GATES — Marc Brackett was a scrawny kid who remembers being picked on constantly in school. Rather than focusing on his studies, this former C and D student was trying to escape his tormentors, he said.
Just once, he wished his teacher would have had a conversation with him to find out what was getting in the way of academics.
Today, Brackett has a fifth-degree black belt in Hapkido, a Korean martial art, and a career as a top psychology researcher at Yale University. He is dedicated to teaching educators and students how to talk about, understand and manage their emotions as a way to excel at school.
Brackett’s address on emotional literacy opened the 20th-annual Summer Institute on Catholic Education, sponsored by the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. The July 9-10 event was held at the Holiday Inn Rochester Airport.
During his presentation, Brackett showed Catholic-school teachers and administrators from Rochester and other area dioceses a video of a similarly tormented student poet in the United Kingdom who had been transformed into a self-confident person.
Though Brackett did not claim full credit for the transformation, he noted that the student’s class had gone through his emotional-literacy program for a year. At the end of that year, teachers reported a dramatic academic and social change in the tormented student as well as his classmates.
Brackett said he has found similar success at schools across the U.S. Students who are taught to be emotionally literate — able to describe, identify, understand, label, express and regulate their emotions — were rated by their teachers as more adaptable and less anxious, depressed and hyperactive, according to Brackett’s Web site, www.ei-schools.com.
The U.S. students Brackett studied also had better leadership, social and study skills after four months of the program, and at the end of the year they had higher grades in reading, writing and work habits when compared to a control group. Students who are unable to express their feelings may turn to violence to get their points across, Brackett said.
Brackett, who has a Ph.D. in personality and social psychology, noted that the roots of emotional literacy are ancient. He quoted Aristotle: "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."
"People have been thinking about and doing this work for thousands of years," he said. "The difference is what (emotional-literacy programs) do is research-based."
Brackett suggested that people begin their day by charting their emotional state and then monitoring how it changes throughout the day. After asking the group listening to his keynote talk how many people think their emotions affect their daily interactions — nearly all said yes — Brackett questioned how many had been taught how to manage their emotions. The few who raised their hands said they had been taught spiritual management. Brackett then asked what they do when they feel down.
"Pray," one participant quickly responded.
Along with prayer, Brackett’s techniques for managing emotions also include recalling happy memories as a way to improve one’s mood and taking a deep breath to calm oneself.
In addition to workshops with Brackett and other experts, the institute also featured a Mass to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The goal of the institute, titled "Catholic Education: Fire Up, Fuel and Focus," was to energize Catholic-school educators to maintain the quality of Catholic schools rather than focus on the challenging climate today’s schools face, said Evelyn Kirst, director of the Warner School’s religious and independent schools leadership program.
"We have deliberately tried to stay away from survival-mode topics," she noted.
In light of that goal, the institute’s other keynote speaker was Sister of St. Joseph Carol Cimino, a Rochester native who codirects the Catholic School Leadership Institute at Manhattan College. She spoke about ways to renew Catholic schools by creating an authentic Catholic culture in schools and reaching out to non-Catholics who want a quality education.
She said the dozens of local Catholic-school closures during the past 20 years follow some national trends: In 2000, Catholic-school enrollment was 2.65 million nationally, while in 2008 it was 2.27 million. She cited an increase in charter schools and homeschooled students as some reasons for the decline in the Catholic-school population.
Yet she argued that bricks-and-mortar schools are not as important as the objectives of Catholic education.
"It’s one thing for all the Catholic schools to close, but I think it’s worse for people to ignore us, for us to be irrelevant," said Sister Cimino, who has been a national consultant for the Catholic educational publishing company William H. Sadlier Co. since 2003 and was executive director of the Catholic School Administrators Association of New York State from 1987-2003.
She gave a host of suggestions for how to reinvigorate schools, including finding additional sources of nontuition income for schools and coming to a consensus as a church about the need for Catholic schools. She said faculties need to buy into the Catholic mission as well.
"This is not just a job," Sister Cimino said of Catholic educators. "This is an opportunity to develop your spiritual life."
Sister Cimino, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, taught at Sacred Heart School in Owasco and Rochester’s St. Agnes High School and King’s Preparatory Academy. She also was principal of St. Anthony School and director of development at Nazareth Academy, both in Rochester.
Noting that many of the schools she has taught at are now closed, she said such closures should not deter families from pursuing a Catholic education.
"Give your child something that lasts for a lifetime," Sister Cimino urged.