Lessons in life principles from the Okanagan people

Cross posted in part from I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!

The Okanagan people know that their total community has to be engaged in order to achieve their sustainable lifestyle. This is true of any community. Dis-engagement leads to breakdown of support and trust, and a negative spiral can begin which can be hard to reverse. Thinking of a school community in terms of its engagement may be a good indicator of the sustainability and true success of a school’s vision, values, principles and actions.

The Okanagan people have life principles which underpin the decision-making processes within their communities…

Firstly each individual may be gifted but their full human potential is only actualised through their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being. These four aspects of well-being rely on external things.

The Getting It Right For Every Child programme in the Scottish education system puts the eight well-being indicators at the core of any plan that is constructed or reviewed. They are used to summarise the child or young person’s needs that will be addressed. It is very much emphasising that external support can make a positive difference to a child. What an interesting parallel to the first life principle.

Second, each person is part of a family, regarded as the powerful life blood of cultural transference which ensures the well-being of each generation.

The positive local and school cultures need to be nurtured, recognised and celebrated. Each person has a vital role to play. This is often most noticeable when there is a vacancy such as the need for a janitor or long-term teacher. Perhaps this is a key question to ask all those who are part of a school, both in the short and long-term. What part do they envisage playing within the whole school community? What legacy do they hope to leave? When do we ask this of children, young people, families and staff? If we did, what would the answers be?

Third, the family system is the foundation of the community which is regarded as a living network. This spreads its life force overs centuries and across physical space, acquiring collective knowledge. This helps secure the well-being of all.

Thinking of a family system, and immediately the learning community of Teacher Tom‘s Woodland Park Cooperative Pre-school and other such establishments spring to mind. The warmest schools are those where parents are fully involved and their input is truly valued. They are establishments that leavers return to, either as volunteers, staff or as parents. A positive cycle of belonging is in place. Puget Sound Community School also embrace a community and family ethic (and also happens to be based in Seattle). The I Ur och Skur schools of Sweden also expect a high degree of parental involvement with many volunteering to support the school during and outwith school hours.

At the moment I’m not so sure within Scottish education that we think about our role within a long term context that is needed to ensure a living network that is sustained, nourished and manages to grow within our ever-changing society. I still feel that at a societal level, schools have yet to fully embrace the true potential of parental involvement.

Finally the community is regarded as a living process that interacts with the land. Much of the Okanagan belief system celebrates life and regarding the plants, fish, birds and animals as relatives who share their lives with the human community. It’s about the inter-connectedness that exists and our responsibility to every living thing that we are connected to.

Such a holistic view of any human community seems an alien concept within our society which is so isolated and disconnected from the natural world to which we belong. Yet there is now reams of evidence that suggests that direct, frequent contact with the natural world is vital for our health and well-being. Whilst we continue to keep ourselves apart and fail to consider the environmental impact of our actions then arguably we are failing our children and setting them up to fail in the future too.

This was exemplified years ago when I attended a meeting as a headteacher to look at sustainable development within schools. The subject of school buildings came round and I suggested that perhaps if the group and the local authority were truly serious about sustainable development then the construction of new schools would be based upon the principles of earthships and other eco friendly dwellings. It was the equivalent of admitting that I was a member of a far-out religious sect. My suggestion was treated with suspicion and ridicule.

There is always debate about the effectiveness of school systems. Perhaps the trick is to look beyond the traditional boundaries of education and consider approaches based on learning to live healthily, well and lightly on the land.

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