In Defense of the Public Educator

cc photo by J. Delp

Today we finished our first week of the 2017-18 school year. It was a great week. Our students were genuinely excited to be back on campus and our teachers did an absolutely wonderful job of welcoming them and beginning the process of developing meaningful relationships.

It seems that with each passing year public educators face an increasing amount of scrutiny, but one week back at Willis Junior High School has reconfirmed my conviction that I work with the most amazing staff of educators in the state and that sadly, teachers continue to be overworked and under-appreciated. For just a few minutes, I would like you to consider what I ask of the staff members on my campus.

  • Take the time to know your kids. All one-hundred and twenty of them. Familiarize yourself with their academic performance levels, their individual needs, and their personal interests. Use that knowledge to ensure that they receive appropriate interventions and/or enrichment, and engage them with activities that are relevant and purposeful.
  • Build positive relationships. As James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Invest heavily in building safe classroom environments, an atmosphere of trust and respect, and a community where students understand they have infinite value.
  • Be vigilant. Always. Keep a constant eye out for students who are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally. Watch for changes in academic performance or interest, recognize signs of bullying or anti-social behavior, and be aware of the potential side effects of trauma or abuse.
  • Be a tireless advocate. This is especially true in schools that serve a high poverty population. We must always advocate for the poor and the marginalized. A school system that has become increasingly competitive rewards schools for avoiding risk when it comes to “selecting” students with whom they are willing to work. You are failing a class? This school isn’t for you. Behavioral issues? Don’t come here. Struggling with attendance? We can’t take you because you might hurt our school letter grade. However, as public educators, it is our job to advocate for everyone — to be a voice for the kids who don’t have one. We work for the benefit of all kids.
  • Be patient. As a public school teacher, you will most certainly have any number of students who will push your buttons, challenge your authority, treat you disrespectfully, or just disengage. Don’t quit on kids! In all situations, remain calm, model decency, and treat students with respect and dignity.
  • Teach your subject. Teach other things. Know your subject matter. Design purposeful lessons aligned to standards (and don’t forget to address the individual needs of students). In addition, be ready to teach kids anything they may not know that they need in order to succeed in school and in life. Teach them empathy. Teach the how to communicate effectively. Teach them appropriate behavior. Teach them kindness and humility.
  • Keep learning. Take the time to stay abreast of current best practices. Read books, literature, and blogs. Attend professional development sessions. Collaborate. Model for students, and colleagues, what it means to be a life-long learner.

These are just a few of the critical responsibilities that my staff tackles each day. I ask a lot of them. Are there any of these responsibilities you would suggest I take off their plate? In addition, they attend meetings, write individual education plans, respond to phone calls and e-mails, plan lessons, grade assignments and assessments, supervise students on campus, tutor after school, sponsor clubs, coach, mentor, and counsel. In short, all great teachers go way above and beyond their assigned responsibilities to support children, yet year in and year out, our leaders who control education funding fail to provide little more than lip service to the incredible sacrifices of public educators.

At Willis, I ask our teachers to have high expectations of our students and back that up with a high level of support. I have high expectations for my staff members, and I do my best to provide the support they need to be successful. It is a constant challenge, and by no means do I feel like the help I give is adequate. Unfortunately, our state (along with many others) has extremely high expectations for teachers and schools, but they provide little or no support.

Praise and encouragement are great, but it only goes so far. We are well beyond the point of needing to “put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to valuing our teachers. If we truly appreciate the work of educators, and we believe that ALL students should have the opportunity to learn, it is time that our actions make our beliefs evident. Our public schools that serve “high needs” populations take the brunt of criticism, stereotyping, and stigmatism, while often drawing significantly less in financial support (student activity fees, tax credit money, donations, etc.). Fair is not always equal.

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need to recognize the critical role that teachers play in the lives of our children and provide them with the financial and human resources necessary to be successful. Our future depends on it.

Don’t Quit on Kids

I'm not opposed to success, I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones. – Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

J. was one of my favorite students.

J. was a kid who dealt with circumstances that forced him to become an adult at a very young age. Plagued with instability in his family, he bounced from one place to another — at times, living homeless. Family issues were abundant. He endured pain, violence, indifference, and rejection at the hands of those with whom a child is supposed to place their trust. He was tough as nails.

At school, J. did an admirable job in spite of his circumstances. However, he was a student we would now label "chronically truant," and from time to time, he would have issues with a teacher — primarily due to his insistence on being addressed as an adult. Remember, this was a kid who in all other areas of his life was forced to assume the responsibilities of a grown-up. J. also had a great personality and sense of humor — once offering to drive when I went to pick him up for school (even though he was only 13) and pointing out that I was "getting a lot of gray hair" in the midst of a conversation about his need to display school appropriate behavior. While there were many things working against J. and his prospects for success, he possessed tremendous heart: a quiet strength, and determination to pursue something greater.

Today, I saw J. again for the first time in years. By all measures he is now an extremely successful young man — a high school graduate, with a good job, and giving back to others through community service. I could not be more proud of what J. has accomplished. During his high school years, J. found several adults willing to heavily invest in his future — people who brought stability to his life. They recognized the importance of walking alongside a kid who had encountered more than his fair share of trauma. J.'S determination to improve his circumstances, along with the advocacy of caring adults, lead to positive results. He brought resolve and resilience to the equation. His support network of provided encouragement and hope.

The opening quote in this post provides a powerful warning about the potential pitfalls of failing to support a truly public education. When it came to the probability of good test scores, a high class rating, or absence of behavioral issues, taking a chance on J. was not a good bet. It is highly likely he would have been a school choice casualty. But, because there were adults and educators in J.'S life that were more concerned with him as a person than his potential to bolster a school letter grade, he became a success story.

I am so proud of this young man, and I am incredibly thankful to the people who have chosen to invest their time and love in his life. In my humble opinion, J. and his support network are true heroes!

Don't quit on kids.

Beginning the School Year: 5 Things to Remember

cc photo by J. Delp

Each year, prior to the arrival of students, I write a note to the staff members of our school. I do my best to let them know they are valued throughout the year, but by writing, it is easier for me to find my words. Below is this year’s letter to the WJHS staff.

July 21, 2017

Dear Willis Junior High School Staff,

As we prepare to welcome our students back to campus on Monday, I want to take just a few paragraphs to reiterate the critical role you play in the success of our school community. Your advocacy for our kids, your steadfast commitment to ensuring they have every opportunity to learn and grow, and your willingness to continually reflect upon (and improve) your teaching practice make you a very special group of people. In my humble opinion, you are the absolute best!

On Monday, and as we make our way through the school year, I would like you to keep the following things in mind:

1. Take One Day at a Time
Every day is a new day. Past successes, failures, and frustrations are behind us. What matters now is that we make the best of each moment. Recognize the daily opportunities we have to build relationships and connect with our students and colleagues. Be present in each moment!

2. Know Your “Big Rocks”
With each day, each lesson, each action – recognize what is truly important and invest your time and energy accordingly. Do your best to avoid the “tyranny of the urgent” and focus on what matters most. Remember: people are always the priority.

3. Assume the Best
Give every student, parent, and colleague the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they have the best of intentions and be willing to generously dole out grace – even (or especially) when it is not easy, or when you feel it is undeserved.

4. Be a Family
Being involved in education (regardless of your role) can be taxing and stressful. We need to take care of ourselves, and each other. Constantly be on the “look-out” for your colleagues. Help encourage and lift each other up. Be willing to ask for (and accept) help when you need it. We are in this together!

5. Be Kind
Don’t ever underestimate the power of a smile, an encouraging word, or a random act of kindness. We are responsible for maintaining a safe and positive culture on our campus. You will never regret being kind. As the saying goes, “Throw kindness around like confetti.”

In closing, please know that you are valued and appreciated by your principal. Education is not a just a profession, it is a calling. You have my utmost respect and admiration for the work that you do. Regardless of your role on our campus, you have countless opportunities to have a positive and sustained impact on the children who will walk through our gates on Monday. For some, it is not an exaggeration to say that you may be their most vocal advocate. Treat them with love, give them hope, model empathy and compassion, and challenge and support them in their growth as students and human beings. Working together, we are going to make this our best year yet!

Highest regards from your grateful colleague,

Jeff

7 Ways Effective Educators Address Student Behavior

Kids are Awesome – cc photo

Concerns about student behavior have always been a topic of fierce conversation. Student attitudes and actions often dominate discussions in meetings, at educational conferences, and in faculty lounges. There are almost as many philosophies (and programs) on student behavior as there are schools in the country, and getting agreement on how to address issues can spark a level of vitriol that rivals that of a presidential election.

I certainly don’t have all of this figured out, however I have had the good fortune to work with many exceptional teachers who excel at effectively managing a classroom to maximize student learning. While not an exhaustive list, here are seven strategies I have consistently seen these educators employ in order to minimize disruptive behavior. 

1. Assume the Best and Look for Underlying Causes

Effective educators always “assume the best” in their students and understand that behavior is often a manifestation of unmet needs, or underlying issues. They work diligently to determine, and address (with the help of others), the needs of the student, or the underlying cause of the behavior.

2. Teach The Behaviors They Want to See

If students don’t understand an academic subject, such as reading or writing, we teach them. If students demonstrate a deficiency in understanding appropriate behavior we typically punish them. Hmm. Good teachers understand that they must teach students the behaviors they want to see and provide lots of modeling and opportunities for practice. Many of our students who exhibit poor behavior simply don’t understand what is expected, lack models of socially appropriate interactions, and rarely practice skills that foster good behavior. We can change that.

3. Consistent Routines, Procedures, and Structure 

Familiarity helps us feel safe. Regardless of individual personalities, a certain amount of structure is comforting. This is definitely  true for students — especially those who have experienced (or are experiencing) trauma in their daily lives. Great teachers provide a safe learning environment by establishing, and consistently implementing, clear routines and procedures. Their students regularly review and practice these expectations throughout the school year and they are able to follow them with limited direction from the teacher. Students feel safer, and behave better, when they know what to expect.

4. Focus on Relevant and Engaging Lessons

If, on a daily basis, a class is boring it is extremely likely that some students will misbehave. The most effective teachers invest time in planning lessons that are engaging, purposeful, and relevant. They require students to be active participants in activities and plan opportunities for interaction, collaboration and brain breaks.  This isn’t to say that teachers must be stand-up comedians, or put on a daily “dog and pony” show, but the days of lecturing, worksheets, and PowerPoint presentations for the entire period should be in our past. We know these practices do not correlate with student growth and they often lead to disruptive behavior.

5. Relationships

This list is not in order of importance. If that was the case, relationships would come first. Positive relationships are the lynchpin of effective classroom management and student learning. Students who know their teachers care about and takes an interest in them will typically invest in their learning and work for the teacher. Without meaningful relationships teachers are fighting an uphill battle. Enough said.

6. Patience and Persistence

Effectively managing student behaviors doesn’t really come naturally to any educator. It requires a great deal of planning, practice, trial, error, and serious reflection. Just as we have to accommodate to meet the individual learning needs of students, we must recognize that each child’s behavioral progress will be different. Some kids will prove to be significant behavioral challenges. In these cases, it is an educator’s job to stand by our kids (with the support of others) and exhaust efforts to teach appropriate behaviors. As with most educational endeavors, patience and persistence are essential.

7. Responsibility Does Not End with a Referral

I will preface this by saying that teachers who effectively address student behavior routinely engage colleagues, parents, administrators, and counselors in their efforts to meet the needs of their students. We all have a responsibility to work together for student success. Teachers do not need to do this work on their own. That being said, there are certainly times when a behavioral referral and consequence are in order. However, effective teachers understand that a behavioral referral is not the end of their efforts. If student behavior is to change, there must be some form of restorative action and students must understand that making a mistake, or poor decision, and receiving a consequence is not the end. Teachers are the gateway to a second (or third, or fourth…) chance. It can be a challenge, but demonstrating grace to a difficult student can result in a more positive relationship.

As we see a decline in civility in our society, and as our students continue to deal with a myriad of social and emotional challenges, student behavior will undoubtedly continue to be a topic of discussion. However, there are many strategies we can use to help our kids grow in this area, and there are many educators out there who can offer assistance and solutions. 

Success for ALL includes our behaviorally challenging students. Don’t give up!

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. – Father Greg Boyle