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Making a Difference
August 14, 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 22
Table of Contents
Building Relationships That Transform Futures
Justin came to our school in 2010 with a disciplinary record as long as the Nile: lying, fighting, suspension after suspension. Within his first month of school, Justin was sent to the office seven times for varying offenses. His nickname became "Pinocchio" because the truth almost never emerged from his lips.
Recently, our school hosted visitors from around the United States. We selected Justin as one of a handful of student tour guides; he did a wonderful job. You're probably wondering why we picked a habitual liar to lead a school tour. Let me tell you how my school helps students like Justin transform from unruly to successful students.
It starts with relationships. Building relationships isn't easy. The students who need us most are the ones who push us in all the wrong ways. But by working as a community and emphasizing four important elements of relationship building, we've found that we can reach all students.
Empathy is integral to working with challenging students. We need to feel for students and connect with them because how students feel coming into the classroom has a direct effect on learning. The most effective teachers build a community of care in their classrooms.
When I began teaching, I got so frustrated with defiant students that I kicked them out of class. Melissa, a surly 7th grader, spent more time out of my classroom than in it. No wonder she was failing. Everything began to change when I simply had lunch with Melissa and got to know her. I realized that Melissa's failures were rooted in home issues—and that I was failing her as well.
Melissa's father had died two years ago and her mother was often in one of two moods—exhausted or depressed. Those lunches changed my approach to Melissa. Instead of demanding she do things, I asked her. I gave her choice and voice in her education.
The following year, Melissa frequently came by my room to talk about challenges she had with her new teachers. Together, we strategized ways to improve her interactions with adults. Today, Melissa is on track to graduate high school with a 3.5 GPA.
Many students come to educators with a distrust of adults. The key to building trust is to do what you say. If I promise something to a student, I (almost) always follow through. When I don't, I let the student know why not.
I used to hide my mistakes from students; as a result, they didn't trust me. This came to a head when I taught a rough group of 7th graders. When one shouted, "You're such a liar!", I knew my empty threats and hidden vulnerabilities had created an atmosphere of distrust.
I surveyed my students about trust issues. The data shouldn't have been shocking; I had made excuses and not delivered on promises. I apologized to my students, and together we made a pact to be trustworthy.
Talking about trust makes me remember Joshua. Joshua had been to the office quite a bit when he was younger. We spent a lot of time talking with him about his choices. Once, after Joshua pulled the fire alarm in his classroom, he wouldn't talk to administrators because he didn't want us to call his mom. We promised Joshua we would decide on a consequence together, and that calling his mother would be his choice. By the end of our conversation—which focused on why we can't pull fire alarms—Joshua decided that a fair consequence was that he would tell his mother what he'd done.
Recently, Joshua was walking two frightened kindergarteners to the office. I overheard him tell the boys, "You can trust the principals. They're always fair."
Stanley frequently visited the office for minor offenses—which he would say he never committed. One day, he was caught tagging in the bathroom with permanent markers he'd stolen from our art teacher. Despite the fact that he'd been caught red-handed, Stanley continued to deny that he'd done it; he claimed to have been a bystander. As the minutes ticked past, his story grew more convoluted. Clearly, Stanley needed to learn a lesson on taking ownership for his choices.
We told Stanley the consequences would be doubled if he didn't tell us the truth. We then read aloud the testimonies we'd gathered from students and adults who had seen him tagging. Confronted by this information, Stanley's eyes began to tear. We reminded him once again that if he was honest, he'd be in less trouble.
Finally, he begrudgingly admitted it and handed over the markers. Together, we decided on a fair consequence: Stanley repainted the bathroom walls and created a presentation on legal graffiti art.
Stanley learned his lesson about taking ownership. Recently, he and four other boys were skateboarding on campus (students are expected to hand in their skateboards when they arrive at school). When the boys were caught, all five had their boards in their backpacks. Four of the five denied having been on their skateboards, but Stanley said, "I know I broke a school rule. I won't do it again," and handed over his skateboard. Soon, the others followed suit.
Stanley offered to do a week of trash pickup at lunch to make up for breaking the skateboard rule. The other boys decided they needed to do two weeks, since they hadn't been honest at first.
Rewarding honesty is hard. But by rewarding students for taking ownership of their mistakes, we're modeling continuous improvement, a skill students will need for life.
4. Achievable Expectations
Our most challenging students are the ones who typically have the least self-efficacy. More than other students, they need to know that they can change their path.
Charlie, age 5, spent two-thirds of most school days in the office. At one point, he had hit, kicked, or smacked every student in class. Working with his teacher, Charlie's parents created a chart at home for tracking his school behavioral goals, tied to a reward—a special dinner with his mom.
Three days into the chart, Charlie was in the office: He had hit another student! Sobbing, Charlie said, "I want to be a good boy, but I can't be a good boy all the time! My mom told me I had to be good for a month to get my prize. I can't do it for a month!"
One month was such a long time to Charlie that behaving for that long seemed unattainable. After we calmed Charlie down, we worked together to define what it meant to be a "good boy" and to set a daily goal. The next afternoon, Charlie achieved his first goal and got to go to dinner with his mom. Tracking his goal day by day, he soon hit a full month without realizing it.
Remember Justin—our Pinocchio? Recently, I overheard Justin talking to potential students. When a parent asked him how our school was different, he said, "At this school, everyone cares about you. Everyone listens to you. They will change your life."
When I see Justin, I'm reminded why I went into education. By building relationships, teachers can transform futures.
Rachel Garfield is the principal of Ingenium Charter Middle School in Canoga Park, Calif.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 22. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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