Lessons Learned in School: If you don’t know what to do, watch others!

We each “know” many things superficially, but from time to time, we have a powerful personal experience that deepens our knowledge and makes an indelible mark in our memory.  How do those lessons impact our daily lives? Following is the first in a series of articles about deep lessons I learned in school.

“If you don’t know what to do, watch others.”

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Third grade found me in an old-fashioned public elementary school building in Middleton, Wisconsin: creaky wooden floor boards, narrow and pale; heavy metal desks whose lids lifted up to make a cave where you could hide your head and whose attached chairs squealed when dragged across the floor; and tall windows whose many panes framed a patchwork view of the metal monkey bars and tall swings on the empty playground. Like all the other children in the class, at the beginning of the year I was placed in a reading group. We were each given a textbook containing stories and articles, with a set of multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of each passage. The second time my group met, I was horrified to discover that everyone else had read the assigned passage and answered the questions, while I had not. The teacher called on me to answer a question, and I had to guess. I had no idea what the answer might be. I hadn’t done the assignment. I remember curling forward into my chair, trying to cover my face with the page before me.

When had everyone else done the work? How did they know when they were supposed to do it? As far as I could remember, the teacher had never told me when to do the assignment, and I was in a panic. I didn’t like being unprepared. After we finished our group meeting, I sat gazing out that big window, still feeling embarrassed and shocked. Then I noticed the other children. The teacher had gone to meet with another group, and each of the others in my group was reading the next passage and answering the questions. Ah, ha! I now knew when to complete the assignment before the next group meeting! What a revelation! I had learned the power of imitation. The fact that my embarrassment fueled my discovery is a topic for another article.

We know that humans learn by imitation. My third-grade lesson would not surprise any student of human behavior. However, the moment I realized, for myself, that I could figure out how to do something by watching others was a moment of great power for me. From that day forward, as a student, as a teacher, and eventually as a school administrator, I never forgot that I might be able to learn what I didn’t know by watching others. Whenever I met someone who elicited my admiration, I tried to watch that person closely, so I could learn whatever skill or attitude they demonstrated. I discovered that, on the whole, simple physical and intellectual tasks are easier to imitate and learn than interpersonal skills and psychological attitudes, but a careful observer can build an understanding of even complex skills or attitudes over time.

When I started teaching, I recognized that if I wanted to ask my students to be kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful, and optimistic, I would need to model that behavior. The alternative – demanding compliance through fear and coercion – was not attractive to me. When I started working as a school administrator, I recognized that I needed to be a role model for teachers, as well. I created what I called my “Mrs. Riser disguise,” a role that I played to demonstrate for those around me the attitudes and behaviors I valued. Ironically, I discovered that it can be easier to be a role model while playing a part. The disguise I created was actually MORE kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful and optimistic than my authentic self. I built the disguise to ensure that those around me would have an appropriate model, no matter how I actually felt. I made it my responsibility to play the role well, because I believed it was necessary to being a good leader.

I retired from being the Head of a small K-8 school in the spring of 2017, and during the final year I played the role of Mrs. Riser, and especially after the November 2016 election, I fretted on a daily basis about the example political leaders set for our children. I had spent 30 years in teaching, telling children never to bully or tease others in a mean way and seeking to demonstrate consistent kindness and respect for others in my own behavior, but now it seemed that every day the news showed a leader who bullied people, mocking them with unkind nicknames. The new President’s behavior would be cause for disciplinary action, were he a student in my school. I worried that his bullying behavior was offering a role model in direct opposition to the one I tried to portray.

Since my retirement, I have watched American politics with increasing dismay. How will America ever extinguish racism, bigotry and misogyny if political leaders participate in it or encourage it in public? I am heartened, however, to see that citizens everywhere in America are taking a deeper interest in the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Having the right to vote in order to choose the people who take leadership roles in our government is a significant right – something not to be taken for granted. Young people are setting the example of political activism for all who care to see!

I am no longer in a work position where my actions are widely observed. Nevertheless, I remain committed to living as if I were, to cultivating behaviors that do not harm others. On line I do not resort to name-calling. I seek to understand those whose views seem wrong to me, rather than vilifying them. I watch my authentic self in action to see what I might learn.

 

Caring Discipline: An Effective Protocol to Use When Children Get Sent to the Office

Relationships and rules are the connections and guard rails of school communities. In schools that intentionally build strong, respectful relationships, rules become less necessary. Nevertheless, it is essential to have the rule that no one in school is allowed to act in a way that interferes with another’s right to a safe and supportive learning environment. This rule lays the foundation for a caring school culture and is easy to understand. It applies to everyone in the school – adults and children. When adults have strong, respectful relationships with their students, they are best able to coach children’s behavior to align with that foundational expectation. It’s important to remember that no one, teachers included, is able to behave respectfully and kindly at all times, but having the shared intention to do so helps each individual shape their behavior to support the school community.

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Occasionally a teacher needs help with a particular student whose behavior is interfering with the classroom atmosphere or activity, despite the teacher’s repeated coaching. The teacher may be concerned about another student’s safety, or they may have become so frustrated that their coaching is no longer effective; they fear they won’t remain respectful in dealing with the student. When a teacher needs help, one common systemic approach in schools is to send the student “to the office,” where another adult is available to help coach the child.

When a child is sent to the office, it is usually because he or she 1) has been chronically socializing with friends during class, 2) has done or said something hurtful or disrespectful, 3) has disobeyed a direct order from the teacher, 4) has made noises or acted in a way that disrupted the class, or 5) has physically hurt or threatened violence to someone or their belongings. All of these behaviors are disruptive to the learning community in a classroom, and so are “against the rules.” In the years I worked in the role of the adult in the office to whom the child was sent, I developed a procedure for helping the child learn from having broken the rules. Here is the procedure, which can be used by any school administrator or lead teacher.

First: Ask the child why they are there. Have them tell you the story of why the teacher sent them to the office. Don’t be distracted by the child’s reports of others’ bad behavior, but keep the focus on the behavior of the child in front of you. Keep in mind that the child will be angry and/or frightened and needs to be heard. Often a child’s bad behavior was provoked by another, and they need to tell about that, but your focus is ultimately on what the child in front of you did that precipitated him or her being sent to you. Sometimes it helps to ask, “What did you do right before the teacher sent you to the office?”

Second: Ask the child why what they did caused a problem. If learning in a safe and supportive environment is the goal, how did their behavior interfere with that? It’s important for the child to understand that whatever they did kept the teacher from teaching or kept a student or students from learning. It is easier for some children than others to accept responsibility for their actions. Many children are very afraid of “getting into trouble,” but if they are minimizing or denying the impact of their behavior, you can point out that they are already “in trouble,” and working to improve the situation will help get them “out of trouble.”

Third: Ask the child what they want to have happen next and what they can do to make that happen. This usually involves making some kind of apology, and most children recognize this with little or no prompting. You can offer to go with the child to make the apology if you have a sense that he or she will have trouble following through, but it is more effective if the child can make the apology independently, as he or she will feel more competent and the teacher will be more impressed with his or her courage. Whether a child is able to take this action independently is also a function of their age. A Kindergarten student will usually need more support than a seventh grade student in making an independent apology. Help the child prepare by role playing what they are going to say to the teacher and/or the student or students to whom they owe the apology.

Nota Bene: If the child’s behavior involved any violence or threat of violence, remind the child that violence will not be tolerated, ever. In the schools where I worked, violence could result in suspension or dismissal, and it’s important for children to know whatever the consequence may be of further violent actions or words. If the child has broken or stolen something, he or she will need to replace that, in addition to apologizing.

Fourth: Ask the child to write a letter to you (the person in the office), explaining what they did, why it caused a problem, and how they will avoid the troublesome behavior again. It is useful to have a conversation with the child about their plan to change future behavior, as making a behavioral change is much more difficult than the child imagines it to be. As the adult, you may have suggestions for supporting the child’s efforts to change behavior. (Obviously, children who are not yet able to write cannot take this step, but giving the child a strategy for what to do instead of what they did is a very helpful coaching move.) The letter must be signed by the child and the parents and returned to you by the start of the next school day. Make sure the child’s homeroom teacher or advisor knows about this requirement, so they can support the child in the process of writing. Often once the child leaves the office, they find that they can’t quite remember what the letter was supposed to contain. A trusted adult at school can help discuss with the child the plan for behavioral change.

Fifth: Tell the child that you will be calling their parents to let them know what happened. Tell the child that you will be following up with the teacher to ensure that the apology is made appropriately. Occasionally, I would ask the child to call their parents from my office, especially if their actions had been hurtful to others. Having to call your parents, in front of a school authority, and say what you have done creates a powerful and memorable moment that can be an excellent deterrent to repeating the hurtful behavior – no one wants to make a call like that twice!

Sixth: Follow through. Touch base with the teacher who sent the child to be sure that the apology was made. Call the parent and explain what happened, asking for support to ensure the child writes the letter. Make sure you receive the letter. Keep a copy on file. If the behavior is chronic or you deem it particularly of concern (especially if violence is involved), it is wise to write a formal follow-up letter to the parents that states what happened and that you are confident the child will not repeat the action. If you need to warn parents formally of possible suspension or dismissal if the behavior reoccurs, include that warning in the letter. In the phone call to the parents I would let them know if I were going to send an official letter, and I would reassure them that I would keep the letter only until the end of the year and would not put a copy in the child’s permanent record.

Seventh: Once you receive the child’s letter, have a final conversation with the child. Let him or her know that you talked to the teacher, that you received their letter, that you know what their plan for the future is, that you will be checking to see how things are going, and, finally, that the event is now closed. Children need to know that you forgive them for their mistake and that they have a fresh start. Each day in school should be a new day, a day open to learning and belonging.

 

 

Global Youth Inspire Hope

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“It’s pronounced like the peppah,” said the young woman from London, her red and black braids swaying over her shoulders while I struggled to say her name, spelled KyAnn, properly. (Cayenne pepper, my slow-moving brain finally figured out!) KyAnn was one of sixteen young adults sitting in the circle at the first meeting of our LivingSideBySide (LSBS) workshop this summer at the Global Youth Village (GYV) in Bedford, Virginia. In the circle with us were Abomullah, from Saudi Arabia; Marwa, from Aswan, Egypt; Luciana, from Dominican Republic by way of Boston; and a dozen other young men and women from all over the world. Our common task was to learn more about ourselves, each other, our shared human values, and the communication skills necessary to build peace in our diverse world. I was honored and thrilled to have the chance to work with these extraordinary young people.

Global Youth Village is a summer program for high-school youth from all over the world who come to a camp near Bedford, Virginia to expand their peace-building and leadership skills through study, play, collaboration, challenge, discovery, and friendship. The program has been running each summer for forty years, and the lessons learned by the parent nonprofit organization, Legacy International, have been put to good use in many other youth development programs, including the creation and growth of the LivingSideBySide (LSBS) peace-building training, the educational core of GYV.

As a member of the GYV staff this summer, my role was to facilitate a LSBS workshop, providing training in self-awareness, multi-cultural appreciation, and effective communication skills in a concentrated morning session each day for seven days. In between our sessions, those in my workshop joined a larger multi-cultural group, totaling 44 young adults, engaging in a wide variety of activities designed to reinforce the LSBS workshop content, with many opportunities to practice and reflect upon their new knowledge. All of the young adults at GYV participated in LSBS training – mine was one of three workshops. In my group of sixteen, some participants were Muslim, some were Christian, one was Jewish, some were white, some were black, some spoke English well, some spoke English as a second or third language, some were from cities, and some were from rural settings. Their ages ranged from 14 to 19, and their life experiences were vastly different. What united them was a willingness to recognize their shared universal values and their consistent efforts to treat each other with deep respect.

Our workshop focus on effective communication and serious engagement with challenging issues led to an Open Space Technology meeting on the second to last day of the camp. The format allowed the 44 youth participants to create their own agenda and facilitate their own conversations about critical issues in today’s world. Participants offered penetrating questions for discussion, including: Why are Muslims seen as terrorists? How can we eradicate gun violence? Is arranged marriage OK? Is organized religion needed in the modern world? Is capitalism failing western countries? Is formal education necessary for success? How can we end poverty? Can blacks be racist? How can we solve the housing crisis? These questions, among others, were all generated by the youth participants, and the discussions that followed were serious, passionate, respectful, and entirely youth led. None of the staff participated except to create the framework in which the questions were offered, and the space and time for the discussions.

At one point during the Open Space Technology meeting, I found myself moved to tears, watching these earnest, passionate young adults discuss deeply some of the very questions that challenge our world today. My heart was buoyed by their intensity and dedication, their mutual respect, and their ability to listen deeply to each other. The knowledge and relationships they built during GYV will persist as they enter the worlds of university and work, creating a tightly-knit network of understanding across the world. The skills they practiced during GYV will serve them in their daily lives to build peaceful, respectful relationships with everyone they meet. It was an honor to work with them, and I am confident the world will be better because of their presence in it.

My experience at GYV reinforced my belief in the power of the LSBS curriculum. I have been working with Legacy International to help bring the LSBS curriculum to American teachers and youth workers, who are faced with increasingly diverse classroom populations and a youth and media culture that distracts from effective, respectful communication. LSBS training for adults will lay the foundation for developing peace-building skills in the youth with whom they work. On the eve of the anniversary of the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, I am deeply aware of the need for American youth to expand their awareness of self and others and to develop their ability to work respectfully with those who don’t agree with them but who share their common humanity.

How Should We Disagree?

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Recently I watched my nephew tell his father, in the midst of an argument, “You don’t see it the way I see it, and I don’t see it the way you see it.” Then he took some deep breaths to compose himself and changed the subject. He had realized that he was not going to convince his father of his point of view. He knew how to stop arguing before he started accusing his father of stupidity or unfairness, but he didn’t know how to resolve the issue at the heart of the argument. I internally applauded his maturity, but felt somewhat sad that there couldn’t be a next step, with each side being willing to take the other’s perspective, leading to a search for common ground and compromise.

It seems to me that our nation is in the midst of a number of arguments where we have taken sides against each other. Now our need to be right is making us angry. Each side is trying to bully the other side into submission, and the uglier it gets, the more entrenched we become in our positions. Demeaning those who don’t agree with us doesn’t convince our opponents to see things our way. We oversimplify issues instead of seeking common ground from which we could make progress toward compromise.

We need to work together to resolve serious issues, such as: what roles government should play in the lives of our people, how to achieve justice for all Americans, how to keep our children safe and healthy, how to educate our population to be effective citizens in a participatory democracy, how to respond to environmental degradation, how to manage the effects of rapidly changing technology on work and leisure, what role America should play on the world stage. Instead, we languish in shouting matches with each side accusing the other of morally reprehensible behavior.

So long as we remain polarized, we will remain angry, feeling alternately powerless and powerful, with no real national wisdom or compromise possible. If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we should be able to have difficult conversations without trying to win our point by insulting each other. The government of a democracy represents the people of that democracy, and our people are pitted against each other. The promise of America is diminished by the mob mentality of making us “for” or “against” simplistic versions of complicated issues.

As a school teacher, I recommend cooperative problem-solving, not bullying or vicious competition. I recommend thoughtful listening and reflection before making pronouncements or taking critical decisions. I recommend taking personal responsibility and voting for someone who can work effectively with others to tackle the serious questions facing our country.

Education from Inside and Outside: Teacher to Teacher Communication

pexels-photo-618550.jpegMay can be a whirlwind in a school. The weather reminds teachers and students alike that summer break is coming. Culminating events are crowded into the calendar, all of which require public performance, heightening competition and stress. Teachers have reached the saturation point with that particular student in third period who constantly interrupts, the teacher down the hall whose students seem to be hanging from the chandelier, and the parent who complains no matter how hard the teacher tries to meet the parent’s demands. Final tests loom ominously, as teachers take their students’ progress seriously and know that student performance reflects on their own performance. Often teachers find themselves in conflict with other teachers especially in May, which can derail a school community, specifically student culture, as students pick up on teacher-to-teacher conflict and feed it for entertainment. Exhausted teachers have trouble following the first rule of school: Don’t take it personally!

What usually happens when a teacher is annoyed or concerned about a colleague’s behavior is gossip. Most teachers are conflict averse, and so if they’re angry, they often share their anger with someone other than the one to whom it should be directed. They find a sympathetic colleague, or worse, a sympathetic parent or student, and vent. They lose their temper with a class that is particularly silly or seemingly unconcerned about the academic business of school. They get depressed and mope about, feeling like failures. None of these are particularly effective responses, although they are quite frequent, especially in May.

An alternative, which requires courage and self-awareness, is for the angry teacher to calm down, and then go to the teacher whose behavior upsets them and ask for a private conversation. Schedule a meeting – a cup of coffee, a lunch, a conference after school – don’t do it on the fly. Tell the colleague that you want their perspective on something. At the meeting, the teacher who is upset should first thank the colleague for meeting, then state the common goal that they share – working for the good of the children. The teacher then calmly states the behavior that is upsetting him or her, and how that behavior makes him or her feel. For example: I know that you and I are both dedicated to doing what’s best for children, and I want us to work together to accomplish that. It seems like our parameters for classroom behavior are different, and sometimes that makes me angry. I feel like my efforts to keep my students on track are wasted if my students can interrupt or socialize in your class, but not in mine. How can we collaborate to make sure that our classroom expectations are in sync? Then listen. Really listen. You may find that your colleague is struggling and needs your help. Or you may find that your colleague doesn’t want to work with you, in which case you should go to your supervisor.

Legacy International’s program LivingSideBySide® offers teacher professional development that will develop the skills necessary to improve teacher to teacher communication, as well as the skills teachers need to manage a classroom effectively and to develop appropriate, respectful relationships with students. Check their website for additional information: http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

Education from Inside and Outside: the dilemma of social status

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Social status is a fraught topic for humans. We each seek some assurance that we have sufficient social power to be respected. The dilemma of social status begins early in life, but becomes acute with the onset of puberty, as children begin to see themselves as individuals separate from their parents.

In middle school, a variety of factors may determine each student’s perceived social status. For boys, early height, athletic prowess, and the ability to make others laugh are often routes to social power. For girls, early breast development, up-to-date fashion sense, and the ability to say nice things while still excluding others can convey social power. For both sexes, wealth and early physical maturation can raise status; as may the capacity to acquire followers. In some schools, acceleration in math class can raise social status. Strong social emotional skills help children navigate their societal demands.

How can teachers help address the effects of social status on students’ well-being? First of all, teachers must recognize that a student’s perceived social status is of significant importance to a young adolescent. Not having a desired status can consume a student’s mental and emotional energy, leading to lack of attention and participation in class. Students with the lowest status are often victims of mean teasing and many have very low self-esteem – if they don’t conform to cultural standards or don’t live in the “right” neighborhood or do have unusual physical or vocal attributes, others may begin to peck them to death, just like chickens in a barnyard.

Teachers must observe carefully to notice a student who may be suffering, as students will not usually willingly admit social discomfort. Whenever a teacher perceives behavior that may be unkind, an immediate intervention – labeling the language or action as appearing unkind and ignoring the inevitable response that it was only a joke, and then restating that the behavior appeared unkind and must stop – is always helpful to the student who needs an ally. Even better is if another student acts as an ally in this way. Sometimes teachers can enlist the help of students who have well-developed compassion to serve as an ally for a student who is suffering from mean teasing.

At the same time, teachers can talk with students about the difference between popularity and friendship. Most young adolescents crave popularity, which is closely aligned with social status and social power. Unfortunately, popularity can be evanescent, ever-changing, and ultimately painful. Friendship is something entirely different – a relationship with someone who appreciates you and shares a common interest, a relationship with someone who stands up for you and respects you. A student who has one close friend is much more likely to be socially resilient than a student who is in the popular crowd but has no close friends.

Teachers themselves must not be trapped by believing that the students with the most social power are always “nice.” Often socially powerful students are adept at appearing to be caring citizens while being observed by adults, while wielding their power in unkind ways in the world of children, a parallel world that is hidden right under the adults’ noses. Teachers must make an effort not to have their vision of their students’ social world clouded by flattery from socially adept and powerful children. Students who have low social status often remark that others are mean to them right in front of teachers and that the teachers do nothing to stop them. The reality is that the teachers may not even perceive it. When teachers improve their general self-awareness they are more likely to have an accurate picture of the social structure of their students’ world and are more able to intervene effectively.

Legacy International’s LivingSideBySide® program of teacher training offers teachers expanded self-awareness, as well as activities to use with students to increase student self-awareness and social resilience. For more information, visit http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

Common Ground

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How can we each contribute to a more positive, unified America that works together for the good of all Americans? We must seek what we share, find common ground. What do we all value? I suggest that we value kindness, honesty and health.

We value kindness and honesty because they are qualities that create trust. If I show you kindness, and I don’t try to trick or cheat you, you are more likely to trust me. When you trust me and I trust you, we can develop a relationship that will bring us each understanding and support. We value health because without it, we suffer. To be physically healthy we need adequate water, food, sleep, movement, and shelter. To be mentally healthy we need close relationships with others to provide understanding and support. To be spiritually healthy we need the freedom and time to connect with whatever nurtures our soul.

Parents and teachers seek these qualities for children. They seek to treat children with kindness and honesty. They seek to teach children to be kind and honest. They seek to provide children with what they need for health. They also seek to teach children many other things, but no parent or teacher I have ever met hoped for children to be mean or dishonest or unhealthy.

If we agree that we value kindness, honesty and health, then we can work to model those qualities for each other and for children. We can argue about how best to achieve those qualities, but we will not hate each other for seeking those things. We can agree that we wish for all Americans to share these qualities, regardless of their many cultural differences.