Dr. John Gasko will represent 1 of 2 U.S. universities invited to global summit

Dr. John Gasko, the University of North Texas at Dallas Dean of the School of Education charged with reinventing teacher and school-leader preparation programs to reflect the challenges faced in urban public schools, will be one of just two educators representing American universities at the Higher Education Social Innovation Program on the island of Ekskäret in Stockholm, Sweden, from Dec. 3-7.

This initial gathering of global educational leaders seeks to reimagine how the world trains and supports people on the front lines of the helping professions. Gasko incorporates strategies to strengthen internal resiliency and well-being into his UNT Dallas curriculum, and he was invited to present his unique approach, called Thirdspace, during this international meeting of the minds.

His thesis: How do we teach and lead from a place of well-being rather than from a place of stress and burnout?

“If you look at how people have approached all the many different problems that we face in our schools, the one dimension that almost universally is never acknowledged is the suffering of the human beings on the front lines of helping kids,” said Gasko, who founded the Emerging Teacher Institute within UNT Dallas’ School of Education. “We talk a lot about kids’ health and helping them work with their emotions, but how can that happen when the adults surrounding them are really suffering?”

Gasko and an English professor from the University of Virginia were the only American educators to receive an invitation, selected because they “represent the key champions for this initiative at their home institutions,” the program’s official invitation reads.

This international forum is convened by the Wellbeing Project in collaboration with the Division of Health and Human Performance at Stanford University, as well as the Center for Contemplative Sciences at the University of Virginia, and aims to be the beginning of a profound change in social change programming around the world.

Gasko believes his concepts can create radical, positive change for teachers and school districts locally, and around the world. Public schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he said, needed 8,000 new teachers this year because so many in the profession are leaving early due to stress and burnout, toxic work environments and student discipline, among other factors.

Combining inner well-being care into traditional teacher training is critical to reducing burnout rates and improving the long-term physical and mental health of teachers, leading to greater longevity and happiness in the profession, Gasko believes. 

“If we can just change that number locally, it creates a proof-point for the world,” Gasko said. “The idea is bringing together these other leaders, if they can create these global proof-points and then have the UN look at it and spread it, it could be huge. So many across the globe are working tirelessly to support human flourishing in the midst of adversity, poverty, insecurity, war, inequality and famine. Unfortunately, the people behind the scenes suffer a tremendous toll and too often disappear or leave based on their inability to reconcile their callings to serve, and to relieve suffering and their felt experiences within their bodies and minds.”

The gathering will also include representatives from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Capetown, Mondragon University (Spain), African Leadership University, Indian School of Development Management, Koç University (Istanbul) and Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education.

These leaders will share ideas and examine leading frameworks being used in academic settings. The vision Gasko has implemented at UNT Dallas now has the potential to be replicated in other parts of the world.

To illustrate the adversities that are driving teachers from American public schools, such as low pay, aging facilities and outdated resources, Time magazine in September released a series of “I’m a Teacher in America” covers accompanied by stories of heartbreak and despair from those in the profession.

In October, Gasko co-launched a project called “Dallas Teachers Speak,” which seeks to reshape the image of teachers in their communities by creating poster-sized, magazine-like covers that portray Dallas ISD teachers as strong and glamorous agents of change. These portraits will be displayed in public and private spaces and galleries throughout Dallas next spring.

Gasko’s unique approach first found an audience with Ashoka, an international organization that identifies and supports social entrepreneurs. Through Ashoka, Gasko met Aaron Pereira, the Project Lead at the Well-Being Project, which works to change the culture of the field of social change to one welcoming of inner well-being.

“Aaron and his team are bringing together a gathering of people doing really powerful work in higher education and other fields around supporting people to thrive and to flourish in the midst of rising complexity and turbulence that we could scale across the world,” Gasko said. “And so, this is the start of that collaboration.”