So many people are raising the flag around “engagement” now, calling for student engagement and political engagement and social engagement. They aren’t talking about marriage though, and maybe that’s what is missing in the conversation. In the heart of a marriage proposal, or engagement, a seed is planted. It’s the investment of two people into each other’s life, and when it is right, it’s a promise of commitment.
I believe that is how we should always talk about engagement, as the sustained connections a person has within or outside themselves. After more than 20 years working to promote engagement in schools, nonprofits, and throughout communities, I have come to understand that engagement is the highest order in the work of any social worker, educator, counselor, or religious teacher. It is the core stuff of living.
Wrestling through a curriculum full of standards and assessments, it can be easy for a classroom teacher to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of their job. Every school today is expected to provide a gamut of social services, health services, nutritional services, counseling services, leadership development, and physical activity to students. This is, of course, in addition to the education they provide in the classrooms, hallways, and libraries that are strategically located in schools, too.
Every human service provider in society faces similar struggles, too. Regulations, populations, commercialization, and alienation stare at everyone who serves humans in any form. Social workers, youth workers, police, doctors, politicians, desk clerks, fast food workers, case workers, mental health therapists, drug and alcohol counselors… A lot of people say their work is simply too demanding. Parents, grandparents, and neighbors often say the same, too. It seems that society is at a mutual boiling point of busyness and over-stimulation.
What gets lost in that grim analysis is the purpose of living, the experience of humanity. However, among us are many people who already know that. The Cooperative Catalyst community has many homeschoolers and unschoolers, alternative school advocates and democratic education fans. Why do we love these approaches to learning? Because students in these environments retain their humanity. Because educators in those locations stay focused on the purpose of living, which is engagement: We are alive in order to create sustained connections within and outside ourselves. The Cooperative Catalyst community loves powerful educational approaches because they help foster humanity through engagement.
Each of us can have sustained connections to art, family, nature, reading, The Universe, our hometown, or ourselves. We all can meditate, dance, dialogue, sing, drive, walk, or write in order to connect within or outside ourselves. Teachers can teach engagement, but only after they are engaged within themselves. And there is no point in trying to engage another person until you have a sustained connection within yourself, either. That “sniff test” you use to tell whether someone is telling the truth works here, too, and especially for young people: They know whether you’re actually engaged. They can smell it.
So get off the Internet, and get into yourself. As Rumi wrote, “Stop searching here and there. The jewels are inside you.”
You can find more of my writing about personal engagement, social engagement, and youth engagement at www.youngerworld.org.
Adam Fletcher, President and Lead Facilitator of CommonAction; founder and director of The Freechild Project. Adam is an international advocate for youth and community engagement. His career working with young people and adults as a youth worker, educator, writer, and public speaker started when he was 14 years old. Since then he has created more than 50 youth projects in the United States and Canada, including the award-winning Freechild Project, focused on re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society; and SoundOut, promoting student voice in schools. Adam has written more than 20 publications, and has worked with approximately 10,000 children, youth, and adults annually since 2001. Today, Adam lives in Olympia, Washington, with his eight year old daughter and their cat named Mailbox. Learn more about Adam at www.adamfletcher.net