When I was a kid, we moved a lot. I had numerous first days of school, sometimes in the middle of the year. I don't remember any of them, except when we moved to a small town in Oregon while I was in third grade. I was given a tour of the school, which included a visit to the principal's office. There, I didn't actually meet the principal, but I was shown the paddle hanging on the wall, and informed that if I were ever called down to see the principal, he would use the paddle on me. Did this knowledge make me behave better at school? No, because I was already a compliant kid. But, it added an unnecessary layer of fear to a childhood already clouded with issues of poverty, abuse, and divorce. It also taught me to distrust the very people I could have turned to for help, guidance, and support.
Now, in most schools, corporal punishment is, thankfully, non-existent. We have tools like clips, point sheets, and ClassDojo to track and manage student behavior. But as adults, in an effort to gain compliance, we will often phrase a consequence as a punishment, creating a sense of fear and distrust that lurks ever so slightly in the back of the mind. It's hard to walk the fine line of enforcing a consequence vs. punishment, because we live in a society that is punishment-oriented.
So, with that personal anecdote in mind, here's what I do know about shaping behavior:
1. When we teach, we are dealing with human beings, complex emotions, a variety of motivations, and a wide range of life experiences. We work to develop systems to anticipate responses, needs, and outbursts, but no-one can predict the outcome of every situation. Working with humans is emotionally messy.
2. We try our best. We try our best. We try our best. Be forgiving of yourself when, despite your efforts, a student derails a lesson or makes an inappropriate choice. You are trying your best.
3. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Your job can quickly turn into a personal purgatory if your work is undermined by behavior issues. Follow your school's behavior plan and established hierarchy for teacher support. I usually start with my peers, move on to the behavior specialist or school counselor, and finally, administrator. I have never had to go to my union, but it is there, and would be my last resort. But, if you do ask for help, you must be open to item #4.
4. Be prepared to accept help. This means being willing to evaluate your own practices, and make changes to ensure the success of your students. Teaching is a reflective profession, and the best educators are willing to own that they're not perfect, be reflective and make adjustments.
5. Sometimes your tools are your students' tools too. That point card that is a pain to fill out every 30 minutes? It's not just a way to track behavior. That kiddo likely relies on that card to give him feedback throughout the day to keep him on the right path. If it works to modify behavior, it is a tool for the student.
6. Students need to know and understand consequences. But, they don't need to be punished with them. It's important that we, as teachers, don't threaten with consequences, and instead, discuss consequences as natural outcomes of actions and choices. Sometimes it's hard to disentangle the concept of punishment from consequence, but I view it this way:
7. Communicate consistent and clear expectations. If you haven't thought through what you want from your students well enough to communicate it to them, then you haven't set them up for success. Make sure you're clear on what needs to happen, and be willing to explain why. Give them opportunities to practice following expectations, so they can experience what that particular task should look, sound, and feel like.
8. Students want to be seen, heard, and loved. I make it a priority to try to know and understand every single student. This can seem like an overwhelming task, especially with large class sizes and sometimes students with escalating behaviors. But, even if you just make a discreet effort to hone in on the needs of one student at a time, you'll know the class so much better. During the first six weeks of school, I put the initials of one student per day in my planner, so I can keep track and make sure I've made the effort to really connect with everyone.
9. Connect with families. Understanding a student's home life makes a world of difference in your relationship with that child. Keeping connected with families (phone calls home, notes home, parent conferences, and even quick conversations at pick-up/drop-off times) is extremely important. In the rare instance when you encounter a family that is hostile about school, learning, or even you, don't take it personally. Just keep doing your best to build a bridge (or give space, if needed), and use that knowledge to better understand and support the child affected by that negativity.
I can't say that I have it down to a science (which is what makes systems so appealing), but I do have a feel for what I can do to shape the behavior of my kiddos.
As I begin learning about and diving into new practices this school year, I'll likely have more to share.
To be honest, I don't know how to fully describe all I do to build community. It's something that I just do, and to stop and delineate every step is challenging. I'll be doing my best to encapsulate it here, but it is highly likely that I've left something out.
1. Take time at the beginning of the year to build your classroom community. Although this is fairly obvious to any skilled teacher, it needs to be stated. Starting the year with a strong sense of belonging helps everyone in your room feel successful. Incorporate plenty of icebreakers and team-building activities.
2. Teach your children how to develop a growth mindset so they can see themselves as learners who belong in an academic environment. Learning about the brain is a powerful way to begin conversations about metacognition.
3. Make your room a safe place to share thoughts and ideas. Explicitly model and teach respectful behavior, especially when it comes to sharing thinking. When responding to student contributions, unpack or share how their ideas connect with larger concepts or help others learn. Allow for different ways of thinking, and celebrate those multiple pathways. Display student work that celebrates effort and growth.
4. Celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. Be willing to point out or acknowledge your own mistakes, and think aloud about your own strategies to overcome them. Recognize milestones in learning, especially with topics that were initially challenging to the students.
5. Model and emphasize effort over quantity. I teach my kids to work towards being proficient in a skill, and to help them, I provide examples of what that looks like along the path to proficiency. I'll even ask them to think about where they are on the path to proficiency, and track their own progress using a 1-4 scale. Sometimes, for homework, I'll assign just one math problem, but I'll ask for it to be done well, with the problem fully worked through and the process and thinking fully explained.
6. Be a cheerleader, and encourage your students to be cheerleaders too. Find the bright side in everyday situations by being the "glass half full" kind of person. Celebrate students' kindness, compassion, empathy and of course, effort. Provide an avenue for students to celebrate and share the accomplishments of others.
7. Don't buy into student negativity. Early in my teaching career, I'd find myself falling into the negativity trap. I'd get a whining "Do I have to?" and respond with a blunt, "yes" or a request for effort now and a break/reward/recess/whatever later. Both responses feed into the negativity, and turn the learning process into just another unpleasant chore.
Now, years down the road, I don't let the negativity stand, and I don't let it become attached to the requested task. I have a couple of strategies, depending upon my relationship with the student.
8. Embrace the "Power of Yet". My students got this phrase from a series of ClassDojo Videos about the growth mindset, and used it all year long. We made it a class rule. If anyone says a statement that begins with "I can't...", it must immediately be followed up with an enthusiastic "YET!"
9. Be forgiving. Your students need to know that you look for the best in them, and will help them learn from and move past their mistakes.
10. Engage your students in a discussion about fairness and what that really means. Does fair mean that everyone gets exactly the same thing, at the same time, in the same way (equal, equality), or does fair mean that everyone has what they need to be successful (equity)? There is a great graphic (posted below) that illustrates this, and I use it to jump start the conversation. When students better understand equity, you don't have to explain why some students have wiggle seats or get to eat lunch with the school counselor. For the most part, kids who understand equity trust that you are making choices that meet their needs, and see that you (or other school personnel) are meeting the needs of everyone else, too.