Timothy Shriver of Special Olympics International: “Invest in teachers”

Invest in teachers. Really invest. They are a key link in the creation of our nation’s scientists and artists, our technicians and policymakers. They should be appropriately compensated not only for the vital work they do each day, but also for the life-long learning they must participate in if they are to maintain pace with […]

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Invest in teachers. Really invest. They are a key link in the creation of our nation’s scientists and artists, our technicians and policymakers. They should be appropriately compensated not only for the vital work they do each day, but also for the life-long learning they must participate in if they are to maintain pace with the ever-changing needs and circumstances of our society. Teachers who excel should also have opportunities to apply their skills and leadership abilities without having to leave the classroom and become administrators. Their salaries should reflect those additional responsibilities and contributions to the field, some of which — such as peer training and mentoring — could take place during the weeks when school is closed to in-person instruction.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Timothy Shriver.

Timothy Shriver leads the Special Olympics International Board of Directors, and together with 6 million Special Olympics athletes in more than 200 countries, promotes health, education, and a more unified world through the joy of sport.

Shriver joined Special Olympics in 1996. He has been a leading educator who focuses on the social and emotional factors in learning. He co-founded and currently chairs the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the leading school reform organization in the field of social and emotional learning. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Co-Chairman of the National Commission on Social and Emotional Learning, President of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, Member of the Board of Directors for the WPP Group, LLC, and a co-founder of Lovin’ Scoopful Ice Cream Company.

Shriver earned his undergraduate degree from Yale University, a Master’s Degree from Catholic University, and holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Connecticut. He has produced four films, authored The New York Times bestselling book Fully Alive — Discovering What Matters Most, and has written for dozens of newspapers and magazines. Shriver and his wife, Linda Potter, reside in the Washington, D.C. area and have five adult children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I was raised in a family who believed politics and social change were the essential callings of every human being — a family that could not possibly imagine a day, not to mention a life, in which you were not giving yourself to the work of trying to heal the divides in the world. My mother was an activist for the field of intellectual disability, and my earliest memories are of volunteering in a camp with my same-age peers — five, six, seven years old — who had intellectual disabilities. My father was active in the work of peace, economic opportunity, and religious dialogue, and every day he was involved with a trip or event or mission to promote his vision for a more just and peaceful world. I was raised to think those are the values that matter most: healing divides, enhancing understanding, building bridges across religion and culture, ending discrimination, playing for change.

And, by the way, I’m grateful for all of that because my career path has never felt like a burden or a chore, but always like a mission and, most days at least, like a joy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Choosing the most interesting story in a 45-year career is a bit of a challenge. But here’s a story about an experience which was formative. Early in my career I was a teacher in a compensatory education program. I felt enormous frustration in my work. The system, as I saw it, wasn’t working for my kids. The schools, as I experienced them, weren’t meeting kids where they needed to be met. The community organizations weren’t strong enough to make a difference. And racial, economic, and cultural barriers were everywhere. In the face of all this, I felt I couldn’t reach my students, couldn’t make a big enough impact, and couldn’t change the course of their lives — not to mention the course of the community in which I was working.

Over time, however, I heard my students trying to teach me a lesson. If I were summarizing what they said, it was: “Stop trying to fix the world; just focus on listening to me.” And then one day I was in a church with many of the parents of my students. One of the parents gave me a book about prayer, and the book asked me a simple question: Where are you looking for healing and change? That evening, as I read the book, images of many of my students came to mind. I realized when they’d said, “What’s important is that you care,” they’d really been saying, “What’s important is that you look at me . . . see me . . . hear me.” And in that instant my approach to them, to myself, and to my work changed. Since then, I’ve tried to do what they counseled — lead with my heart… lead with listening… lead with seeing others. And let the change, whatever it needs to be, come from that.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I’m working on a new project called UNITE, which is an effort to apply the lessons I learned from being in education and from my years of being a student of Special Olympics athletes… the lessons of ability, of universal giftedness, of connecting with others at both the head and the heart. The idea is to share those lessons through media in order to help heal the divides in our culture. We are tapping into people from all walks of life who are interested in collaborating to address universal challenges which can only be solved if we all work together. Our goal is to apply creative problem-solving in ways that bridge whatever divides us, bringing all of us together — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, culture, ability, economic level, or political leaning — in the pursuit of justice, equity, and the celebration of our common humanity.

In my capacity as Chairman of Special Olympics, the other exciting project I am helping to lead is the expansion of one of our most transformative programs, Unified Champion Schools (UCS). UCS creates opportunities for youth with and without intellectual disabilities to come together to develop exceptional athletic skills while forming friendships, fostering respect for each other, and becoming leaders on and off the field of play. The results are changing lives as our young people become advocates for social inclusion as well as agents of change within their school, community, and state. We are thrilled that Unified Champion Schools is now being expanded around the world, as we are witnessing major policy shifts toward inclusion. One major success is the United Arab Emirates, which has committed to bringing the program to all of its government schools.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

Well, some would say I’m an authority because I have advanced degrees in education. Others would say I’m an authority because I’ve studied with and been mentored by some of the most gifted educators in the world. Still others would say I’m an authority because I’ve written about child development and social-emotional learning. But my real authority, if I have any, comes from the capacity to listen deeply to children, to try to follow their lead and respond to their deepest, highest, and most important needs.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I think public education is a great treasure of the United States. Over many generations, it has been the nation’s most powerful institution for establishing a common experience for children and families… a common set of understandings with rites of passage. It drew disparate communities into becoming a public. But in some ways, American education has also been an example of the failures of the American experience for many groups. Public education is still struggling with de facto segregation and with vast inequities in resources and spending. Public education is still stuck in models that punish children unnecessarily, that track children — sometimes cruelly, and that fail children in large numbers and large ways.

In recent years, there has been a shift toward educating both head and heart, toward recognizing the gifts and needs of the whole child. This shift promises, I think, a whole new paradigm and a whole new possibility for children who are struggling with trauma, anxiety, and disaffection. But this work has just begun. We have a long way to go and the challenges remain huge. Still, all things considered, I place my bet on the future of the United States. I place my bet on the teachers, educators, and leaders of our public schools. I think they, more than anyone, understand the importance and the potential of every child being seen and optimized and welcomed into the fabric of the whole.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. I think the optimism and idealism with which most teachers enter the profession is great.
  2. Career educators’ desire to help others and to also change and grow themselves is great.
  3. The possibilities technology brings to extend high-quality teaching and learning to millions of children is great.
  4. The creative capacity of the youngest generation of learners, with their artistic spirit, their entrepreneurial drive, and their desire to explore — all of that is great.
  5. And I think the emerging empowerment of children who in the past felt defeated by the system — children of color, young women who are interested in science and technology, children with disabilities who are interested in being leaders — I think the empowerment of these children has been a great source of challenge and transformation in American schools.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

First, teacher training needs to be improved. Teachers are typically trained in the work of transmitting information; they also need to be trained in the work of relationships of inspiration. This is a major shift, from teaching only academic information to teaching both head and heart, both academics and social-emotional skills, both information and relationships of responsibility, service, and purpose.

Second, for PreK through grade 12, schools need to integrate a new curriculum in social and emotional learning to strengthen relationships and a sense of belonging, improve self-regulation, inspire purpose, and promote a love of learning.

Third, schools need to change their discipline strategies from being punitive to being restorative. Rather than punishing and labeling and excluding children, schools need to help children learn how to grow from their mistakes, to learn from both their wounds and their wounding.

Fourth, schools need to deepen their commitment to equity, to ensuring all children have equal opportunities and the supports necessary to thrive and flourish.

Fifth, schools need to examine policies and practices that are discriminatory towards children of color, women and girls, immigrant children and oppressed minorities. They need to root out practices that further children’s suffering and trauma, replacing them with practices that strengthen children’s agency and promote lasting change.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

I think we’ve done better on STEM in recent years, but we have a lot of ground to make up if we are to be competitive on the world stage. We can increase young people’s engagement by:

Recognizing that the younger generations of today and tomorrow are weaned on technology and we can take advantage of technology as a gateway and support for more creative STEM education.

Ensuring every elementary, middle, and high school is equipped with multiple maker spaces replete with hand tools, computers and 3D printers, marker boards, and bins of assorted pieces of metal, plastic, cardboard, fabric, and wood that encourage students to explore the creation of physical products.

Overcoming the digital divide and inequities in access to at-home internet, technology devices and other connectivity in socio-economically challenged communities.

Advocating with policymakers at the national, state, and local levels to ensure K-12 schools are allocated the resources needed for high-quality, hands-on STEM education and universities and school districts provide the preservice training and professional development teachers need to continually deepen and refresh their skills in STEM instruction.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

First, girls and young women are as interested in STEM subjects as anyone else and, simply as a matter of equity, deserve just as much opportunity as their male counterparts to explore and develop those interests.

Second, females make up about half the population of the country. America can ill afford to disregard the STEM-related skills and talents of 165 million of its citizens.

Third, as with men, many women devote a significant portion of their adult lives to child-rearing and household management. STEM competencies can enhance the economic stability of households. Future generations need to see that STEM activities are the rightful domain of all people, regardless of gender, and children need to share in STEM experiences with all of the adults in their lives.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Certainly the involvement by girls, women and, I might add, by people of color has grown — not fast enough, but still, it’s growing. Actually, there are some essentially no-cost ways the U.S. could pick up the pace.

Highlight at all levels of education and for all student populations the many amazing contributions women have made in STEM fields, including cytogenetics, computer languages and coding, virus mapping, chemotherapy, and astronomy. Throughout America’s history, STEM fields have been dominated by the white males who controlled the laboratories, and men often received the credit — even the Nobel Prize — for the work and discoveries that were actually made by women. It’s past time to correct that version of history and to introduce today’s young women to their rightful role models.

Connect STEM education to the social interests of girls and women. STEM concepts and processes take on meaning when students see how STEM can make a difference in the lives of people their own age, such as a child who is affected by physical paralysis and is assisted by technology to be more independent.

Expand the population of girls and women who are included in STEM education. There is an emerging interest in supporting STEM education for students with intellectual disabilities who are too often deemed unable to participate in highly technical curricula. Robotics, animation, coding and gaming are all areas where students with intellectual differences — both girls and boys — can excel.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

In my mind, there is no need to even have this debate. I advocate for seeing, listening to, and addressing the needs of the whole child. Separating mathematics and the sciences from humanities and the arts is an artificial divide. Think about it. What would music be without the rhythm provided by math’s quarter notes and half notes? And if architecture were nothing but geometry and physics — with no input from the visual arts — our cathedrals, mosques, and temples would be about as inspirational as cracker boxes. The compartmentalization of education is just another way we erect siloes. It can place a bureaucratic imprimatur on labeling, separating, and excluding some students from certain areas of study, based on such distinctions as gender, ability, or tradition. If we focus on the child as a whole, then perhaps we’ll stop trying to put up roadblocks to what and how children learn. We should focus on uniting, not separating.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Significantly reduce class sizes at every grade level, PreK-12. It is exceedingly difficult to genuinely see, hear and meet the whole-child needs of every student when you are interacting with about 25 individuals simultaneously. Two minutes of individual time per hour won’t get the job done.

Modernize our school buildings, either by constructing new ones or significantly updating those which already exist. This needs to be done for multiple reasons. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the need to revamp schools’ HVAC systems in order to promote safe, in-person learning. Many facilities lack elevators, ramps, and other accommodations that make schools accessible to students and adults with specific physical, visual, and auditory needs. Thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 45 years after the enactment of P.L. 94–142 (later reformulated as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), we still have high schoolers in wheelchairs who cannot reach the third-floor chemistry lab. Students across the nation sit in classrooms with broken windows, inadequate wiring, and water dripping from the ceiling. Meanwhile, we build multi-thousand-seat sports arenas with VIP suites and retractable roofs. Children are watching. They see quite clearly what we value — and whom we value.

Break the dependency on local property taxes. Public education is a right. High-quality public education should also be a right. Whether a child lives in a tree-lined subdivision or in public housing, in a gleaming high-rise or on tribal lands, he or she should have equal access to the human and physical resources that can draw out the best in that child’s potential.

Invest in teachers. Really invest. They are a key link in the creation of our nation’s scientists and artists, our technicians and policymakers. They should be appropriately compensated not only for the vital work they do each day, but also for the life-long learning they must participate in if they are to maintain pace with the ever-changing needs and circumstances of our society. Teachers who excel should also have opportunities to apply their skills and leadership abilities without having to leave the classroom and become administrators. Their salaries should reflect those additional responsibilities and contributions to the field, some of which — such as peer training and mentoring — could take place during the weeks when school is closed to in-person instruction.

Build a fire under the original mission of public education to nurture a well-informed citizenry who will ensure our democracy endures. Right now, we are a divided nation. We are blinded by those divisions. We have forgotten how to talk with each other as neighbors and to focus on our commonalities — our love of family, our desire to protect Mother Earth for our offspring, our belief that we have the power to make the world a better place. Public education has a key role to play in healing our divides — by deepening our efforts in civic education and understanding our Constitution, by teaching students how to distinguish facts from rumors — especially online, by promoting students’ trust in the work of the free press, by teaching them that every citizen is accountable for upholding democratic principles and the rule of law, and by providing day-in/day-out practice in such vital social and emotional skills as non-violent conflict resolution.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

These words animated me to always believe that the best approach to counter darkness and hatred is to light a light and to act as an agent of love and possibility, to the best of my ability.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Yes, Amanda Gorman — because I’d like to learn more about her faith and how her faith and her words can inspire a new generation of people to believe in themselves and others.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My personal social media pages are:


Instagram: @timothyshriver

Twitter: @timshriver


For more information about my latest endeavor UNITE, please check out:

Website: https://unite.us/

Twitter, Instagram, TikTok: @thecalltounite

Facebook: Facebook.com/thecalltounite

YouTube: youtube.com/thecalltounite

For more information about my work with Special Olympics and inclusion, please see:

Website: generationunified.org

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVnySLledRlv0yVCO5aTj8g

Blog: https://medium.com/specialolympics/tagged/unified-generation

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