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Transforming Educational Practices

by Nigel Straker
UK

I started teaching in 1979. I've always had a passion for teaching but I was becoming increasingly negative due to what I perceived as the lack of career opportunities for black teachers. I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 1985. In 1986, a large, borough-wide reorganization left me without a job. I felt I had given my school six-and-a-half years of excellent service and this was the response. Eventually the Local Education Authority offered me a temporary position in a school scheduled to be closed. I was incredibly upset by what I saw as a blatant disregard of equality of opportunity. Nevertheless I started work.

uk_nigel_straker.jpg Mr. Straker and his students

Three years later, in 1989, my temporary position was coming to an end. The Headteacher, however, was restructuring the staff for a new school for 11-16 year olds. Several jobs became available at senior management level. My practice and understanding of Buddhism had deepened through my study and SGI activities, so after a great deal of chanting, I decided to apply for one of these positions. I wanted to make a powerful statement about my worth not only as a teacher but also as a human being. The post I applied for would give me responsibility for developing community initiatives and external links, bringing parents into the school and improving the school's profile. During that time, May 1989, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda was visiting the U.K. My interview was coming up on a Monday. The weekend before, I had the choice of either staying home and preparing for the interview or supporting Mr. Ikeda's visit from behind the scenes. I chose the latter. I was stationed at the SGI-UK national center at Taplow Court, and spent the weekend transporting members from one activity to another. I was confident that this kind of selfless giving and support would be a great cause for my life.

On Monday morning I went to the interview. The Headteacher offered me a job as a senior manager in the school. I accepted it. Around the same time, I became an SGI chapter leader in east London. My life was starting to mirror my practice. Our school motto, "Neglect not the gift that is within thee," absolutely coincided with my beliefs and reinforced a central Buddhist principle that everyone has, at the core of their being, potential for an incredible life state that realizes happiness for oneself and for others. When I first arrived at the school only about 30 percent of the students received five or more A-C grades in their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but through hard work, we reached 60 percent. The figure now stands at 84 percent.

In 2002, the new Headteacher asked me to rewrite policy on school behavior. I wrote into the policy a statement affirming that we would become a non-excluding school. If a child was disaffected, we would find out the source of that disaffection. I worked with the school Learning Mentor, as well as external counselors, art and drama therapists to support children who were disengaged or had other difficulties. Eventually even the word "difficulties" changed to "opportunities."

SGI's Declaration of Education in the Twenty-First Century, based on the SGI World Educators' meeting held in October 1985 in Hiroshima, states:

We pledge to work towards the development and solidarity of educators who, based on their own human revolution will inspire the lives of youth with their compassion and wisdom.

 

Reflecting on this and the three Soka Gakkai founding presidents' emphasis on education, I decided I would base the development of young people and my work in education on my own personal growth and transformation. When I looked at my students, what I saw was many "little Buddhas" waiting for their inner potential to be ignited. Before, I had perceived education as one obstacle after another, whether with management, students or parents. But with my "new eyes," these were no longer obstacles but fuel for me to further develop and to win in my battle against my own fundamental darkness or ignorance.

First Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi talked about the importance of teachers being facilitators in the learning process--knowledge was a secondary by-product. Being human, happy and creating value was the major purpose of education. I determined to be an inspiring teacher who would have an enormous impact on young people.

In 2003, I decided to take a course available through the National Foundation for the Teaching of Entrepreneurship (NFTE). The approach was to empower young people to take charge of their lives by recognizing their life has meaning and purpose and that our actions create our circumstances.

I received money from a high street bank to support students in setting up their businesses, through micro-finances and start-up loans. The students initiated a whole range of different businesses and talked about having a "can-do" attitude and seeing obstacles as opportunities, being reliable, having a good reputation and being trustworthy. Students who previously had been disaffected and disengaged were now positive, engaged, making money and giving interviews on local radio about their schemes and their passion for business as young entrepreneurs. In 2005, we entered the students into a city bank's national business plan competition. We won the top two places and a trip to New York. Following this, I received a letter from the NFTE offering me a scholarship to Columbia University to study with some of America's most brilliant young entrepreneurs using enterprise as a tool to reshape young lives.

When I returned to England, I talked to our Headteacher about enterprise becoming part of the mainstream curriculum. We now offer such classes for high school students in years10 and 11.The students are taking control of their own learning and their lives.

From an educational perspective, enterprise education is not just about profit-making and taking. It's about being enthusiastic about life, creating new possibilities, being responsible, determined and choosing to grow and expand in wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

 

[Adapted from an article in the March 2009 issue of the Art of Living, SGI-UK; photo courtesy of Ayse Hassan]

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