My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.
It is now available online at:
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.
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.
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:
…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:
But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:
…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:
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.
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.
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:
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.