Thursday, November 17, 2011

Success in School (for teachers) - Part II

I wrote yesterday that success for teachers begins with kindness, compassion, and generosity. Today, I want to get into those things a bit more and think about what it means to base a curriculum around my actions as opposed to the things that I'm going to get kids to do. I haven't had great luck at getting kids to do the things that I want them to do simply by telling them, creating assignments, and then testing, quizzing, and grading them into submission. It just hasn't worked for me. Your results may be different.

On Tuesday I sat in on a meeting about a kid who has been recalcitrant and pretty snotty to some of the staff. I haven't had as much trouble with him, so I was sitting in on the meeting with his parent and social worker more as an observer than anything else. I listened as the teachers documented the kid's failings. "I give him the work, I get on him to do it, but he won't do it." That was the general theme.

The mother said that the boy is just so angry and that to do things such as take his cell phone away will send him into a rage. I could hear that she was afraid to do this. She didn't want to have to go through the abuse he was likely to bring down on her.

When it came my turn to talk I mentioned that his problems in class are that he's just so out of practice. His spelling is primitive, things like that. But I said that he was willing to write, willing to read, willing to put the cell phone aside. No one asked me, but I could feel at least one teacher trying to figure out what my magic was. If she had asked, I would have said that it comes in three parts:

Kindness, compassion, and generosity.

Kindness is simple. We all know what that is and we ought to know how to put it into practice, but we teachers are trained out of it by experience, by other teachers and administrators, and by fear. Kindness demands that I treat students as I would have a teacher treat me. Note that I'm not saying to treat the kids as I would have them treat me. Instead, I'm saying that I have to put myself in the class. I have to be a part of it. If I would be reluctant to do the assignment, it's a bad assignment. If I wouldn't want to be talked to in a certain way, that's not the way I should talk to students. And so on.

Being kind means listening to what they have to say. It means writing back to the things that they write. It means sharing myself with them. Kindness means being friendly with them (though not necessarily worrying about being their friend). It means giving them good advice even when it's not about the subject matter.

Compassion goes along with this. I have to think as they might think and try to figure out not just how they feel but why they feel that way. The kid we were meeting about has suffered horrible things in his life. Horrible. Beyond what I can imagine. When he gets upset about being told to put his phone away, it's not because he just wants to be a pain in the ass. He's reacting to what has happened to him and he's reacting to something much larger than what happens in my classroom.

This doesn't give him a free pass to do anything he pleases or act out of control. Instead, compassion helps me to be calm and not react as though his flare-up has much at all to do with me. Simply acknowledging that he is angry changes my whole demeanor. Being compassionate in this way makes the confrontation about what's happening to him and not how I'm getting angry. It also takes my emotions down several notches.

And then there is generosity which isn't about giving kids Tootsie Rolls or telling them "good job!" Generosity is the giving of kindness and compassion. It is the willingness to give away the classroom to the students, not by abdicating control of order, but by addressing their needs more than mine. Generosity is as simple as getting kids to say "I'm going to the bathroom" instead of "may I go to the bathroom?" The difference is that they get to be in charge of their bladder but they are checking in with me to let me know where they are going.

Generosity is taking into account who they are and who I am, it is sharing who they are and who I am, it is working with individuals on their needs and also getting the whole class involved.

Generosity, compassion, and kindness. Imagine a curriculum based on those three things. Tomorrow, if my nose will stop running (and even if it won't), I'll try to describe such a curriculum in practical terms. Until then, write on.