Category Archives: Ideas to try

New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone

Worth reposting as you get ready to start a new school year…

Witty humor or caustic mockery? Good-natured ribbing or anger with a smile?

Sarcasm. Widely used and widely misunderstood. Some people defend it while others condemn it. Is the line between sarcasm and innocent humor really that fine?  Not if you look at what makes sarcasm unique.

We know it when we hear it.

Read these statements first with sarcasm and then as if you honestly mean them.

  • (Student says she’ll bring the book in tomorrow.) Right, that’s going to happen!
  • (Teacher was talking to a student.) It’s going to be a great year with you in my class.
  • (There are papers scattered under a desk.) I love the way you always put your papers away so neatly.
  • (Student couldn’t answer a question.) Keep this up and you’ll be a big success when you grow up.
  • (Class has been doing poorly on tests.) I’m sure everyone is going to study hard tonight.
  • (Student has a disciplinary note to give his parents.) I know you’ll have your parents sign that letter like you always do.
  • (Teacher is looking at a messy paper.) Thank you. Your essay is  so neat and legible.
  • (Teacher is frustrated with the noise level.) I’m so glad I get to start each day with all of you. I must have a guardian angel.

Hear the difference? That core of insincerity and meanness? The little dig?

Sarcasm is saying the opposite of what we mean; there is an intentional contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the social and emotional intent. It is a putdown couched in humor meant to embarrass or hurt, motivated by negative emotions – frustration, disgust, disdain, futility, anger, even hate – communicated through the context, the words chosen, and the inflection used.

Why is sarcasm one of the deadly sins of relationships?

Because it comes out of left field like a stomach punch, with enough of a grain of truth to breed insecurity. It puts us off-balance, even adults, and is particularly hurtful when aimed at children who expect adults to speak the truth. Sarcasm is verbal aggression with a smile, a sideways way to express criticism, which is actually more hurtful than the honest criticism it replaces. It is intentionally dishonest and kids need honesty to feel secure. It damages relationships instead of  strengthening them.

Power differential + sarcasm = bullying + not funny

Teacher-to-student bullying, the same as student-on-student bullying, but with more emphasis on the power differential, is defined as  “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.”

The lack of understanding of the difference between humor and sarcasm and the venting it provides, and the false belief that it produces results, perpetuate the use of sarcasm for classroom management, student reprimands, and motivation. Yet, fear of embarrassment or ridicule is not a healthy motivator. Younger children and those with learning disabilities or Asperger’s syndrome will just be confused. With older students, sarcasm might get a laugh from the other children and short-term compliance from the target. But at what cost? A child’s feelings of self-worth, sense of security, trust in adults, and ability to concentrate and learn? A backlash of resentment and retaliation towards the teacher? Modeling the very disrespectful, unkind behavior that we complain about?

Good-natured humor, unlike sarcasm, is not mean or targeted at a specific person or group. It is a shared enjoyment of a comical or ironic situation, cleverness, or wordplay, motivated by our basic need to have fun. Laughing together helps us connect with each other and strengthens our bond. It is healthy, even necessary, especially in classrooms where students are our captive audience.

How do we create a no sarcasm zone?

We know it when we hear it, so we can do something about sarcasm if we:

  • Evaluate and change our own behavior.
  • Make sure we are honest and kind, with pure motives.
  • Teach and model better ways of being.
  • Treat students and their families with genuine compassion and respect.

Albuquerque City Schools offers this advice.

Replace the old way…Teacher communicating with sarcasm: “My, my, my. Aren’t you a smart class. It looks like by age 12 you’ve all finally learned to find your seat and sit down after the bell. And to think it only took you half of the morning to do it. I don’t know if there is another class in the entire school as smart or quick as you guys.”

With a new way…Teacher communicating honestly without sarcasm: “One of the expectations of this class is to be seated and ready to go to work when the bell rings. I appreciate those of you who were quietly seated when the bell rang today.”

Exactly. Straightforward, helpful communication, with no victims. 

Bullying happens during the summer, too.

School’s out! Let the fun begin!

Not so fast.

Sure, summer vacation brings with it the promise of nice weather, more freedom to choose what to do, and participation in fun activities. And if your child was a target of bullying at school, she might be relieved to be out of that hostile environment for a few months.

Yet the sad reality is she isn’t safe from bullying when school is out. During the summer, young children and teens are often supervised less closely and for longer periods of time in new surroundings with unfamiliar children and adults. The expectations for behavior may not be clear and there are no established relationships to make the group a positive community. This mix of factors provides ample opportunity for bullies to choose targets and make their summer miserable.

Where does summer bullying happen?

  • At day camps
  • Sleep away camps
  • Community recreational and enrichment programs
  • Playgrounds
  • Neighborhoods
  • Shopping centers
  • Swimming pools
  • Sports programs
  • Childcare centers
  • Buses
  • And on the Internet

What can parents do?

There are some things parents can do to reduce the chance their children might be the target of mean, hurtful, abusive behavior.

  1. Only consider summer activities where the children are well-supervised by trained, caring adults and they value and create a respectful environment.
  2. Would an anime workshop be a better choice than soccer camp? Be considerate of your children’s likes and dislikes. Offer options and ask them what they would like to do. Avoid putting them into a situation where they have little interest and may perform poorly. This can set them up as a target for bullying from the more skilled children.  It is empowering to be with others who share their interests.
  3. If possible arrange for your children to attend summer programs with some of  their friends.
  4. Find out what the program or camp’s bullying prevention policy is and how they actively ensure a bullying-free experience for their campers. (See Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)
  5. Talk to the program director. Ask questions such as: What do you do to intentionally model and build a culture of acceptance and empathy; who can a child go to if there is a problem; may a child call home when he wants to;  and how are incidents handled and how are parents involved.
  6. If your child was victimized at school, talk to whomever will be working with him and explain the situation. Ask what they can do to help your child have a successful summer experience.
  7. Cyber-bullying is a problem during the school year and even more so when children have with hours of free time, often unsupervised. Add to this how social networking sites are unregulated and any damage done by a text or picture is immediate. Set ground rules for Internet use, discuss proper and safe use of social networking, and check in to see what they are doing.
  8. Talk to your children regularly about their day-to-day experiences in their summer program and be on the lookout for symptoms they are being bullied, such as the child has stomach aches or complains of not feeling well, or tells you he just doesn’t want to go to the program or camp anymore.
  9. Listen to your child and find out what is going on. Report any concerns you have to the camp counselors and program directors. Remember there is a difference between tattling and reporting a problem where someone is being hurt.

But, there is another place where children are bullied, one you might not have considered.

You might not have considered the possibility that your child is being bullied at home by a brother or sister. We are increasingly aware of the damage done by sibling bullying, especially since the recent publication of a report in the  Journal of Pediatrics on The Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

If there is no parent available, who is watching your children during the summer?  Have you appointed an older child to be in charge of his siblings? How does he treat his charges?

Home should be a safe haven, where we are unconditionally loved and cared for. But it isn’t a safe haven if parents condone or passively allow their children to boss, wield power over, verbally abuse, and physically hurt each other. This kind of sibling violence in our homes is as harmful to a child’s well-being and feeling of security as the bullying that occurs on the school bus or in the cafeteria. In fact, some think it is more harmful.

Sibling bullying is not the same as everyday squabbles or disagreements that arise. A level of conflict is expected within families. It is natural and provides a chance to learn how to consider the needs of others and compromise to reach a solution. But sibling bullying is very different. It is when one – or more than one – sibling is always the aggressor and another is always the victim, and the abuse is repeated and deliberate. Such violence in what is supposed to be a loving relationship leaves the child confused, feeling powerless and unworthy, even unlovable, and models an unhealthy view of what a loving relationship of mutual respect and concern looks like. And most striking is the puzzling reality that what would never be accepted between peers in a school is accepted as a normal part of life when it happens at home between siblings.

Why is this the case? In the  Journal of Pediatrics report, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, sums up the problem: “Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships.”

Preventing and Intervening

Bullying is never healthy. There are many things parents can do to prevent bullying behavior between their children and to intervene if it already exists.  The first hurdle, is for parents to admit sibling bullying is not okay, and to then take an honest look at the relationships and behavioral patterns among their children. To set the expectations and a cooperative tone, bring everyone together for a thoughtful, respectful conversation about what is and is not acceptable in their house. Ask the children to name okay and not okay behavior. Write down their ideas and make an agreement to follow these guidelines. Follow through and be consistent in your expectations.

A child who is bullying a sibling needs to be held accountable, just as she would be if she bullied someone in school. A parent must tell her to stop the violent behavior, immediately, and tell the victim that being bullied is not her fault. At this time it is also wise to talk to the child you have placed in charge of her siblings about how she feels about the responsibility she was given, and re-examine and, if possible, adjust the arrangement you have made for child care.

With an open dialogue, and clear expectations and sensitivity to all the parties, you have a good chance of removing home from the list of places where children get bullied during the summer.

Check out:

Summer Bullying Prevention Tips For Your Family

Parents: Don’t ignore sibling bullying, study warns

Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)

Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Part Two: From Bystander to Ally – learning how to speak out

Speaking out takes practice.

The only way to develop more allies is to educate students and adults about the roles they play in bullying. Participating in bullying role plays and discussing it with each other sensitizes everyone to the perspectives of all the players. This fosters empathy and compassion for the victim, builds a feeling of efficacy – I can do something to make this better – and creates a support group of peers who want to do the right thing. It teaches decision-making, the effect of our choices, builds character, and might even be the catalyst for a child’s self-realization that he is bullying others. Students come away with the powerful understanding that their choices affect how they and their classmates are treated.

For this understanding to translate into a change of attitudes and behavior, students must hear and believe these five messages from adults:

  • You are not responsible for the actions of the bully.
  • You do not have to live with it.
  • We want you to report bullying.
  • We promise, if you are being bullied, we will never leave you to handle it on your own.
  • Reporting a serious problem is not tattling.

To show you mean it, make posters of these five messages to post around the school.

Strategies that empower

With these messages clearly delivered and received, we can teach students to take a stand to not join in bullying using strategies that convey confidence, show resistance, and assess situations. Role plays offer practice for:

  • How to avoid being a victim.
  • How to assess danger and act wisely.
  • Ways to stand up to a bully.
  • The exact things to say to the bully.

Doing the right thing takes personal courage and the ability to assess the situation. Acting as an ally or defender does not mean trying to break up a fight or getting into an altercation with a bully, and if you are the victim, standing up to a bully at that moment is not always the best choice. There is no set approach to stopping bullies in their tracks; specific circumstances and those involved determine the nature of each interaction. Bullies are often physically and mentally strong, act in groups, and have a sense of entitlement that is resistant to correction. Standing up to them does not always work and the target or ally can get hurt in the process. Sometimes the best thing is to get away and seek help immediately. To encourage reporting, some schools have successfully set up bullying hotlines to give students a secure way to report problems.

Victims should only stand up to a bully and an ally or group of allies should only intervene face-to-face when it feels safe to do so. Then they can firmly tell the perpetrator:

  • Stop it!
  • Don’t call her that.
  • That isn’t funny.
  • What you are saying (doing) is mean.
  • I’m getting an adult.

Allies in cyberspace

The roles students play in cyberbullying are similar to face-to-face bullying, but cyberbullying requires additional cautions when you consider how public it is. Social media makes it easy to do, bullies can share photographs and cheerleaders can make anonymous comments, and the size of the potential audience is immense. The cyberbully feels protected and powerful because she does not have to face her victim, while the impact on the victim is immediate, widespread, and devastating.

First, young people need strategies to avoid being a victim of or encouraging cyber-bullying:

  • Choose social media sites and friends wisely.
  • Think about and be careful choosing what to post.
  • Do not post, text, or email anything you don’t want the whole world, including your parents, to see.
  • Do not take part in or cheer on cyberbullying.
  • Use privacy settings and do not share passwords.
  • Do not respond to cyberbullying.

Second, they need to know what to do if either they or someone they know is a victim of cyberbullying. A cyber ally:

  • Tells a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult right away.
  • Keeps evidence of cyberbullying.
  • Blocks the offender.
  • Reports it to school.

Positive action

There is safety in numbers, especially for young people who are greatly influenced by peers. The goal is to create an active majority of allies, adults and students, that knows what bullying looks like and the role they can choose to play. When people refuse to take part or to look the other way, and instead report incidents of bullying to adults who can help, the ally peer group grows and the school climate changes to one of positive action where bullying behavior is no longer tolerated.

Part One: From Bystander to Ally – the roles we play in bullying

Bullying involves more than just the bully and the victim.

My last post was on the Pepsi Max test drive commercial and how thinking that mistreating another person is funny and not speaking up to denounce what offends us encourage bullying behavior. PepsiCo, the YouTube audience, bloggers, commentators, and the business groups and ad agency reviewers who praised the commercial all played a role in perpetuating the myth that bullying, if done “in fun,” is okay.

This happens in school, too, when bystanders, both students and adults, choose to ignore or encourage this type of violence, and often think it is funny. But bullying isn’t funny. It is abuse committed repeatedly against a victim that escalates over time, where the perpetrator appears to enjoy the power to intimidate and hurt. It shows a lack of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. It is predator behavior and we are charged morally and legally to prevent it from happening, and to take swift action when it does.

What role do we choose?

Once we accept that bullying is a type of violence and is a problem in our schools, where do we start? Bullying prevention efforts begin by developing an understanding of what violence is, the forms it takes, and why it is hurtful. Then, to change attitudes and behavior, students and teachers need a breakdown of the specific ways we participate in bullying:

  • Victim (target of the bullying)
  • Perpetrator and co-perpetrator (the bullies)
  • Ally (defender of the target)
  • Bystander (is aware it is happening)
  • Audience (congregates and watches)
  • Cheerleader (actively encourages the violence)

Each of these roles is a choice we make as an individual and each has an impact on the continuation of bullying. The perpetrator, cheerleader, and ally choose to take a lead role and openly encourage or discourage the bullying. They make a decision to do something. The bystander and audience take what appears to be, but isn’t, a passive role. They make a conscious choice to not do anything. Taking no action one way or the other is not a neutral position. Inaction is a decision to allow the bullying to continue.

What do these roles look like in face-to-face bullying?

The perpetrator and co-perpetrators decide on a target, someone they perceive as weaker and more vulnerable than they are. They make a decision to tease, demean, threaten, dominate, and hurt the victim, and then they corner and attack.

Cheerleaders actively encourage the attack by verbally egging on the bully, suggesting things to do to the victim, laughing and cheering, and verbally abusing the victim. The perpetrator and cheerleaders feed off of each other and escalate the violence. Cheerleaders can easily cross the line and become co-perpetrators.

A bystander is aware of or actually witnesses the bullying, and the audience stands by and watches the bullying happen. In both cases they do nothing to intervene and help the victim. Their choice allows the violence to continue and, by their silence, they become accomplices.

An ally or defender is a bystander or member of the audience who makes a decision to do something to stop the bullying. It could even be a cheerleader or co-conspirator who has a change of heart and realizes it is wrong. The ally steps in and advocates for the victim by telling the bully to stop, helping the victim get away from the situation, and telling an adult what happened.

Adult and student allies who take positive action to support or defend the victim, and victims who speak up for themselves are the answer to reducing bullying in our schools. Once we know the important role we can play, we can become an ally.

Next: Part Two of From Bystander to Ally is about learning how to speak out.

Say No to Armed Guards in Schools

A confusion of issues and solutions

We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.

It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.

But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.

Violence in Perspective

What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.

But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:

Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.

Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.

Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.

The real issues

It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.

Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.

We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe

  • Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
  • Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
  • Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.

For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.

Create a no competition zone

Competition…

  • For the teacher’s attention
  • grades
  • prizes
  • approval
  • To be first in line
  • most popular
  • richest
  • prettiest
  • coolest

…undermines the positive learning climate we need in our classrooms. We now realize the damage competition does if left unchecked and recent anti-bullying and safe school climate efforts require that we actively work to make school an emotionally, socially, and physically safe place for every child.

This is especially important when we look at the unique nature of a school. Children go to school to learn things they don’t know or cannot yet do. Progressing from not knowing to knowing is an incremental process that requires risk taking and tenacity, and makes students vulnerable. The classroom is not like an athletic field, where the players already have the requisite knowledge and skills to compete. Students are still in the process of learning and classroom competition does not build character or a strong work ethic. What does build good character is challenge and encouragement,  realistic goals, and working hard to reach them – and all the while treating others with respect and compassion.

School, then, is inherently stressful.

Everything we do in our classroom, intentionally or without knowing, affects the stress level. Healthy classrooms thrive on cooperation, collaboration, and mutual support, which reduce this stress. In this climate, under the patient guidance of the teacher and community of respectful peers, students feel safe and can keep trying until they master the material or skill.

But the stress of the organized competition we sometimes use to motivate children and of the competition that happens when children vie for social status compound each other. Being compared to others and put on the spot to perform breed insecurity and can interfere with a student’s academic learning. We have learned that competition in the classroom leads to diminished, not increased, personal and group effort. Why? Because it substitutes extrinsic motivation for development of  self-discipline and an internal desire to try hard and to do well. Students work only as hard and as long as it takes to reach the artificial goal, or, when they see they cannot win, they give up or act out.  The competition establishes a pecking order, and students do not learn how to cooperate and help each other learn.  Instead they become competitors and the climate of the classroom becomes more stressful and less conducive to learning.

This competition is harmful to school climate and our students because it…

  • Puts children in a heightened emotional state of flight, fight or freeze.
  • Causes fear and embarrassment.
  • Labels students as good or bad at something.
  • Leads to winners and losers.
  • Defines an in and an out crowd.
  • Creates a power imbalance.
  • Leads to emotional and physical bullying.
  • Fosters fear of failure and a tendency to give up.
  • Is a constant reminder of self-defeating beliefs children may already have.
  • Increases performance anxiety in highly driven students and those expected by themselves or others to be perfect.

Competition and rewards also reinforce existing social hierarchies where the more socially and academically adept get the bulk of the positive feedback, rewards, and sense of accomplishment. So, instead of a secure climate where all children feel safe and can learn, we get a climate that encourages…

  • Cheating to win or come out on top
  • Meanness to build social status
  • Callous attitudes toward the success of our peers
  • Reliance on extrinsic motivation
  • Praise junkies who expect rewards for their efforts – verbal or tangible

And it damages instead of builds the critical personal connections, sense of  community, and caring relationships students and teachers need.

What can teachers do to minimize competition?

  1. Create a classroom climate of respect and empathy where we always treat each other in a caring way.
  2. Refrain from comparing students or pitting them against one another, and from offering artificial rewards.

For example, teachers sometimes use competitive games, such as a spelling bee or Jeopardy-type activity, to teach or to review material for a test. We view competitive games as something students like, a break from the routine that adds a little excitement.  But these games often fail to teach much, and, even worse, they are emotionally and socially counterproductive. While competition does get students’ adrenaline pumping, it also heightens emotions and causes discord that make it hard to calm down after the competition is over. And it is difficult to justify a spelling bee for instructional purposes when there are more effective and considerate ways to teach spelling than to make students spell words out loud in front of their classmates.

It is true that some children might enjoy spelling bees (usually the best spellers), but more find them just one more opportunity to fail…with an audience. And if not necessary, why use a teaching strategy that causes anxiety and taints the atmosphere?

Consider how you felt as a child and how you feel as an adult.
  • Did you enjoy spelling bees?
  • Would you like to participate in a spelling bee at a faculty meeting?
  • How about math flash cards or a game of American history “Around the World” at a staff-development workshop?

What an eye-opener. If we think of it from this perspective, we might feel differently about competitive games that pit one child or a group of students against one another. The brain can’t learn if it is in an anxious, fearful state. And we don’t want to make our students feel uncomfortable.

Keeping these understandings of human nature in mind may motivate us to stop using spelling bees, races to read the most books, and rewards for test scores or good behavior that result in pride for some and feelings of failure and embarrassment for others. Unless, that is, the competitive activity…

  • Is optional for self-selected students (no peer or teacher pressure),
  • Is a fun activity for the participants,
  • Does not waste instructional time,
  • Teaches students to play fair and be gracious winners and losers.

Otherwise, let’s make schools a healthy, competition-free zone.

Back to School Tip: We get what we give and expect

Take a minute to think…

How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind?  What do you expect to happen?

The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.

How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.

If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:

  • don’t listen
  • are disrespectful
  • refuse to take responsibility
  • have no manners
  • don’t want to learn
  • can’t be trusted
  • need to be managed

…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:

We are adversaries struggling for control.

But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:

  • inherently good
  • impressionable
  • sensitive and vulnerable
  • interested in learning new things
  • responsive to encouragement
  • capable of learning better behavior
  • at our mercy

…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:

We are collaborators sharing power.

These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.

We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:

  • Cooperation
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Enthusiasm
  • Trust
  • And teamwork

Back to School Tip: I hated that! (So don’t do it!)

When I Was a Kid

Think back to your own childhood experiences as a student, preferably the age level you teach. Picture yourself as that child and what you liked and what bothered you, and why you felt this way. If I were doing this exercise I might think of my 6th grade classroom where I liked being allowed to work on projects with a small group out in the hall because it gave me freedom and a chance to talk and be creative. I also might recall how I did not like it when this same teacher punished the entire class with a surprise test when only a few kids were fooling around.

What kind of things did you recall? Did the associated feelings come back? Did certain teachers stand out as memorable while you wish you had never had some of them? Take this insight and apply it to the way you interact with your students. If you shared these findings with others and listened to their perspectives, you would likely discover universal experiences most did like (free-time, coloring, being read to, encouragement from the teacher) and most didn’t like (copying notes from the board, yelling, being put on the spot, sarcasm). You can use this insight as you make decisions about your own classroom.

First Rule of Thumb: “I didn’t like it when I was in school, so I won’t do it to my students.” Make it your mantra, the foundation for creating a classroom climate that is purposefully inviting for students.

Yet there is a twist.

You would also likely find differences in what others liked and didn’t like. While you might have loved recess because you were a good athlete and popular, another might have hated it because the some kids teased and excluded her at recess. Look at the implications of these differences. While you couldn’t wait to get outside, she got a pit in her stomach just thinking about it.

The primitive fight or flight part of the brain was at work and feelings like this likely interfered with her ability to participate fully and learn. Fear overrides the part of the brain where reasoning and processing happen. If I am afraid of spiders and you are afraid of snakes, we each click into panic mode when confronted with the source of our fear. In the presence of something scary, that is all we can think of. Our fears should be acknowledged and each of us treated accordingly.

Since we do not have the same history and might not share the same perceptions and feelings, we should, in kind, avoid assuming things about children. We have to observe,  ask questions, and listen to truly know someone.

Second Rule of Thumb: “Children do not all have the same likes and dislikes and personalities.” Make it your practice to know your students and what they are about, have empathy, and treat them accordingly.

Find more on this topic and other useful ideas in my book, Teaching is a Privilege: 12 Essential Understandings for Beginning Teachers. (And you don’t have to be a new teacher to enjoy it!)

We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.

In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History,  I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.

(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)

1776            Declaration of  Independence claims all men are created equal.

1789            US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.

1848            1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1861            The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.

1865            Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.

1866            Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868             14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.

1870             15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)

1878             The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of  rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

1893             New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.

1903             National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.

1917             Russia gives women right to vote.

1919             My father is born.

1920            19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.

1921            My mother is born.

1923            The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.

1940-45      WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.

1951             I’m born.

1956            Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.

1959             American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.

1960            FDA approves “the pill.”

1963            President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.

1964            Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.

1970             Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.

1972             ERA sent to states for ratification.

Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

1973             Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.

1977             My first child is born.

1976             Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

1979             My second child is born.

1986            Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.

1992             American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

1993             Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

2001            American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”

2009            Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.

2012             Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.

GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.

ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.