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Struggling Students Back on Track
November 21, 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 4
Table of Contents
Getting Students to Drop Their Masks
I remind educators often that many children arrive at school wearing invisible masks. Many teachers spend entire careers teaching to masks instead of to children, either because they aren't aware of the masks or because they haven't figured out how to get students to take them off. These masks are the result of peer pressure, which leads students to put their guard up and to pretend that they are something they're not. The only way to effectively remove the masks is to ensure a positive classroom climate and culture.
In some of the classrooms I observed as a principal, it was not acceptable for the students to exhibit their innate brilliance. In their minds, they had to act out because this is what they were expected to do; this is how they expected one another to behave; this was their mask. The teacher's challenge, then, was to either remove the masks or to create a learning environment that would permit the students to remove the masks themselves.
My oldest son, also named Baruti, recently graduated magna cum laude from college. The contrast between his high school years and his college years is enormous. I was quite familiar with his high school: It was a stereotypical urban high school in northern New Jersey. I watched my son put on "the mask" every day throughout his high school years. It had nothing to do with academic success; the mask he wore enabled him to survive the rigors of a counterproductive school climate and culture.
In schools such as my son's, it's not the academic coursework that yields the greatest challenge for students, but rather the rigors of a climate and culture that force students to conform to peer pressure so that they can cope day to day. As a result, Baruti was an average student at best. It was virtually impossible for him to focus on academics because the school climate and culture required him to wear a mask and to always be cognizant that he was wearing it. By contrast, when he went on to college, he could be his brilliant self; he did not have to wear the mask any longer. The result was that he graduated near the top of his class.
My youngest son, Jabari, had a very similar experience. When he got to high school, the climate and culture of the school forced him to adapt to its negative environment. Whenever I visited the school, it was clear to me that climate and culture issues prevented the male students in particular from exhibiting their brilliance. The students pressured one another to conform to expected behaviors. All of them put on their masks in the morning and kept them on throughout high school. As with Baruti, Jabari did just enough to complete high school but did not go that extra mile. And yet, when he got to college, he excelled. Why? The climate and culture pressures that he experienced in high school did not exist in college. He could now remove the mask without having to look over his shoulder.
It is my firm contention that the stakeholders of a school possess the power, influence, and authority to favorably affect the school's climate and culture. It starts with the leadership and trickles throughout the building. But you can't correct a problem if you do not recognize that it exists. To acknowledge discipline or classroom management issues without seeing the bigger picture of climate and culture is totally detrimental to the school.
In your school and in your classroom, the focus must be on establishing a climate and culture in which students can check their masks at the door. If they have to wear their masks on their walk or bus ride to and from school, that is understandable—it may not be right, but knowing the realities of inner-city life, it is understandable. The key is establishing a building-level climate and culture.
Use these reflection questions to probe whether your school climate and culture allows students to take off their masks:
Source: Adapted from Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success (pp. 22–24 & 88), by B. Kafele, 2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. Adapted with permission.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 4. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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