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.
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
- 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:
- And teamwork
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!)
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:
- What behavior got you here?
- Why was that behavior a problem?
- What could you choose to do instead next time?
- 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.