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Part Two: Does school feel welcoming to parents?

So, Trevor is in trouble at school. It’s time to contact his parents.

You want to get the parents to work with you to find a solution, so keep in mind that you are talking about an emotional issue–the welfare of their child. This conversation relies on your communication skills and ability to empathize. Hopefully you have had some of the positive contacts with Trevor’s parents, like those mentioned in Part One, before this problem arose and you have to make the call home. This foundation of positive experiences serves you well when you have to contact parents about unpleasant situations and field their calls and visits when they are unhappy. This helps you go into the situation with the frame of mind and self-confidence that something good will come of your joint efforts.

As the teacher (the professional in the relationship), you can do a lot to make these kinds of phone calls and meetings successful. You have the power to set a positive, respectful climate conducive to problem-solving. Being prepared boosts self-confidence and your chances for success, so take time to prepare for the call or meeting. You are more relaxed and communicate more effectively if you know what you want to say and how to say it in a straightforward, kind way. You are also better situated to actively listen to the parent.

When there is a problem or concern:

  • Wait until you calm down before you call.
  • Choose your words carefully; use non-labeling words that describe the situation instead of disparage the child, especially if you are sending something to the parents in writing, including email.
  • Review what you want to say.
  • Keep in mind that if the problem happened at school, the school has the primary responsibility to solve it, not the parent; you are looking for insight and help.

Initiating the Call or Meeting:

  • Have a paper and pen ready to take notes.
  • Take a minute to put yourself in the parent’s place.
  • Be friendly, polite, and professional and begin the call on a congenial note.
  • Address parents by their correct name (check the records first).
  • Be aware of cultural differences.
  • Share your genuine concern for the child and your wish to work toward a solution.
  • Convey that you want to help through your choice of words and tone of voice.
  • Be honest and tactful. Avoid blaming or making accusations that put the parent on the defensive.
  • Establish a calm, professional climate.

Discussing the Issue:

  • Calmly explain the situation and/or have the child explain it.
  • Let the parent talk and listen carefully to what he or she says in words and between the lines.
  • Jot down ideas during the conversation.
  • Put a realistic, yet encouraging, spin on being able to solve the problem.
  • React calmly to parents if they are upset; keep in control of your own emotions and responses.
  • Invite them to come in to talk if they would like.
  • In person look at body language, facial expressions, and signs of agitation and relaxation.
  • Assure them that you know it is not easy for them to hear their child has a problem.
  • Ask them if they have any thoughts about what happened.
  • Listen to them and stay understanding of their perspective.
  • Confidently share your professional assessment of the issue. Educate the parent to the possibilities, and make suggestions.
  • Remain professional and positive.

Finding a Solution:

  • Share school expectations, services, and policies.
  • Ask about approaches that work at home.
  • Discuss the approach you will use.
  • In a tactful way, discourage suggestions for punishment and other non-productive ideas.
  • Set a time to check back with each other to see how the plan is working.
  • Ask them if they have any more questions.
  • Thank them for their support of the plan and for working with you.
  • Remain professional and positive

Concluding the Contact:

  • Have a three-way meeting with the child to explain how you and his parents are working together to help him make better choices.
  • Send a letter home that summarizes the problem and the solution, and that thanks them for their help (run it by a colleague or principal first).
  • Sign and date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Implement the plan and do what you can to help the child be successful.
  • Provide progress reports to the child and parents.
  • Contact the parents at the agreed upon time to assess how the plan worked, and make changes if needed.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Remain professional and positive.

You need parents and they need you, and your students need both of you. If you work confidently from a place of professional expertise, openness, and empathy, with the belief that parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them, you will make parents feel welcome and valued and you will discover the power of a strong parent/teacher partnership.

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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!)

“Justice for Larry” – “Save Brandon”

No trial, no jury, no witnesses. Just a sentencing hearing.

In earlier posts I discussed the issues and controversies surrounding the shooting death of 14 year-old Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney, and the subsequent trial and hung jury. Larry was openly gay and it bothered Brandon, especially when Larry teased him. It bothered Brandon so much that he brought a gun to their middle school and calmly shot Larry in the back of the head twice, as he sat unaware in the computer lab. It was clearly the premeditated murder of one student because he was gay and dressed in feminine clothing, by another student accused of acting on an intolerance of homosexuality. It was an extremely violent and fatal way to settle differences.

No one wanted the anguish of living through another trial and facing the possibility of a second jury unable to reach a verdict. Brandon was, once again, going to be charged with first-degree murder as an adult, the issue that caused the divide in the first jury. By accepting a guilty plea of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and use of a firearm, McInerney was sentenced yesterday to 21 years in prison instead of the life in prison sentence carried by a conviction of first-degree (premeditated) murder. Brandon is ineligible for parole and will be 38 when released.

Those at the sentencing hearing represented the multiple perspectives and human rights questions that plagued the trial. A handful of jurors from the mistrial wore “Save Brandon” bracelets and scarves while across the aisle Larry’s friends and family wore “Justice for Larry” buttons.

Yet, everyone can take away some essential understandings from the tragedy:

  • Yes, school really is a tough place for gay students, and they may need extra adult support.
  • No one-gay or straight-likes being teased or harassed, and they shouldn’t have to put up with it.
  • Parents, teachers, and administrators need to be on the lookout for tensions brewing between students. They need to intervene early and decisively before the situation escalates. They are the adults and they should know what to do.
  • Students, K-12, need to be intentionally taught and expected to show respect for others, regardless of whether they approve of or like the person’s beliefs, color, ethnicity, religion, learning needs, appearance, or sexuality.

We don’t need anymore Larrys and Brandons. And as you can see from the list, it is the adults that set the school climate and define what can and cannot happen in their school.

True grit: personal and social responsibility

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

In my recent three-part blog I focused on the “good ideas” this article presented for building moral and performance character and the missteps the two profiled schools made trying to put the good ideas into practice. The lack of understanding of child development and motivation so captured my attention, I never really addressed the meaning of the title.

The secret to success is failure.

How can opposites like success and failure be co-dependent? The author is channeling the message of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, and the still familiar 19th century axiom, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Human development, including academic learning, is by nature a succession of trial and error. The reality is that success in life depends on our ability to cope with and triumph over adversity. Life is full of adversity and grit is the foundation of resilience.

So why do some children…

  • Willingly put forth the effort to learn, while others balk at tough challenges and hard work?
  • Believe they can do whatever they are asked to do, while others lack confidence in their chances of success?
  • Take risks and rally from setbacks, while others become discouraged and give up?

The answer lies in how much grit they have developed from their life experiences, a combination of moral and performance character  strengths that include:

  • A sense of personal and social responsibility
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Tenacity
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-reliance
  • Efficacy and
  • Intrinsic motivation

These character strengths develop in the normal course of daily life as we set goals and overcome obstacles, unless…

  • Children are given everything they need, and they are protected from the character-building challenges of life.
  • We allow mediocre effort and accept mediocre outcomes.
  • Children are so emotionally, socially, or physically impoverished that the obstacles they face are monumental, and the supports that would help them prevail are absent.

In each of these three situations, schools can and should teach grit by:

  • Creating a healthy, non-violent school climate that feels safe, where students can take the risks needed to learn without fear of ridicule or shame.
  • Committing to a dignity-preserving discipline approach where students know clearly what we expect of them, and are consistently held responsible for their choices, and for fixing any problems they cause.
  • Intentionally teaching the qualities of grit through the curriculum, and high expectations and nurturing guidance.
  • Considering the context of students’ lives, their assets and stresses, and building from where they are in their moral development.
  • Providing experiences that foster students’ sense of efficacy – their belief that through their personal resources, hard work and tenacity, and the support of caring adults, they can prevail.
  • Modeling grit and other character strengths in everything we do.

Personal and Social Responsibility

This determination and sense of responsibility helps us reach our life goals, goals that hopefully benefit us personally and foster the common good. Because grit without a moral foundation is dangerous. Our grit needs to be driven by a pro-social belief system that respects the inherent human rights of all people, acknowledges the interdependence of members of a community, and motivates us to make constructive contributions to our school, our family, and society.

Part Three: Building on the good idea

Part three of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

So how do we build on the good idea?

  • The KIPP school was on the right track when they asked teachers to embed concepts and the language of character strengths into lessons in all disciplines, to encourage self-awareness and personal skills, and to replace inappropriate learned behavior with positive thinking and constructive action. They then took a wrong turn and defeated their efforts by instituting a character report card.
  • The Riverdale school headmaster had “a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” and wisely chose to forgo a formal evaluation of each student’s character development. He also had concerns that “nice guy values” such as respect, tolerance, and honesty were too general and abstract to teach. He chose to personally lead a publicity campaign that stressed the moral and behavioral traits linked to success in life. Vocal, visible, passionate leadership is a critical part of a safe school climate plan that builds character.

But awareness isn’t enough to help all students develop into thinking, compassionate, self-directed, morally responsible members of our school, family, and civic communities. Between the rigidness of a character report card and the randomness of an awareness effort lies the intentional commitment to teach, model, and expect pro-social skills, character traits, attitudes, and behavior. This approach acknowledges that character development is a process, not merely a product, and that violence prevention and character education are the same thing. They are a way of being, not a program to implement. Without an artificial label or the constraint of a report card, learning to be non-violent people of good character…never goes out of style, is never is too time-consuming, and is never optional.

This is true because it is:

  • a belief system.
  • the heart of a holistic education.
  • the driving force behind the climate and culture of the school.
  • embedded in everything that happens from instruction to classroom management to formal discipline policies.
  • clearly visible in positive actions and healthy relationships.

How do we make sure schools are violence-free safe havens where students achieve academically and develop a social conscience?

By being proactive. The way to teach moral and performance character that creates a safe school climate is to focus our efforts on prevention, and then intervene early if a child is not making good progress. We treat it as a K-12 goal, get everyone involved – including parents – and take it seriously. These prevention and early intervention stages, followed by late intervention and post-incident responses when necessary, can do the most good for the most children.

Prevention centers around a psychology of success that creates respectful adult-student, student-student, and adult-adult relationships. It is founded on the premise that you can actively teach students to have and show empathy and compassion, to show consideration and tolerance of others, to be trustworthy and guided by integrity, and all those other nice guy qualities. A focus on prevention provides a school experience rich with challenges and supports that build the positive personal assets needed for a successful adulthood.

What does prevention look like?

  • A community where protecting each child’s dignity and basic human rights is a top priority.
  • An exciting, nurturing environment that provides personally motivating learning experiences and expects students to work hard.
  • A positive discipline approach that develops an intrinsic motivation to make good choices, by having students identify and take responsibility for their mistakes, and fix the messes they make.
  • A climate where students and adults are not allowed to be mean, use putdowns, bully, threaten, discriminate or show intolerance.
  • Efforts tailored to meet the unique needs of the school, grade level, individuals, and groups.
  • Children who are consistently and actively taught positive social skills and held to high, developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Children skilled in the language of cooperation and conflict resolution, who have the self-control necessary to express themselves peacefully, and know how to get their needs met without resorting to hurtful behavior.
  • Effective teaching strategies that stress collaboration in place of competition such as working with a partner and cooperative learning, and being grouped with those you would not normally choose.
  • Regular class meetings that teach and offer practice for pro-social and language skills development including listening to and considering other people’s the perspectives, offering possible solutions to problems, and recognizing and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others.
  • A curriculum that stresses high-level thinking skills such as consideration of  historical and cultural context, cause and effect, points of view, personal choice and decision-making, and applies this thinking to real life situations.
  • A school staff of adults that believe in, consistently model, and expect non-violent, constructive behavior.

The pro-social skills learned in prevention efforts lead students to ethical behavior and rewarding relationships. This is the opposite of a psychology of failure that stresses comparison and competition, uses public shaming and punishments as consequences, that emphasizes extrinsic rewards, and damages relationships.

What does early intervention look like?

With effective violence prevention efforts in place, the next part of the safe school climate plan addresses those children who are, for some reason, not internalizing and applying the prevention messages to their lives. The staff of a safe school does not ignore negative behavior, nor does it give up on helping these children no matter how challenging.

  • A team approach that includes teachers, specialists, and their parents or guardians that creates a strong student support system.
  • Trusted adults that students can talk to and who check in on them regularly.
  • Anger-management and conflict resolution training.
  • In school and out of school mentoring and counseling services.
  • Support groups designed to teach coping skills.
  • Positive social norms efforts that can sway children who have one foot on the side of trouble to step back and join the majority of their well-behaved peers.
  • Students’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed.
  • Students, including those who are the source of misbehavior, feel safe and not alone.

So we build on the good ideas by…

  • Intentionally embedding them in all aspects of school life.
  • Believing that it is possible to teach positive social skills and strength of character.
  • Realizing it is as important to do this as it is to teach academics.
  • Keeping the promise we make to students, their families, and society, that schools are safe havens where all children are treated well and taught to treat others the same way.

Part One: Co-opting a good idea

Review of  “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.

To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.

Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:

  •  “Moral character” – high quality values such as  honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
  •  “Performance character,” –  high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

The Good Idea:

The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of  Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of  “life satisfaction and high achievement.”

  • zest
  • grit
  • self-control
  • social intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • curiosity

While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.

KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:

  • Is eager to explore new things.
  • Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
  • Allows others to speak without interruption.
  • Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.

The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.

But then they took a wrong turn.

To be continued…

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)