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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!)

Back to School Tip: Create and apply the rules together

Obedience or Rights and Responsibilities?

As we set up our classrooms and start the new school year, we need rules that motivate students from within. Encouraging high personal standards in our students takes more than positing a chart of the classroom rules. It requires a positive approach to discipline that:

  • teaches responsibility (intrinsic motivation) over time
  • rather than merely expects obedience (extrinsic motivation).

Children are more likely to follow guidelines for behavior (rules) that they had a role in developing, understand, and view as fair. The school, classroom, and home are the most natural and logical places to give children an active role in defining what it means to be a contributing member of a well-functioning community. This includes defining and living according to the rights and responsibilities shared by all members of the group. They learn rules are not arbitrary and mean, but helpful guidelines for getting along with each other.

Classroom management based on personal responsibility is more effective than traditional authoritarian control. The obedience model sends the message that students must follow the rules that adults impose without question regardless of the students’ ideas of right and wrong, special needs or circumstances, instincts and experiences. The message from adults is, You must behave in a certain way because I have the power and I tell you to do it. The obedience model says, Here is the list of what you can and cannot do. The responsibility model tells children, I believe you know what is right and wrong and can do better. I will help you respect others and take responsibility for your choices.

The Obedience Model

Obedience develops behavior motivated by an external locus of control instead of an internal conscience. If a student’s primary goal is to avoid being caught and getting in trouble, this can motivate him to hide or lie about his behavior.  If caught, he may blame it on someone else or try to get even with the enforcer. This creates an adversarial and disrespectful environment that damages the single most important factor for a safe and effective school climate: positive relationships among members.

Obedience may tempt teachers and parents with:

  • The power of an absolute authority.
  • A sense that they have the power and control over their children.
  • A predetermined comprehensive list of rules and matching punishments.
  • Some hope of keeping children “in line.”
  • And the most alluring of all–compliance.

But a focus on obedience also leads to children who:

  • Lack emotional maturity and self-discipline.
  • Cannot own up to their choices and fix the messes they make.
  • Are not able to think critically or problem solve and make decisions.
  • Feel powerless and frustrated.
  • Withdraw or “act out.”
  • Blame others for their behavior.
  • Engage in power struggles.
  • And the last thing we want to promote: act in aggressive ways – covertly and overtly.

The Rights and Responsibility Model

Compare this to another message that is communicated to students: We respect you as an individual with basic needs and hopes, and we believe you have or can develop the skills to make constructive choices. We understand the context of your life and will hold you to a high standard while we guide you to being successful.

Such a climate, based on rights and responsibilities, offers teachers:

  • Healthy relationships with students.
  • Satisfying interactions and more time to teach.
  • Less frustration and more success with handling misbehavior.
  • A redefinition of their role from warden to mentor.
  • A sharing of power.
  • Steady progress toward accomplishing meaningful goals.
  • The chance to take discipline off the top of their list of concerns.

And it leads to students and eventually to citizens who:

  • Are motivated from within.
  • Have a sense of right and wrong.
  • Are critical and creative problem-solvers who make healthy choices.
  • Work toward the good of the community.
  • Are not afraid to take the emotional and intellectual risks needed to learn.
  • Recognize and respect the rights of others.
  • Act ethically.
  • Stand up for what they believe is right.
  • Take responsibility and fix any messes they make.

The rights and responsibilities approach asks students to develop the rules together. They discuss how they should behave in the classroom and school in order for everyone to get along, feel safe, and have an opportunity to learn. They can describe what the perfect classroom would be like and use that as the basis of a code of conduct. Students then come together to see the rationale behind behavior guidelines and understand the cause and effect of their actions.

When a child breaks a rule or code of conduct, we keep the focus on building the child’s self-control and remember that we are there to teach. We want them to develop an internal guidance system, and not to behave well just because we are watching. We can ask them to apply the New Golden Rule of Empathy – Do unto others as they would like you to do unto  them – when they find themselves in a challenging situation. And rather than imposing punishment, we use a verbal or written behavior plan that teaches problem solving and builds character by asking these questions:

  1. What behavior got you here?
  2. Why was that behavior a problem?
  3. What could you choose to do instead next time?
  4. How will you make amends for your behavior now?

With this type of positive discipline, children learn that:

  • Adults do care about them and want them to do well.
  • Everyone shares the same basic human rights.
  • Rules define how they should behave in a learning community.
  • What they say and do is who they are.
  • They have the personal power and responsibility to make good choices.
  • If they cause of problem, they have to fix it.

The New Golden Rule of Empathy – all we need?

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A familiar, simple ethic. But is it enough?

This basic tenet of reciprocity– mutual care and concern –has been embraced by civilizations and religions for thousands of years. The many wordings all share a common vision of how human beings should treat each other. The message is this: If I do not like something, I will not do it to someone else.

We teach the Golden Rule everywhere – in our homes, in our faiths, and in our schools – and it is a good place to start, but, no, it isn’t enough. For children (and all of us!) to internalize the deeper meaning of the concept, we have to go beyond this egocentric view to a promise of:

mutual care and concern at multiple levels…

that of the individual,

of one’s culture,

and of all of humanity.

With this change in perspective, we see how the Golden Rule is one of empathy, based on mutual concern and care that applies to individual preferences, cultural expectations, and basic human rights.

This broadened understanding means we can put ourselves in another’s place, see life through their eyes, and have a better idea of what is right for them. With a concept of reciprocity we go beyond parroting an axiom to true appreciation for the most fundamental and virtuous of character traits: empathy. And empathy leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others.

This New Golden Rule of Empathy gives us these peace-building principles to live by:

  • I would not like you to ignore my personal wishes and feelings, so I will honor your personal wishes and feelings and expect you to honor mine.
  • My culture may have different beliefs and customs from yours, so I will respect your culture and expect you to respect mine.
  • Regardless of my individual perspectives and preferences or the norms of my culture, all people have basic human rights, and I will honor these rights and expect others to do so for me.

The Result?

Quite a learning environment

Quite a home life

Quite a community

Quite a world

Cyber-Baiting Teachers: A sign of broken relationships.

It’s never a good sign when teachers and students are at odds.

Students have found a new target to abuse. The social media that they use to hurt each other is now aimed at their teachers, creating a new reality in the classroom: Everything any teacher says or does has the potential to be recorded and made public, and when baited into losing their composure, teachers are just a YouTube or Facebook posting away from ruining their careers.

Cyber-baiting is when students intentionally provoke a teacher so she loses control and acts unprofessional. They record the outburst and then give it a permanent, public home on YouTube. This behavior is a form of bullying, bullying is a form of violence, and violence is: Intentional physical force, emotional torment, or abuse of power, designed to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Cell phones with cameras, tablets, laptops, text messaging, and social websites give students this  emotionally distant, underhanded, and very public way to hurt others. Schools are finally becoming aware that in-person and online bullying are a part of school life for most students and that they are expected to, in many states by law, make sure this doesn’t happen on their watch.

The Norton Online Family Report – November 2011

The issue of students cyber-baiting teachers has gotten a great deal of attention since the Norton security firm’s Online Family Report was released in November. They found:

One in five of the 2379 teachers of students aged 8-17 from the 24 countries they surveyed have personally experienced or know a teacher who has been the victim of cyber-baiting.

Teachers were once able to close their doors, and then teach and manage the classroom however they wanted. Now everything they do and say can easily be made public. We all know that some teachers are unreasonable and verbally, even physically, abusive toward students. Schools must protect students from teacher bullying just as they must protect students from being bullied by classmates. More scrutiny of what goes on in classrooms and follow-up on student complaints of teacher bullying means bad teachers can no longer hide behind closed doors.

But this is different. When students provoke and intentionally embarrass a teacher in public, it tells us that there are seriously broken relationships between students and teachers. Students would not likely do this to a teacher they liked and respected, one who cared about and respected them.

YouTube videos showing students intentionally taunting their teachers until they lose control of themselves and of the class are painful to watch. Anyone who feels empathy and compassion finds it hard to witness another person–adult or child, stranger or someone they know–being victimized and humiliated. It is particularly disturbing to see students and their teachers acting this way toward each other.

We know the problem is not the communication technology itself, but how people use it. Young people are still experimenting and developing their moral and ethical code of right and wrong, and they do not always consider the possible effects of their behavior before they act. Immaturity and poor judgment are often the root of behavior problems.

But, unfortunately, there are also some students who are so disenfranchised from school or desperate for peer recognition that they seem to enjoy causing trouble and hurting others. And there are some teachers who don’t realize how dis-spirited and negative they have become toward students. These demoralized teachers and disenfranchised students fight for power and control of the classroom.

Why do students cyber-bait teachers? Their motives are sincere or suspect::

  • To stop a teacher’s inappropriate behavior.
  • Because they are frustrated and want to prove that their complaints about a teacher are true.
  • To get a bad teacher fired.
  • To make fun of a teacher they don’t like.
  • As payback for disciplining them or another student.
  • To intentionally entrap weak teachers just for the fun of it.
  • Or do they publish it on the Internet just to cause a stir and earn street cred?

But no matter the problem or motivation, they need to know that it is never all right to post a video of someone without his permission or to do it to hurt them. Broadcasting videos of teachers acting badly–either because they were intentionally baited or because it is their typical behavior–is an extreme action for a student to take, and a red flag that there is a serious problem in that classroom. The problem is the breakdown of mutual respect and care, which is the core of a positive classroom climate and critical to a teacher’s smooth management of a classroom and of a child’s academic and social success.

What do students need to make better choices?

Communication technology is a powerful tool, readily available and tempting. To make good choices, students need a positive, respectful, secure classroom climate, caring adult support and guidance, problem-solving skills, policies for the use of the Internet, cell phones, and tablets in school. They also must understand and learn to believe that hurting another person emotionally or physically is not okay. This takes a strong sense of empathy and compassion, an understanding of cause and effect, and for them to self-monitor what they say and do, both in person and on social media. These positive social and thinking skills and attitudes are taught and reinforced at every grade level.

Technology is here and ever-changing. The constants are clear expectations for behavior and trustworthy adults students can talk to if they have a problem. This includes someone they can tell if there is a problem with a teacher who is harming them or other students, and they need a promise that their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated.

This year be a champion!

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution I can get behind:

“Be a social-emotional champion for children.”

In an Edutopia op ed piece, Rutgers’  professor Maurice Elias asks us to go beyond merely promoting children’s social and emotional development, to being active champions who speak out against injustice. Elias, and my new book on school violence, ask that we pay consistent attention to the  “subtle and not so subtle instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying” that span the violence continuum and erode the trust students and parents have in us and in the educational system.

The goal of safe school climate initiatives is to create a climate (feeling) and eventually a culture (practices) where students’ civil and human rights are protected, everyday, by everyone, and in all situations. In this nurturing environment, emotional and physical safety are the driving forces behind everything we do in our schools and classrooms. This commitment to preserve the dignity of all students, to advocate for them when they have no voice, in turn provides children with the safe haven we owe them.

And most importantly, as Elias points out, once we start acting as a vocal, consistent champion for our students, there is no turning back. We will never again be able to ignore injustices and turn away as our students suffer. The obligation to speak out will be part of our personal and professional belief system and our commitment to doing what is right.

With this new resolution – a sincere promise we make to ourselves on behalf of our children – all students will prosper academically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

So this year promise to be a champion for social-emotional development. Resolve to speak out when you see attitudes, behavior, practices, and policies that are harmful and hurtful to our children.


* For more information visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia, “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race…not just the vision for this new world of learning but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”

McInerney Murder Trial #2

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has decided to retry Brandon McInerney for the 2008 murder of his classmate, Larry King.  Both Larry and Brandon were middle school students at the time of the incident.

The jury in the nine-week trial that ended in September 2011 could not come to an agreement about Brandon McInerney’s guilt. While there was no question that Brandon brought a gun to school and then carried out his plan to shoot Larry King, the jurors had a difficult time convicting him of  the first degree murder charge – with a special circumstance of lying in wait and a hate crime enhancement – and accepting the mandatory 50-year minimum sentence the charges carried.*

The District Attorney is again applying the lying in wait charge, which means Brandon will be tried as an adult in his second trial this November. His attorney and family, a few jurors from his first trial, and some community members are pressing for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which would allow him to be tried in juvenile court with the possibility of getting out of prison in 14 years.

Many factors complicate what would seem like a straightforward case: Larry King was openly gay and may have shown Brandon unwanted attention; Brandon expressed a dislike for gays and had an interest in White supremacy; the school administrators knew of and failed to act to prevent further escalation of the tension between the two boys; and the question of whether a cold-blooded, premeditated murder committed by a 14-year-old is the act of an adult or of a child.

With some compromising between the District Attorney’s Office and the McInerney’s, a plea deal may be reached making a second trial unnecessary. But regardless of what happens, each of us still has to address the issues of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in our schools, and implement thoughtful, yet definitive, violence prevention and early intervention strategies and policies.

*For background on the case and perspectives on the first trial, check out my earlier posts.

5 Essentials = 10 times the student learning

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I like the work coming out of  the *Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). They use both long- and short-term action research approaches in the study of important educational issues such as dropout rates, social promotion, and school safety. These studies are intended to help educators all over the world make informed decisions on policies and practices that directly affect their students.  

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I also like their work because they take school climate seriously, not just because of the current attention on bullying-prevention, but because their research shows that school climate is one of five critical factors affecting student achievement, and that relationships are the foundation for how secure and capable students feel.

How safe do you feel?

In their May 2011 report, “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization,” the CCSR looked at the factors affecting how safe students and adults feel in their schools. As we might expect, students from high-crime, high-poverty (disadvantaged) areas tended to feel less safe.

But the most revealing and promising finding was that students and adults felt safer in disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships than they felt in advantaged schools with low-quality relationships. The power of positive, caring relationships among students, families, the community, and school staff trumped the expected negative social effects of crime and poverty! This finding has a dramatic impact on where we choose to focus our efforts to improve student achievement.

Critical Factors

The CCSR has now released its Five Essentials School Reports.  Based on 15 years of research data, they identified five factors that matter most for student learning. The climate of the school and the relationship between the school and its families and community again rise to prominence.

The Five Essentials:

  • Ambitious instruction (classes are challenging and engaging)
  • Learning climate (the school is safe, demanding and supportive)
  • Instructional leadership (the principal works with teachers to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Professional capacity (teachers collaborate to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Family and community ties (the entire staff involves families and communities to advance student learning)

The finding that schools that are strong on three or more of these essentials were 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more of the essentials should grab our attention and help us focus our efforts. Once again it’s all about relationships and good teaching:

Caring teachers + Engaging instruction = Motivated students + Safe school climate

*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.

“Students say best teachers relate to them, make them think.” Is this news?

As I was online looking through the local news about the record-breaking flooding in Binghamton, NY where I used to live, this unrelated headline from September 4, 2011 caught my eye.

Broome-area students say best teachers relate to them, make them think

‘It’s nice when you can talk to a teacher, when it’s interactive’

It seems with the first day of school approaching, a Binghamton Press reporter interviewed area high school students to get their perspective on what makes a good teacher.

They found that students agree with the American Psychological Association teaching module report, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Supply Essential Support for Learning” and this quote from Sara Rimm-Kaufman, author of the APA module:

“Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional and academic needs.”

The APA module noted a positive student-teacher relationship shared these characteristics:

  • Teachers show their pleasure, that they enjoy their students.
  • Teachers interact in a responsive and respectful manner.
  • Teachers offer help by answering students’ questions in a timely manner and offering support that matches the children’s needs in achieving academic and social objectives.
  • Teachers help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
  • Teachers know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students’ backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.

Pair these positive relationship-based traits with exceptional instructional skills and knowledge of the content, and we have all we could ask for from a teacher.

Good teaching + Caring Relationships = Better Behaving Students + Higher Academic Achievement

I trust this is not news to most parents and educators. Specific personal and professional competencies are necessary for success in any field – sales, health care, construction, counseling, research, law enforcement, administration, running a restaurant. And beyond these field-specific skills and knowledge, success is a product of a strong work ethic and a commitment to continuous improvement, and depends on an ability to relate with your clients and co-workers. In teaching, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the relationship between teacher and student is the critical factor for success, the foundation for everything that happens in the classroom.

People commonly talk about the culture and climate of their workplace – the norms that drive behavior, the way they are treated, and how it feels to work there. Why? Because how we feel in a certain situation and with certain people matters a great deal to us. We feel more secure and work harder for those who respect and care for us and who have earned our respect.

When we apply this premise to students in a school, its meaning is magnified by the expectation of society and families for students to respect authority, and by the potential for abuse when you have such an age and power differential.  But it is also magnified by the beliefs and practices of the individual adults who work with our children. In no endeavor, other than parenting, is the relationship between the provider and recipient as critical and delicate as it is between teacher and student.

So to answer my question, no it isn’t news that students do better with teachers who relate to, respect, and challenge them, but it does bear repeating until every adult who interacts with children internalizes the message and molds their behavior accordingly.

Some Numbers to Think About

This following sampling of safe school climate statistics paints an interesting picture of what violence in our schools really looks like.

What does this information tell you?

How can you apply it to your everyday life as a teacher?

  • 628,200 students ages 12-18 were victims of violent crime at school in 2005.  (CDC 2008)
  • 90% of teachers surveyed felt it was their job to intervene when they witnessed bullying. (NEA 2010)
  • 76% of Americans say they have trust and confidence in public school teachers. (PDK/Gallup 2010)
  • 55% of  students said schools needed to increase teachers’ trustworthiness to improve student-teacher relationships. (NYCSS 2004)

  • 39 % of middle schools reported student bullying occurred at school daily or at least once a week compared to 20% for primary and high schools. (U.S. DOE 2011)

  • 160,000 students go home early on any given day for fear of being bullied. (CDC 2008)
  • 29% of students in 6th-12th grade said they had the social competence to plan and make decisions. (Search 2002)

  • 90% of the 7,261 middle and high school lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students surveyed reported experiencing harassment at school in the past year. (GLSEN 2009)
  • < 2% of  homicides and suicides among 5-18 year-olds occurred at school. (NCES 2009)
  • 0% difference between the number of public and private school students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school. (NCES 2011)

Resources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)

National Education Association  Nationwide Study of Bullying (NEA)

New York Center for School Safety (NYCSS)

Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Annual Poll (PDK) of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools (PDK/Gallup)

Search Institute

US Department of Education (USDOE)