self into whatever it is I'm doing, whether at work or at home or whatever it may be.

So, I hope that kids have an opportunity not just to be known for their academic acumen. It's almost like a not one size fits all, but certainly who they are and what kind of unique character traits and capacities they bring to a greater group of people belonging. Another phrase I love today is family. So, we are human family, and how is it that we bring our positive attributes as a focus, as opposed to our negative attributes? That's what I love about the mattering movement in education. Yeah.

Brent Stewart: Let’s hear from David and Sarah about the importance of coming together to share ideas on this important topic.

David-Aaron Roth: I think when you're in the presence of people who come from different sectors of society, you're bound to think of things that are different and think of them in a very different way. I think Bob is a perfect example of someone who comes at every interaction with a sense of humility, a sense of recognition for those in his company. And I think that will be one of the most important things that I take away from today, is recognizing that in this space, the ideals of recognition are consistent. They're honest, they don't feel like they're manufactured for show, that they genuinely are emblematic of the culture that is here at Barry-Wehmiller.

I think when it comes to what any organization can do to support another organization, is what's happening here, genuinely. I think being a source of dialogue and a source of communication for people to be able to work together and work because of rather than in spite of each other, is always going to support our work. Because my work in the field of education is not necessarily what people would look from the outside in on what BW is doing and say, this is what it's supposed to be. But that's the beauty of it, is I think we in education can also take a lot of the great work happening here and say, how do we then superimpose that work to support our initiatives in education and vice versa? So in terms of what we could be doing better or what any, I think organization can be doing to support another one is simply being listening ear, be a door opener, and certainly be that olive branch for what we all aspire towards, which is a humanistic world that can ultimately live beyond what the current measure is.

Sarah Bennison: Barry-Wehmiller has been at this much longer than we have in terms of this, while not necessarily using the word mattering, really talking about seeing every individual as a precious child who has deep value. Thinking of the company as a family, where everyone does feel like they have a role they can contribute, and also that they're valued at their core. And I really like when Bob talks about not seeing someone as what they do, a teacher, an accountant, but really who they are, and this vision of a world where we can get beyond extrinsic values. Today, we talked a lot about extrinsic versus intrinsic values... Move beyond the extrinsic to see each other more at our core.

First of all, for us, even though we try not to be New York-centric, all of us are coming at this work with a certain lens based on our own life experiences and who we're around and things like that. So for us, it's very refreshing to get out of the East Coast, New York City, be in a totally different place, listen to what you all are saying and the way that you're talking about what you're doing. It's different than how we talk about it, but it's very similar. Also thinking about mattering in the context of work, which has really been more of the focus of what Barry-Wehmiller has done. And it's certainly top of mind for us, too.

Right now we're thinking mostly about schools, but Jenny's working on her next book, thinking a lot about mattering at work. And we hear from people just like you do, that there's a real mattering deficit there, as well. And just interacting with the different people who have different life experiences, are doing different things, and also sharing our... It really is a shared vision. We may be getting at it in slightly different ways, but it's very refreshing to find like-minded people who see what we're seeing and care about the same things.

Because today we really focused on this huge question, which is what is the purpose of education? Which is not an easy question to answer. This visit, more than previous ones, have really been education-focused. And also, I think that we touched on different issues in the sense that we talked about transcendent ideas, the fragmentation of religious communities in the US. How can we think about the work that we're doing both in the workplace and at schools in this larger cultural social context, which is so fragmented? It just was a a zooming out conversation. I'm not sure I'm leaving with concrete answers as much as questions, but I was really interested to just, again, see the way people are talking about these different issues.  

Brent Stewart: As we wrap up this episode, we want to include some takeaways by the discussion participants. Sarah’s going to start off talking about one of the things that was mentioned often – listening, or the value in teaching listening. Then, David and Anne will give their takeaways.

Sarah Bennison: Listening, to me, true, empathetic listening is, I like to use the phrase mattering in action. And actually, I was talking to this other new friend/colleague who started an organization called Real Discussion where she actually brings conversation skills to schools. And of course, part of that is listening, learning how to be a good listener so that you can respond. And I was listening to another podcast with this guy named David, I think his first name's David, Greer, who goes on college campuses and teaches people to have conversations across different... He's at Oberlin College, which is known to be very left-leaning. And he brought Oberlin students together with students from an evangelical Christian college in conversation together. And I thought that was very interesting because... I'm getting off-topic.

But he was talking about the kinds of questions that you can learn how to ask that move away from an us-versus-them or me-versus-you and instead open up things like what experiences have you had in your life that have led you to these beliefs? What role do they play in your life? Ways of... Anyway, it just got me thinking a lot about the role of not only listening, but also learning the conversation skills. And that to me is mattering in action. Because when you're doing that, when you are listening, you are showing someone that I value you. I care about what you think you matter to me. And when you're doing that and you see the response, you realize that you matter to that person, too. It's reciprocal in that way.

David-Aaron Roth: I think the first thing I'll do differently is listen more. I don't think you can ever finite listen. I know that's such a weird way of saying it, but there is no expert listener. I think we are all in our own ways developing these skills. And it's important as we bring together individuals to remind ourselves of the importance of listening. Additionally, one of my hopes is that when I go back to Charlotte Latin, and I'm thinking about what we could take away from this, it is the recognition that there are so many different ways to conceptualize education. There are so many different means through which we can educate populations.

And that our responsibility at Charlotte Latin School is to the entirety of the community, it isn't only to the students. It's to the students, it's to the faculty, to the staff, to the administration, to our parents, to our alumni. The recognition that for an ecosystem to flourish, we have to encourage the same behaviors, the same conceptualizations for everybody. And so I think my next charge that I'll take away from this is ensuring that our work at Latin is framed in a way that is meaningful for every single stakeholder.

Anne White: I started pretty young in working in human development more so than academic development. I actually started, I can remember even before I went through college, I was really interested in that which connects us, what are our commonalities and how do we find one another and support each other and so forth. I think that most of my life has been focused on, interestingly enough, finding innate dignity, innate value, inherent mattering in people's lives.

So, I feel like I had to find that outside of education. I don't think it was something that was offered necessarily. I mean, to some extent, the humanities is our history. But when it really comes down to the interpersonal, that was a big void. So, I agree. I actually appreciate what Bob's saying about industrial revolution and sort of need workers and people to fill roles and positions and jobs and accountants and so forth, attorneys. And I think we know ourselves in context to what we say we are professionally, as opposed to who we are for those intrinsic values.

And I would say that's why I feel like I've been drawn to education and child development, or whole child development. That includes all of our capacities as a human being, not just our capacities as learning entities. I've never liked that philosophy of a bucket to be filled. I think we come in as souls who really, we are reawakening our awakening capacities, both that we've developed in our physicality, in our cognitive thinking, and then also in our capacity to be in relationship and in context of one another.

So, I hope that education, because there isn't a cohesive culture within our country, I mean, it's a really beautiful experiment. I love the philosophy of our country with the diversity, diversity of culture, religions, but I think it lacks an element of unity consciousness and it causes more divisiveness. So, I think our work is actually to utilize educational institutions to become more of a cultural hub or center that teaches us to find one another amongst our incredible diversities, in addition to the academic skills.

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