Opening School: Teachers and Students

August provides a great time to be thinking about the messages educational leaders want to be providing teachers and students as the new year begins.

Consider the following thoughts from McCombs and Miller in The School Leader’s Guide to Learner–Centered Education:

To develop human potential, we believe it is essential that the students have an opportunity to study real world problems and learn for understanding in self directed ways……help students develop into critical thinkers, self-directed learners, problem solvers, time managers, and life long learners needed in our complex society.(pg27)

When the focus is on standards and coverage of materials, students are bored, and they know the system isn’t about them. (pg 27)

What message will your teachers be hearing as they gather to plan for the start of school?
What message will their students hear in the opening week of school?

Some time back I was working with a group of school administrators and asked them to consider what three changes in teachers could produce the greatest improvement in student achievement. I asked that they write down their three before beginning discussions in small groups. As I walked around the room looking over shoulders, I observed that many of them had recorded similar statements in their top two. They were statements connected to relationships with students, knowing students better, having students know that they were known, and communicating caring for students.

When I shared my observation with the group they quickly informed me that my discovery was VERY common knowledge. I then asked that they list the number of staff development activities they had held connected to relationships with students. I asked how often it had been the topic of a faculty or department or grade level meeting. The topic of relationships was mysteriously missing. Isn’t that strange? Leaders said it was extremely important…. yet missing from conversations with teachers.

I thought about that experience as I attended the New Jersey Department of Education’s Summer Literacy Conference, Keeping the Promise: A Renewed Commitment. I was there to present breakout sessions on coaching for reading coaches and administrators. I was fortunate to hear Dr Robert Brooks’ keynote, The Power of Mindsets: Nurturing Motivation and Resilience in Students. Brooks is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has written extensively on school climate, motivation, resilience, family relationships and qualities of effective leaders.

Dr Brooks had a great analogy for school leaders to think about. He compared providing teachers with strategies to giving them cookbooks. “Wouldn’t it be awful to give a cookbook to someone who didn’t like to cook? OR worst…….to someone who hated the people they were cooking for? He proceeded to discuss that when exploring the stories of people who were resilient, who had overcome difficult situations, he found that they reported the effect of a “charismatic adult” in their lives. Often, that person was a teacher.

Brooks identified the mindset of teachers who truly touch the hearts and minds of students; Click here for the presentation on Creating a Positive School Climate.

They believe that all children want to learn and be successful and that all students are motivated (Some students have avoidance motivation to protect themselves from failure and humiliation).

They examine student lack of learning with the question, ”What can I do differently?”. This question comes not from a sense of blame but a sense of empowerment. Effective teachers believe in their own capacity as well as the capacity of their students. ”How effective you feel you are influences how effective you are.”

They have empathy. They can see the world through the eyes of their students.

Performance Learning System’s course, Building Communication and Teamwork in the Classroom, provides specific training in the empathy statement which enables teachers to show understanding and acceptance of a student’s feeling. Sometimes students need to be invited to deal with their feelings and not merely talk about the content of their concern. Reflective statements that convey the listener has heard the underlying emotions as well as cognitive content are frequently most beneficial. Statements such as “You’re disappointed in how your classmates treated you” communicate that deeper understanding.(pg 350)

See the following video for a concrete example of a teacher being that charismatic adult: DL Hughley thanks his teacher (CNN).

As you plan the opening of school, “What message are you preparing for your teachers and students to hear?” As school leaders, “How will you model that message?”. “What educator behaviors are most important for students to observe in the opening days?”

Here’s a great reminder to examine and communicate beliefs from Starkville, MS.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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