Street art Mott Haven, Bronx
As I’m hiring for the next school year, I’m starting to see a key teacher quality I hadn’t recognized before: the ability to be an adult around teenagers.
This may sound obvious. What I mean is that the teacher knows that they are the adult, and that the student is a kid who may not yet possess all of the politeness, life skills, and behaviors they need to be productive and have good relationships. The teacher knows that as the adult, they have the main responsibility for creating a respectful relationship.
As I’m interviewing teacher candidates, I see two ways of approaching teens:
The first way is the adult/responsible way, and it ranges from a calm neutrality—“Teenagers are teenagers, they have their ups and downs, let’s keep teaching and not take it personally”—to compassion—“It’s tough to be a teenager and we need to guide kids through this time in their life.”
The second way is the victim way, a constant skirmish between the teacher and student: “They’re making it difficult for me to deliver my lesson” or “I’m not letting Student X back into my class until he apologizes.” Continue reading
Student watercolor from the High School of Language and Innovation.
As a principal, I hear complaints from teachers and students about each other. “Ahmed refuses to participate.” “Ms. X didn’t help me even though I was raising my hand.” I typically try to “solve” or mollify the complaints quickly so everyone can move on.
This week, coming fresh from a seminar on listening, I heard complaints differently. Behind the complaints, I found hurt feelings and disappointment.
I came in for an early meeting with two teachers who are respected and even loved by their students. We were deciding which kids needed extra academic support.
As we went down the list, the conversation seemed normal: “Jennifer could use more support outside of class. Mohammed is doing fine in the class, he won’t need extra help.”
Then the tone changed, hitting upon two names: “Samantha doesn’t care. She doesn’t do any work and when I talked to her about it, she said ‘whatever.’ Neither does Abdul. He does nothing in class.” Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about a student who sent an angry email to a teacher during winter break. I talked about my own initial instinct to “jump to punishment” instead of finding out what had happened.
Returning from break, I was reminded of another layer of complexity: the parents’ pressure to punish.
The day we returned from break, I assumed that the student who wrote the email would feel remorseful. We would start off with discussing why the email was a problem, the student would apologize, and all would be well.
Nope: the student returned to school angry, sure that he was “right” to express his feelings in the email.
Right before winter break started, a teacher approached me, visibly upset. A student had sent him an email saying, “I hate you” and wishing the teacher a “horrible” winter break, among some other unkind things.
What had preceded this email? The teacher explained that he had called the student’s parents in for a meeting regarding the student’s behavior. Afterwards, the student had sent the angry email to the teacher. (On a positive note, the email was clearly written and formatted correctly, a “modern skill” we now teach in our English classes.)
Last year in the 9th grade, Robert* had a rough start. He would argue with directions, wander hallways, and frequently cut classes. We were alarmed to see these habits so early in his high school career and did our best to address his behavior.
However, we didn’t see a major change until July: over the summer, Robert calmed down and got focused. He attended summer school and had a math class with a teacher he admired. In August, he passed the state math exam. He started his 10th-grade year well, arriving on time, participating enthusiastically in classes, and performing well.
Then, the cutting habits started to creep in again. We noticed he’d skip his last class of the day, history. This year, we started a much stronger approach to addressing cutting. We developed a system to stop students in the morning who had cut class the day before. We met with them and helped them re-think how and why they should stay in school all day. Continue reading
At the beginning of the year, I did a presentation for a 9th-grade class. As the students walked into the classroom, I told them where to sit. “Good morning! You can sit here,” I’d say, pointing to a table.
One student chose another table than the one I had pointed to. “I’ll sit here,” he told me, plunking himself down. He smiled and folded his arms.
“No,” I said. “You’ll sit here.” I pointed to the original table. I smiled back.
“But I can work better here,” he insisted.
“No,” I said again. “I’m very happy you’ll be in this class today, and so I need you to sit here.” I pointed again and repeated myself: “Here, please.”
A friend was recently telling me about his experience when he was a child in the 5th grade. “I used to get in trouble before the 5th grade. But my 5th grade teacher, she liked me. It was like, she never expected me to do anything bad. So I didn’t.”
I recently saw the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers and his children’s television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. One of the extraordinary things about Mr. Rogers was his obvious, unconditional love of children. Like millions of others, I watched his program as a young child and I remember him saying, “I like you just the way you are.”
I realized what an unusual idea it is to be “liked” just the way one is. Continue reading