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September 2011 | Volume 69 | Number 1
Promoting Respectful Schools
The angry grandfather compared me to the KGB and accused, "You think you're God almighty!" He was responding to my report of his grandson's third incident of cheating. But by the end of the meeting, his tone was supportive. Why? I let his accusations slide. They weren't the real issue. I listened. I shared my observations calmly. The principal and I assured him that we were on the same team. Then, we brought the student into the meeting. Surrounded by an alliance who loved him just the way he was, but loved him too much to let him stay that way, he could no longer play us against one another, telling us each a different story, and he admitted what he'd done. As we parted with a handshake, his grandfather said, "Integrity and character—that's what I appreciate about your school."
—Scott Hayden, director of curriculum and instruction, International Community School, Bangkok
One morning, one of my problem 6th graders, Sean, refused to get off the bus. After all the other bus riders had left, he sat alone in the last seat, yelling that he would beat up anyone who came near him. The principal had tried to talk with him, but it only seemed to enrage him more. By the time the principal came to tell me about the situation, the police had been called. I begged the police to let me talk to Sean first.
When he saw me, Sean began crying and told me to get off the bus "or else." Nervously, I moved to a seat next to him and quietly waited. Slowly he calmed down. When I asked why he wouldn't leave the bus, he told me that someone had stolen his shoes while he was sleeping. He would rather be arrested than be humiliated by appearing in class with no shoes. As we talked, I promised that no students would see him barefoot and that we could quickly get shoes for him. After what seemed an eternity, he took my hand, and we went to the counselor's office and found him some shoes.
This situation fostered a deeper level of trust and respect between Sean and me, and by the end of the school year he was a leader in our class. By listening to him, I gained a different perspective on the difficult home situation he left every day to come to school. In fact, I began to see all my students in a different light. I realized that just coming to school may be the hardest thing that a student will do that day.
—Peggy Sharkey, 5th grade teacher, Glennwood Academy, Decatur, Georgia
When I worked as an art teacher in China, our head of school was a Buddhist, so our basic rules were "Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and be kind to your environment." I've found that this approach also works in my classroom in the Australian International School in Jakarta—as long as the concept is cultivated and regularly discussed. When a student is disrespectful to a peer or to me, I ask, "Are you being kind?" This question often defuses the situation and lets us get to the heart of the issue.
—Jeanie Merila, art teacher, Australian International School, Jakarta
As a reading teacher at an inner-city junior high school in Los Angeles, California, I faced classroom management issues that were alive and well throughout the school. As an experiment, I started videotaping the first 20 minutes of my classes one day a week; for the rest of that class period, students would study the tape and use a questionnaire to analyze the class's and individual students' behavior. At the end of nine weeks, we looked at the first tape and then at the ninth tape and discussed how different they were. And they were truly different!
As a culminating activity, the students took a "final exam" in which they answered questions about why some students displayed negative behavior and others displayed positive behavior. One 8th grade girl, whose attitude had improved greatly over the nine weeks, wrote, "When I saw that you were going to work with us and not just kick us out of the room, I felt that you should get the respect that you deserved." I've carried that lesson with me throughout my 40-plus-year career in education.
—Ron Klemp, adjunct professor, Santa Monica College and California State University
"Gentlemen don't wear hats indoors. Ladies prefer young men who are polite and well dressed." That's what I said one day to my male students. When I asked the girls whether I was right, they responded with a resounding "yes!" and the boys removed their caps and knit beanies. Since that experience, I have encouraged both girls and boys to treat one another with respect. These are high school students in a low-income school with gangs and discipline problems. All the admonishments, detentions, and punishments weren't working, but somehow this simple appeal to respect the opposite sex has made a difference. Now we have days when we practice manners for the dinner table or manners for how to treat elders. When students practice these skills, they tell me they feel like the people in the old movies—but they also feel better about themselves as they promote manners everywhere they go.
—Samantha Carr, chair, Department of Foreign Languages, Arroyo High School, El Monte, California
My 3rd block last year was a talkative group who chatted during my instruction daily. Arguments between classmates over football rivalries or the latest feud between rappers often disrupted activities. Daily instruction was getting painful; I was losing my cool in class more often. After a day when a lesson that was successful in every other block malfunctioned in this class, I realized that I needed to change my instruction to reflect this group's strengths. I centered the next instructional unit around collaborative groups in which students could talk to one another. I capitalized on their natural competitiveness by putting them into teams that worked together on each assignment to earn points. At the end of the unit, the team with the most points earned a prize that they chose. They loved getting a choice and being recognized. For the next units, my students requested working in teams. Referrals to the office and classroom disruptions dramatically decreased.
—Gwendolyn Todd, instructional resource teacher, Charles County Public Schools, Maryland
I taught emotionally disturbed and autistic students, a mix of colliding personalities. One student was angry at the world. I decided to approach him the way I approached customers when I waited tables in college: Treat every table the same way, maintain a positive attitude, and make no judgments on the basis of appearance. (This approach netted me much higher tips!)
I said good morning every day to this student. For 99 days, he shot back angry looks, but on the 100th day, he finally responded, "Good morning, Mr. Gaskell." From that day on, he showed a different level of respect. I believe he was used to adults giving up on him and had expected the same from me. Refusing to give up paid off; I made a difference in his life. He made a difference in mine, too; I learned that with determination, I can reach any child.
—Mike Gaskell, principal, Hammarskjold Middle School, East Brunswick, New Jersey
My second year teaching U.S. history in an urban high school, I was determined to improve the climate in my classroom. Taking a cue from the History Alive! training I received that summer, I began the year by having students sit in groups of four and introduce themselves to one another. First, I introduced myself by drawing a picture of myself surrounded with symbols of my life. As I shared my picture and my life with them, I could see students' interest and comfort levels rise. Then, I modeled the way to introduce one another to the rest of the class. The year turned out to be one of the best I'd ever had—we knew and respected one another, and it made all the difference.
—Joanne R. Funk, gifted specialist, Norfolk Public Schools, Virginia
One year I came in midyear as the permanent teacher in a class that had had 25 different substitutes the first semester. As we started to establish structure and expectations, one student made it known he was not interested in cooperating. After a week of his incessant attempts at derailment, I asked him to stay after class. I didn't mention anything about his disrespect; I asked him some questions about his interests and his life and then listened and let him talk. He told me he played on the school's varsity soccer team and had been named Most Valuable Player.
The next day, I commented to the class how impressive it was for a sophomore to make the varsity team and what an amazing accomplishment it was for him to earn MVP. From then on, I called him by the nickname MVP. He became much more cooperative and would often stay after class to talk. On the last day of school, he enveloped me in a hug and said, "Thank you, Mr. Schultz, for saving my life. No one ever showed an interest in me as a human being before, but thanks to you I see the value of my life."
—Steve Schultz, English teacher, Fountain Valley High School, California
"We know our behavior stopped us from learning what we were supposed to, so we've decided to do this unit and take the test again," said my students. During the preceding two weeks, this group of 17 students had consistently derailed instruction and learning through their negative behaviors. Not surprisingly, they had all failed the first assessment. At the beginning of the third week, I decided to give them the opportunity to reflect on the connection between their behavior and learning. I gave them a choice: You all failed the first test, and you know why. We can go to the next unit and pretend the past two weeks never happened, or we can repeat the last unit. You talk it over and decide. I'll do whatever you choose.
What a turning point! Allowing them to discuss their behaviors and decide for themselves initiated positive changes in their attitudes about how their behaviors and learning connected.
—Julia Turner, district academic coach, Soledad Unified School District, California
During my last year working in an elementary school, I worked with a 6th grade teacher to address her students' blatant disrespect. We began by focusing on body language. We practiced "poses" and discussed what each one conveyed. I would ask for a specific attitude, such as "bored," and the class would show it by how they sat or slouched in their seats. We agreed that slumped stature and rolling eyes were not ways to show respect. We then discussed word choice and tone. Combining their knowledge of body language, tone, and word choice, the students worked in groups to produce two skits for different scenarios. One skit showed how it looks when a person does not show respect; the second demonstrated how different the situation can be if a person does show respect. The students enjoyed the experience, and expressions of disrespect decreased in the classroom.
—Liz Shockey, literacy specialist, Smekens Education Solutions, Warren, Indiana
Our high school had problems with disrespect, fighting, and incivility. A minority of students were destroying the school environment. To cultivate student leaders who were willing to step up as role models, I asked any interested students who were unhappy with the school environment to join a group called HELP (Heroes Empowering and Leading their Peers). This group held meetings to study positive behavior and leadership skills and created a quasi-neighborhood watch group. We published a school newsletter called HELP Take Back Our School. We brought in consultants to do leadership training with a cross-section of students. We started to introduce some of the Habits of Mind to the student body, and we used student and staff input to select a Character Student of the Month for each grade level. With the collaborative effort of the administration, staff, and students, we soon turned disrespect into respect.
—Doreen Miori-Merola, ELA content specialist, Solvay High School, New York
Early in my teaching career, a student was transferred into my classroom. I had been told that this student was quite difficult and disrespectful. I felt intimidated but made the decision to treat him with the respect that I afforded all my students. I welcomed him on his first day in the class and then made a point to make him feel included each day after that. At first, he seemed wary, but eventually he began to participate in class activities. As the year progressed, he became one of my more capable students, and I never had any issue of disrespect. I learned that you should not judge a student by how others perceive that student. If you give respect, you get it in return.
—Cathy Hix, social studies specialist, Arlington County Public Schools, Virginia
In our new charter school, teachers faced problems with disrespect from 9th graders. As principal, I implemented a character education curriculum and decided to teach the 9th grade class myself. During one session, we sat in a circle with a candle burning in the middle. The theme for the class was trust. I asked the students to reflect on the day's theme and, if they chose, to stand and say what came to their heart and mind.
At first, students were uncomfortable and giggling. But as the class progressed, the comments became more meaningful, and students began to reveal their deep issues of trust and mistrust. Finally, one particularly challenging boy stood and said he had stopped trusting men when an uncle of his had molested him some years back. The room became silent as we all sat, stunned by the admission and touched by the courage of this youth in sharing it. It was as if a light had been turned on. From that day forward, the 9th grade was the most caring, collaborative, and respectful grade in the school.
Listening deeply, creating spaces for students to be heard, and caring enough about kids to trust them and be trusted by them have the potential to create respectful behavior in students.
—Sue Valdes, president, Valdes Educational Services Minnetonka, Minnesota
I observed a 3rd grade teacher, Ms. M., who has developed a system for teaching students how to give one another pats on the back for positive actions. When a student notices someone else demonstrating one of the positive character traits they've learned about, he or she writes a note—for example, "Rachel demonstrated integrity by giving Ms. M. the money she found in the lunchroom"—and hangs it in the classroom on a chart titled Kindness Is Contagious. Ms. M. then sends home a letter to the student's parents explaining that their child was recognized by a classmate for exhibiting the trait in question.
Think how hard it would be to be mean to someone who has just recognized you for an act of integrity. Think how this activity makes these abstract concepts come alive for students. I've shared this idea with other teachers, many of whom have made it their own, finding ways for students to give shout-outs to one another.
—Carole H. Friedman, senior trainer, Ramapo for Children, New York, New York
The 4th grade team at my school has established 4th grade community meetings. Students in all three sections of that grade level get together regularly to talk about disrespectful behavior. Teachers facilitate and encourage students to share instances of disrespect, verbalize how it feels when they are disrespected, and generate viable responses. The students are open, honest, and remarkably insightful. Peers regularly offer encouragement, suggestions, and strategies that have worked for them. Notes from the meetings are made available to parents, providing material for fruitful follow-up conversation at home. We've found that when we spend time talking openly about treating one another with respect, it increases students' self-respect and enhances the quality of the students' learning.
—Helen Dunlea, 4th grade teacher, Madison School, Hinsdale, llinois
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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