This post is also featured on BAM! Radio Network and was collaboratively written with fellow ed leader and good friend Jeff Veal, co-founder of the #LeadUpChat movement, gifted speaker, and Assistant Principal in Prosper ISD in Texas. For more of Jeff's brilliance, click here.
I (Brent) am a former student pastor turned public educator. Upon leaving vocational ministry, I moved into a position as a teacher and coach in southeast Texas. I taught science at the seventh and eighth grade levels for seven years and loved it. However fun my science classes were to teach, science was never my passion. My passion is in helping students learn from their choices (good and bad) and grow from one day to the next. During my time that I was in the classroom, I told my students on a regular basis, “My goal is for you to be a better person on the last day you walk out of my class than on the first day that you walked in. If you learn some science along the way, that’s awesome too!” Obviously, I wanted them to learn science and I wanted to do a great job of teaching it to them. After all, that’s what I was getting paid to do and I want to be great at my job. That doesn’t mean that science was my main goal for my students.
Like Brent, I (Jeff) spent 11 years as a student pastor before I transitioned into public education. I knew the call into the classroom was about relationships and helping kids to be better today than they were yesterday. Having taught both elementary and middle school students you come to find out that meeting the basic needs of students is universal. I can remember my first year teaching 4th grade, I had a parent of one young man indicate to me that it was the first year in his young school career that he had not been sent to the office. During that year we had several one on one conversations, where being 6’ 4’’ I would crouch down to eye level, and remind him what he could do. I always shared that I expected more because he was capable. The power of high expectations seemed to resonate equally somewhere deep inside this little guy’s mind and heart. We developed a strong relationship by the time the school year finished. Though I was teaching english language arts we were all learning what it meant to live out the art of doing life together - what it means to become better with the help of another.
As administrators, the main focus has not changed for either of us. At all. We want our students across the campus to be better people on the last day they walk out than on the first day they walked in. How in the world can that be accomplished in the role of an Assistant Principal? Don’t we just stick them in detention or suspend them from school all the time?
Behavioral struggles are something that we all deal with in our professions as educators. Do not get us wrong, mistakes will be made and there are processes in school by which we must follow. However, there has also been much damage done in the name of “enforcing the rules” which had there been a relationship pre-established would have potentially turned out very differently.
When it comes to student behavior we must separate what is fiction so we can get real about the facts.
Separating Fact From Fiction
Fiction: Kids are looking to break the rules for the fun of it.
Fact: Kids will test boundaries and want to see how the adults in their life will react.
Tip: Be patient and extend new grace every day. All kids deserve a fresh start daily. How we respond may have a ripple effect on that kid’s future actions.
Fiction: If you aren’t firm from the beginning kids will just run right over you.
Fact: Kids, not unlike teachers, will follow a leader, not a war lord. You have to build credibility and know your kids.
Tip: Build credibility with everyday conversations. As Aaron Hogan says in his book Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, “Everyday interactions are the relational foundation that much of our work rests upon.” Know kids by name, their interests, passions, and fears. It is then you understand them when they may perhaps sit across a desk from you having that much harder conversation.
Fiction: Administrators are out to get kids.
Fact: Administrators want to support kids with a learning opportunity when they see them make a mistake.
Tip: Be on the lookout for the great things students are doing and make some noise when they do. Focusing only on what students are doing wrong will push them away.
Fiction: Rules are black and white and so the consequences should be as well.
Fact: When it comes to behavior and kids there is lots and lots of gray.
Tip: If we truly take time to get to know our students, we will begin to understand what types of conversations and consequences will best accomplish the goal of “heart change” (rather than temporary behavior modification).
Fiction: Parents are harder to deal with than the kids.
Fact: As with the kids, relationships matter. We must remember that no one will advocate for their child like that parent. It is their job.
Tip: Put as much focus on relationships with the parents as with the students. They are one of the most integral parts in a child’s education, especially when it comes to behavioral support. Students need a team.
Fiction: Kids hate rules.
Fact: Kids thrive when reasonable rules are in place. Much like an unregulated game of football, daily life would feel pretty chaotic without boundaries.
Tip: Put firm boundaries in place and follow through with them. Ensure that ample time is spent building relationships, especially with your more challenging students.
We are are not advocating that rules should not exist or not be followed for the sake of building healthy, positive, authentic relationships with our student population. We simply believe wholeheartedly that the relational piece has to play a major role in the disciplinary process. If it doesn't, you’ll never reach the heart of any kid and the result is merely temporary behavior modification. We can do better.
Being new to ANY profession can be incredibly frightening, especially when there's a guaranteed audience. New teachers have exactly that. My first day in the classroom was the first time I had been in a public school classroom in years. I had 56 eyes staring at me wondering what my next move was going to be. They had no idea. The problem was that I really didn't either. Being an alternative cert candidate (before ACPs really had there stuff together) I had VERY little preparation for day one. That said, here are some non-negotiables I've picked up over the past nine years:
GET CONNECTED - This one is at the top of the list for good reason. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has been more instrumental in my growth over the past four years than my connections on Twitter. "I don't have time to mess with Twitter," you say? I would counter with, "You don't have time NOT to mess with Twitter." It's been the single best investment of my time and effort to build a community of support, encouragement, shoulders to cry on, and fellow edus who push me to new limits. Not convinced? Many of my "connections" started out as little more than faces on my Twitter feed and since, have become great friends. Here are a (very) few of my biggest influencers in alpha order. Click on their name to see their Twitter profile and follow them.
RELATIONSHIPS OVER RULES - Some may tell you, "Bring the hammer on day one! Don't smile until Christmas. Shove all of your rules and expectations down their throats out of the gates!" I believe there's a better way. Get to know your students. Make day one fun. Bring in some technology (maybe something as simple as a Google Form to do an "all about me" survey). Ask them questions (and listen to their answers). Allow yourself to be known. Talk about your family or your hobbies too.
Do we need to share our rules and set firm expectations for our students? Yes, absolutely we do. A game of football would be zero fun if there weren't rules. The question is, is day one the time to do it? I don't believe so. Start with relationships, then set your expectations sometime later in the first week. I wanted my students to leave my classroom on day one filled with wonder and excitement for day two. That's hard to do when all I'm talking about is what they CAN'T do in my class.
INVOLVE PARENTS/GUARDIANS - Our students' parents or guardians should be our number one partners in the educational process. In order to make this a reality, communication is a must. I recommend sending out some sort of weekly communication that includes the calendar for the week (especially if there are any assessments that week). Along with that, include some info and pictures of what's been going on inside the four walls. Be transparent. Welcome them into your classroom through what you're sharing with them. Make POSITIVE phone calls home. Typically, when parents see the oh-so-dreaded district phone number pop up on their caller ID it's exactly that...dreaded. Be the one who changes that. Be the teacher who calls parents because a student did something outstanding (or just something simple but awesome)! Build positive equity with parents. As a dad myself, this is something that I appreciate. In addition to this just being a nice thing to do, it will also help for those times you have to make the hard, but necessary phone calls.
TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE CENTER - Your classroom should be about your students, not you. For the first few years I was in the classroom, I spent most of my time being the center of attention. It was all about me. I lectured, and I lectured, and I lectured. B-O-R-I-N-G!! I introduced a topic, lectured with notes, we did a lab, we took a quiz, and finished with a multiple-choice test. Then I hit repeat. Thinking about this makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little. No Project-Based Learning. No authenticity. Zero student autonomy. No real world application. I owe my first (and probably my second, third and fourth) year students a big, fat apology. My good friend, Todd Nesloney, was the first person to expose me to the idea of student voice and choice; to the idea of transforming your classroom into an EXPERIENCE for your students to learn. Your students will never remember the killer, still-warm-from-the-copier worksheets you handed out to them. They will remember how you treated them, the voice they had, and the experiences you gave them. Give them your best!
STAY POSITIVE - Just to keep it real here, the first year in the classroom can (and probably will) be very difficult. It will be easy to beat yourself up for what you aren't that great at YET. Honing a craft takes time and that's exactly what teaching is...a craft. None of us are perfect and we never will be. My good friend, Aaron Hogan, just wrote a book called Shatter the Perfect Teacher Myth where he dives into this exact topic. I highly recommend this as a "must read" for any new teacher. Well, really any teacher. You can click here to order it from Amazon. All of us are works in progress and there will always be room for improvement. Focus on the positives, don't be afraid to fail, and grow where you are able. If you find yourself getting down and you're feeling beat up, go back to Tip #1 and find some other great educators to lean on. We were not meant to do this alone.
I hope these few tips help you to get on your feet and that your first year is amazing. Feel free to reach out to me (or any other connected educators) for more tips, advice, coaching, or encouragement. Best of luck to all of our new teachers out there and welcome to the best, most rewarding profession on the planet. Go get 'em!
Brent Clarkson, M.Ed.