Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Teaching Matters’ fifth annual Breakfast Speakers’ Series

Teaching Matters Board Chair, Olga Votis, center, with Chairman’s Council Co-Chairs (l-r) Nina Griscom, Patricia Farman Farmaian, Dana Creel and Ingrid Edelman
by Delia von Neuschatz

How do we inoculate kids against stress? In other words, how do we help them build resilience? And along the way, how do we help them achieve success with a capital “S” – the kind that is not sacrificed to well-being? These were the questions that were explored by psychiatrist Dr. Samantha Boardman and Dan Lerner, an expert in positive and performance psychologies, at Teaching Matters’ fifth annual Breakfast Speakers’ Series held on February 7th at a private club in Manhattan.

Hosted by the educational nonprofit’s Chairman’s Council and attended by over 100 influential civic, philanthropic and education leaders, the conversation, whose premise was Redefining Success: How to Thrive in School and in Life, provided potential solutions to some troubling current trends. Attendees included Nina Griscom, Dana Creel, Ingrid Edelman, Patricia Farman Farmaian, Amanda Ross, Janna Bullock, Danielle Ganek, Alexia Leuschen, Arriana Boardman, Sujata Eyrick, Mary Snow, Anne Prentice, Ruth Rosiania, Celeste Rault, Wibby Sevener, Amanda Taylor, Nanar Yoseloff and Maxine Grant-Steele.
Guest speakers Dr. Samantha Boardman and Dan Lerner.

Dr. Samantha Boardman, attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College, is the founder of PositivePrescription.com, a website that combines her training from medical school and psychiatry with her work and training in the field of positive psychology. Dan Lerner is a speaker, teacher, strengths-based performance coach, and expert in positive and performance psychologies.  The premise of his teachings is that developing a healthy psychological state has a profound impact on the pursuit of excellence. Lerner is a faculty member at both New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. “The Science of Happiness,” a course that he has co-taught for the past six years with Dr. Alan Schlechter, is currently the largest and most popular non-required offering at NYU.
The last decade has seen a significant rise in anxiety among college-age students. In its annual survey, the American College Health Association has found that 62 percent of undergraduates in 2016 – up from 50 percent in 2011 – reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. At the same time, hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers has doubled.

Fortunately, there are some ways to guard against becoming one of these sobering statistics. First, don’t put all your eggs in one basket advises Dan Lerner. That is to say, don’t pursue only one interest at the expense of other activities. Don’t focus on just science, for instance, or football or art for varied pursuits become pillars that one can lean on when things don’t go well in another area of life, says the college instructor, noting that many Nobel Prize scientists have additional interests like music. Consider also, urges Lerner, the example of Hunter Greene. The flame-throwing professional baseball pitcher devotes time to both learning Korean and playing the violin.
Dan Lerner: “There are two kinds of passion – harmonious and obsessive. The former is intrinsically driven and much more likely to keep one engaged, therefore leading to success. The latter is the kind that is driven by parents, financial factors or desire for status. It is harmonious passion that sits at the crossroads of well-being and success.” Dr. Samantha Boardman: “Social connection is the secret sauce in fortifying us. It provides humility. It’s about noticing, not being noticed.”
Helping to figure out what those interests are is where parents can play a crucial role reveals Dr. Boardman. At the dinner table, for example, it’s better to ask open-ended questions like “What did you do today that you are proud of?” rather than “How did you do on the test?” Parents should truly try to understand what makes their kids happy and who they are as human beings while setting aside the notion of perfectionism, advises the psychiatrist.  It is dangerous to conflate achievement with identity cautions Dr. Boardman because a lack of accomplishment does not mean that one is not worthy.
Filled with tips for building positive lifelong habits, U Thrive, ca-authored by Dan Lerner and Dr. Alan Schlechter, aims to teach students how to flourish in college.
That is not to say, however, that hobbies can’t lead to achievement for “passion is not a thunderbolt,” points out Dan Lerner. “The stories of someone knowing instantly what they were meant to do in life happens maybe five percent of the time. Passion takes three to five years to develop and it starts simply with an interest.”  Crucially, this type of passion – the kind that is harmonious and intrinsically driven rather than the obsessive type that is directed by parents’ ambitions, money or status - lies at “the crossroads of well-being and success,” informs Lerner. Cultivating hobbies, then, helps children find success with a capital “S” concurs Dr. Boardman.
Dana Creel giving the opening remarks.
Another way that parents can inure their children against the stresses of life, according to Dr. Boardman is not to sugar coat things. Children who are resilient know their family’s past, says the psychiatrist. “They know they’re a blip in time in an oscillating narrative filled with ups and downs.” Additionally, avoid the “roses and thorns” conversation whereby kids are asked what was the best part and the worst part of their day. This contributes to today’s prevalent narcissism. It is much better, in the doctor’s view, to talk about others, or to converse about ideas, or current events and not to lay the focus on the kids.
Olga Votis and Lynette Guastaferro, Executive Director of Teaching Matters
Last but not least, spending time with friends is indispensable to a healthy mindset. A UCLA study in 2014 which reported record levels of depression in freshman classes around the country also showed that the amount of time students were spending with friends had hit an all-time low. In the late 1980s, 38 percent of students maintained that they spent more than 16 hours a week as high school seniors hanging out with friends while just 18 percent spent five hours or less. By 2014, those numbers had flipped. Only 18 percent of freshmen said they spent more than 16 hours with friends while 39 percent spent five hours or less socializing. Much more of their interactions occur on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like.
An attentive audience.
“Running away from friends in times of stress is like running away from the hospital when you need an appendectomy!” exclaims Dr. Boardman who likens time spent in the company of friends to a “social vaccine.” Social interaction not only reduces stress by decreasing levels of stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin, but it can actually make you smarter because memory retention proves to be higher when you socialize. Plus, says the psychiatrist, “your IQ increases when you hang out with smarter people.” Ultimately, social connection is “the secret sauce in fortifying us. It provides humility. It’s about noticing, not being noticed,” proclaims Dr. Boardman.

So, in order to build fortitude in life, children should: cultivate a hobby, learn humility and spend face-to-face time with friends. I dare say, this seems like sage advice for adults, too.
Wendi Murdoch and Caryn Zucker
Sharon King Hoge, Frances Schultz and Denise Plunkett
Kari Tiedemann
Nina Griscom and Kalliope Karella
Suzanne Cochran
Mary Dillow
Molly O'Meara Sheehan and Lynette Guastaferro
Teaching Matters was founded by philanthropist, Elizabeth Rohatyn, with the aim of improving teacher quality across the nation’s school system.  The organization provides a cohesive support system to educators, increasing their ability to give students in urban schools a quality education. Over the course of 20 years, Teaching Matters has offered year-round, in-depth programming to approximately 1,000 schools, 30,000 teachers and 500,000 students. Many of Teaching Matters’ partner schools are in underserved communities with poverty levels of 89 percent or higher.  Self-reported teacher retention rates among Teacher Leaders is 42 percent above the national average. Over 90 percent of principals in participating schools agree that Teaching Matters improved the overall effectiveness of teachers, and that the Teacher Leaders had a positive effect on teacher evaluations. For more information, visit http://www.teachingmatters.org.
Elizabeth Rohatyn founded Teaching Matters with the mission to develop and retain talented teachers and measurably increase their ability to give students in urban public schools an excellent education Photo: Sandra Krulwich/The New York Times
Event photos: Joann Huang.