Rogers Middle School in San Antonio Texas has a wonderful Motto, “Do Whatever It Takes To Help Kids Be Successful”. I recently worked with the teachers and staff there and I could tell this was not just a motto to them- they really believed all kids could be successful. I wish every one believed that.
Bhaerman and Kopp (1988) told us that students are less likely to drop out of school when one adult knows and uses their name in a positive way. Students are less likely to drop out of school when teachers are positive, malleable, creative, and person-centered rather than bound by rules. Compelling teachers maintain high expectations for all of their students and show they care about their students’ success. It’s so simple. Teachers are powerful.
Actually, in education no matter what your job is- you are powerful. If you are a bus driver, you can make eye contact with that student when they get on the bus, use their name in a positive way, talk to them, not at them and smile and you will have made a difference in that child’s life. A school cook can make eye contact with each student as they come through the line. When a student says, “Thank you”, the cook can say, “Wow, you have good manners.” That interaction alone could be a single interaction that helps keep a child in school.
How do adorable children on Diane Sawyer’s special saying, “Don’t Shoot, I want to live” end up being gang members or sitting in prisons later in life? Someone, somewhere let them down. Who can save them? The school can save them. We have to do it. We have to quit differentiating and only saving some. We have to differentiate and save them all.
Here are some recent examples of how we are not saving them all. I just had a recent email exchange with someone about a student who had NEVER gone a school field trip because the child’s behavior had been deemed too “bad” by the teachers in the school. How is a kindergartner too “bad” to go on a field trip? I taught kindergarten. I had rambunctious kids. You ask parent volunteers to go along and you divide the kids up into smaller groups. You give the kids positive reinforcement. You teach the kids what good behavior looks like, sounds like and feels like. The poor kid I was emailing about was in his sixth year of school and had NEVER been on a school field trip. It sounds to me like he has become the scapegoat of the school.
I once was called in for a behavior evaluation on a student who was in sixth grade in a K-6 school. It was October. The student they wanted me to look at was deemed public enemy number one, or that was the way the school talked about him. I observed him and to me, he did not look like a child who could not be managed with ordinary classroom management strategies. I asked if I could just have a conversation with the student. I took him in a room and played checkers with him to build rapport. Towards the end of the game, I asked him, “So what’s the deal with you acting up in class all the time?” He stopped and looked me dead in the eye and said, “Do you really care?” I said, “Yes, that’s actually why I’m here.” He said, “Since I was in kindergarten, I have been looking forward to going to the Jacksonville Zoo. It’s the big sixth grade field trip. I have never been to a zoo. It’s the end of the year field trip. I acted up in September just once. I laughed when someone (passed gas) in class and I couldn’t quit laughing. My teacher told me because of that I couldn’t go on the field trip in May. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing left for me in sixth grade. Why try?”
Why try? Really- laughing because another student passes gas, I have a hard time keeping a straight face. When a student acts up, really acts up, have them earn extra points to go on the field trip. This way you ensure good behavior. Say, “Wow, that’s a bummer you chose to throw your shoe across the room. The rest of the class needs 15 points to go on the field trip, you will need to earn 18 points. Then help the student earn 18 points. Give them booster shots by reminding them what will earn them points. You can improve behavior by 80% just by pointing out what one person is doing correctly (Shores, Gunter, Jack, 1998). The sixth grade teacher had caused her own pain by taking away the one thing this young man cared about. I looked at his records. He had had no behaviors in his six previous years at school. Once she turned him into a behavior problem, he could have continued down that path for the rest of his school career. Teachers have the power to create good students. We have to start on day one and teach them what that good behavior looks like, sounds like and feels like. We can’t just do it on the first day and expect them to remember every single day either. We have to give them booster shots. Just like I can’t exercise and diet on the first day of the year and stay healthy the rest of the year. If I want to stay healthy the rest of the year, I have to step 10,000 steps a day and eat 1200 calories a day. It is the same with teaching behavior in the classroom. Teachers can sneak it in during lessons by labeling appropriate behavior when they see it with behavior specific praise.
Here is another recent example of negative. One of my children recently did an observation in another school district and the teacher talked negatively about the students right in front of them. She talked negatively about their behavior, their socioeconomic status, their parents, and their learning abilities. Holy Cow- if your teacher doesn’t believe in you, then you might as well hang up your pencil and turn to a life of crime right now because obviously you are never going to learn anything. Right? My child was so disillusioned by this encounter because the principal had told my child that this was his “best” teacher. Either he doesn’t know the teacher very well, or if this is his best, the school is in sorry shape. In my training sessions, I have a slide of things I have heard teachers say in classrooms in front of students that I wish I had not heard:
- You are no better than your brother. You are going to end up in jail just like him.
- If you don’t walk right down the hallway, I’m going to drag you down the hallway.
- You’re all just idiots.
- I don’t know why I bother.
- Your parents should have used birth control.
I once let a school psychologist go that I had hired on contract because he said in front of student, “He is dumber than a bag of rocks.”
We never assume that ears are not listening and we never assume the ears listening do not understand the words we are saying.
I once read a story about a teacher who worked with very poor students and very low achieving students but she called them scholars and told them they could do it. Guess what? The students did achieve. Believing is achieving. This same teacher half way through the year started calling her students the next year’s scholars. So if they were second grade students, she would call them third grade scholars because she told them they were learning what they needed for the next grade. Believing is achieving. It’s like the feather in Dumbo’s hat. I remember when I was 8 years old, I had still not learned how to ride a bike. The kids in the neighborhood were making fun of me because I still had training wheels on my bike. My parents had bought me a 26 inch English racer and I being of Scotch heritage am extremely short so I could barely balance and reach the pedals. My mother went in the house and got a feather out of my pillow. She put it in my sock and told me that it would work to help me balance and fly on my bike, just like Dumbo. Because I believed I started pedaling my bike without training wheels and I pedaled on down the street with that feather in my sock. Believing is achieving.
I don’t mean to point out negative stories about teachers because we get enough negative press and very little positive press. However, we can save the world folks. We just have to believe we can. We have to do whatever it takes to make it happen. We have to believe every child can learn. We have to help ALL kids, no matter their disability become successful. Right now- today- we have to stop the school to prison pipeline. We have to stop the kids who are headed towards spending the rest of their lives sitting on the sofa watching television because no one helped prepare them for a vocation. If a child has a disability, don’t let them use it as a crutch. Help them see the strength or the gift that comes with that disability. If a child has a behavior issue, help them turn it around. Do whatever it takes, that is our job. No matter what your job is in education, whether you are the English teacher, the cook, the janitor, the bus driver, the principal, the school psychologist, or the social worker, your job is to make sure every child is successful. Our job isn’t to make sure the cute ones make it, or the rich ones, or the ones with two parents, or the ones with nice parents. Our job is to make sure every child, every single child leaves school with a high school education.
We all need to adopt the motto and believe the motto: “Whatever it Takes”. Here is my favorite book on the subject-
I teach……What is YOUR Super Power??????