If a student is hungry, doesn’t know where they are going to go to sleep at night, or has experienced some form of trauma, how can we expect them to engage in learning?
Education Reimagined had the pleasure of connecting with Megan Blaising, education leader from Indianapolis, Indiana and author of Blunts, Bullets, and Belligerence—a cathartic read that uses raw stories from Blaising’s experience as an educator to make a call for transformative community conversations. Learn more about the author in our conversation below.
Q: What path led you to becoming an educator?
Megan: I don’t think there was one defining moment that propelled me into the field of education. In considering my personal experience, I attended both public and private institutions growing up, which is where I began noticing the disparities in experiences provided within the system.
In addition to my personal academic experience, I routinely volunteered time at a school that was attempting to offer a more rigorous academic experience in a historically neglected community. The culmination of these experiences forced me to really start thinking critically about the efficacy of our educational landscape. Overall, I guess you could say my personal experience is what triggered my intrigue in exploring education professionally.
Q: Do you believe it’s possible for us as a society to transform the education system altogether?
Megan: Yes. However, we need to be mindful and intentional about how this occurs. No one should walk into a community and say, “Let’s uproot everything and start over immediately.” However, I do believe if we were to do away with the polarizing politics within education, we would have a fighting chance at building something transformative. Oftentimes, we (education professionals) are our own worst enemy when it comes to implementing change. Society has created the challenges we face, and we perpetuate them by not addressing these faults in the system.
We have the ability to address these challenges, but it will take having us having difficult conversations and a level of open-mindedness and innovation that has yet to be seen on a large scale in our sector. Particularly, in my current hometown of Indianapolis. People don’t like to admit fault—particularly when those faults are so embedded in our current societal constructs.
Q: What do you think is one of the most important changes that you have seen make a significant impact in the lives of young people?
Megan: I think one thing schools are missing the mark on is safety. I wholeheartedly accept the ideology of culture before curriculum —meaning a child has to feel safe and have their immediate needs met before you can expect them to understand and/or retain the material. If a student is hungry, doesn’t know where they are going to go to sleep at night, or has experienced some form of trauma, how can we expect them to engage in learning? We need to facilitate the platform for conversations to take place that reveal these needs and provide the appropriate support to address them.
Q: In your experience, what is the most effective place to start in beginning those conversations—with guardians, educators who engage with young people on a daily basis, or the young learners themselves? Or some combination of all three?
Megan: I think it’s imperative to address those you serve first because they’re going to know what they need—in this case, the young person. They are absolutely the starting point. If you’re not listening to your demographic, you’re not serving them.
That said, I would like to see everyone with different stakes in youth development come together and have that conversation—parents, advocates, and political and community leaders. It’s one thing for a student to say, “Yes, I need this, this, and this.” If the people in power don’t act on their needs, then the initial conversation is moot. And, those stakeholders can help identify the ripple effects of each proposed change. Meaning, if we change “x,” here’s how it will impact “y.” I would love to see everyone come to the table and have those discussions, but I think you start with the students and families.
Q: Pivoting to your professional creed: “Empowering individuals, families, and communities through educational means.” What do you believe the purpose of education is?
Megan: I think it looks different for everyone, but I would say education is like a muscle—knowledge is power. I believe a quality education grants access to experiences and opportunities that would otherwise not be available for that young person.
Education provides an additional lens for people to utilize when navigating the world. And, the more learning you engage in, the more empowered you become. It can be pretty remarkable what you can do with that empowerment.
Q: Seeing education as a tool of empowerment, what would you say to someone who thinks education, from a policy perspective, should be a secondary concern compared to other policy discussions?
Megan: I would encourage them to look at education not for what it is now but, instead, for what it could be if we took the time to redefine it. I think people can get weighed down by the common rhetoric around education and everything begins to sound like an empty promise. Redefining what education is requires us to listen to students, parents, and community members. We have to know who we are serving before we can think about making positive changes.
Q: You mentioned the importance of providing young people a safe environment to learn. How does safety fit in this conversation of redefining education overall?
Megan: We often view safety through a physical lens and I think we need to expand our perceptions to include social and emotional well-being too. Based on my experience, I don’t believe many schools are perceived as a safe place from the challenges that surround and impact young people outside the school’s walls. Making sure that people are vigilant or aware of this is one thing I believe is paramount to transforming the education landscape.
I would also say no matter how much safety you bring into a school, only so much can be done without changing things externally. In my experience, one of the most fruitful ways educators can help bring safety to our young people outside the school walls is to build trusting relationships with parents and guardians. Once you build that trust, families are much more willing to open up and provide meaningful feedback—making transparent the issues we must all address together.
You don’t want the burden of creating a safe environment—and all that comes with that—to fall solely on one educator. That would be more harmful than beneficial. This is why there needs to be additional professionals/resources available to address the social-emotional needs of the students. Ultimately, you want to create a cohesive community that is fully engaged and enabling students to thrive.
Q: What would you say to fellow educators who want to build a trusting relationship with the families they serve?
Megan: I would say don’t be afraid to ask for help but also understand that your role will be unique to the community you serve. Every family, and particularly those who are facing greater financial and social challenges, have new things popping up that will impact the mindset of your students when they walk through your doors. This reality requires educators to hit the reset button each day, so they don’t carryover information from yesterday that may no longer be true today.
One of the myriad things that create challenges for educators is forgetting the lifetime of experiences that comes with every student who walks through the door. Everything they experience doesn’t magically stop or disappear when they arrive to school. So, being mindful of this is critical to building trusting relationships. When students feel safe and valued, then you can engage with their families more fruitfully.
Q: What are the small wins that people can look for, given the time and patience we know it takes to make these changes?
Megan: Attendance. If you have a student who was chronically absent or truant and they’re showing up more days in the week than not, that is a major win. Another indicator is listening to and observing how the kids communicate with you and other people in the community. How much are they willing to share? Has that changed?
Q: In your new book, Blunts, Bullets and Belligerence, what is the call to action you are putting into the world?
Megan: I want to invoke a sense of mindfulness. The reality is we have way too many kids whose needs are not being met, and that number is continuing to grow. I want us to generate intentional dialogue and self-inventories that will allow us to collectively start addressing the faults within our education system. I want people to be comfortable acknowledging something isn’t working and having a conversation about what the solution might be. When the problem is brought up, nobody needs to take it personally. No one person caused the problems we’re facing. When we put aside feelings that we’re being attacked or criticized, we can, instead, see something that isn’t working and ask what we are going to do to fix it.
Q: What has writing this book unlocked for you and your work?
Megan: This book was very cathartic as it allowed me to speak truths that have been left unspoken for years. It’s the first time I put any of my experiences out in the world. Blunts, Bullets, and Belligerence demonstrates the stark reality of our current system and the myriad challenges that often go ignored.
Writing this helped me reconfigure how I wanted to continue to impact education. It has shown me the possibility of expanding my work from “direct care” to more macro-level impacts. I want to make a bigger wave in changing the education landscape, including understanding the short and long-term impact various policy decisions have on students and making sure policymakers understand this, too.
I want to explore the changes we can make to the system overall, and how communities can play a larger role in these conversations. Let’s take bigger and more intentional steps. Let’s actually solve issues. I’m ready for that.