The Wejr Board

…sharing stories that reflect on the present & future system of education


Working With Children With Challenging Behaviours? This Changes Everything

CC image from Madstreetz

CC image from Madstreetz

There is a simple mistake that the vast majority of us as parents and educators make when dealing with challenging behaviours: we focus on the behaviour.

When we focus on the problem behaviour, most of our theories and strategies involve attempting to get less of this behaviour. We bribe with rewards for when the behaviour might not be present and we punish when the behaviour does occur. This type of “behaviour intervention” makes a HUGE assumption… that the behaviour is a motivation problem.  We assume that if we can “motivate” (bribe/punish) the child to the thing we want him to do, after enough intervention, he will do it more often. Dr. Ross Greene says this is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they wanna [do well].”  This often “works” for the kids who don’t really have any significant challenges with behaviours (although when we try to “catch kids being good”, we end up teaching many kids to be good at getting caught being good and create further problems of kids wanting something in return for doing the right thing) but I have yet to see this work for the students who need the intervention the most.  In fact, I have often seen this approach work against students with behaviour challenges; we put a carrot out there (if you do this, we will give you this), the student then realizes he/she is not going to get the reward, and this actually brings out the problem behaviour that we do not want to see. If all we focus is on the challenging behaviour, we miss the most important part: the opportunity to create collaborative solutions for the underlying problems.

By assuming that challenging behaviour is a motivation problem… we forget that behaviour is a SKILL. Behind every action in kids (and adults) are numerous skills that people have learned over the years.  Skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, listening, critical thinking, empathy, academics, and many others all play a role in how we behave. This is the BIG idea that changes everything about working with kids with challenging behaviours: “Kids do well if they CAN… if they could do well, the would do well. Something must be getting in the way” (Dr. Ross Greene). This lens changes our role as educators and parents; our role then becomes members of a team that has the task of finding out what is getting in the way.

Kids do well if they can…. NOT kids do well if they wanna. When we make this shift in philosophy, we see that behaviour challenges are a result of a lagging skill and/or unsolved problem. By focusing on the lagging skills, we can actually teach kids the needed skills in a way that prevents the behaviour from occurring. I have used the philosophy for a number of years and it has been proven more effective than any other behaviour support I have used; this should not be shocking because when we view behaviour as a skill, our most important job is to teach!  If a child struggles with reading, we teach. If a child struggles with behaviours, we don’t simply bribe and punish… we teach.

Greene shares with us a few keys to working with kids with behaviour challenges:

  1. Kids do well if they can. Focus on determining the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are causing the behaviour.  Challenging kids are challenging when the demands of a task outstrip their skill level. We need to stop obsessing on behaviour.  Instead, we should be emphasising problems (and solving them) rather than on behaviours (and modifying them – when we solve the problems the behaviours are modified).  Expectations are important so we need to reflect on what our expectations so we can determine what our student may be having problem meeting. We also need to ensure that the bar for these expectations are close to the skill level of our students… much like we do with other aspects of teaching.
  2. Solutions must be collaborative and proactive. Too often, solutions we (as adults) come up with are done TO the child and what we need to be doing is coming up with solutions to unsolved problems (and lagging skills) WITH the child. This does not mean collaborating on consequences… this means collaborating on solutions to problems. (Note: I am not opposed to consequences that are logical and restorative but I think we too often believe that this will solve the problem when, if it is due to a lagging skills or unsolved problem, it rarely solves it and actually exacerbates the problem). Nobody likes a plan done to them yet we do this to kids with behaviour challenges all the time… and it often makes it worse.
  3. Model empathy and care.  When determined the lagging skills and unsolved problems and we work collaboratively as a team with the child, we show we care and can empathize with his/her struggles in certain skill areas.

I have tried to use this philosophy for a number of years with great success, but for some reason, I seemed to have recently sidetracked myself about it. This year, I have continually focused on the behaviours and dealing with what seemed to be crisis management without working hard to understand the underlying unsolved problems. As Greene says, “The more crisis management you do, the more crisis management you do.”  We have done a ton of crisis management this year and have done very little of focused discussions on determining lagging skills and unsolved problems and then working collaboratively to help teach the skills and solve these problems. Four members of our staff recently attended a 2-day workshop with Greene and it all came back to me; we realized we have made a number of decisions at school that have not helped with our students struggling with behaviours. We have been focused on behaviours and doing our “solutions” TO kids rather than with them. In the coming weeks and into next year, I look forward to our core team working to use Greene’s approach and working with staff and families to create more success for our students.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes so long. It takes so much time. It requires time for collaboration with staff and collaboration with the struggling students. The other side of this, though, is that our other attempts to provide intervention (that have not worked) have taken tons of time yet they have got us not much further ahead (and maybe even further behind) than we were at the start of the year. So the question is: how can we NOT make the time to work together to do something that has proven to work? Much like when a child struggles with reading, we make the time as best we can. The added challenge to problem behaviour (which is often tied to academics) is that it can affect the learning environment for staff and students… which is why it is that much more important to make the time to engage in this process.  The least that we can do is consider shifting our philosophy. If we don’t, we will simply continue to spin our wheels and end up with students and staff who are more stressed with bigger struggles that we had before. (an important additional comment by Steve MacGregor on Twitter: there needs to be a core group or a team approach to make this truly effective.)

We need to rethink how we approach behaviour in our schools. We need to move away from a program that focuses on behaviour (and attempting to change with carrots and sticks) and move toward a philosophy that seeks first to understand the unsolved problems and/or lagging skills, then help solve the problems and teach the needed skills.  This changes everything.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s workshops and books (particularly Lost at School). You can also do a “walking tour” of his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions and get tons of free resources (like the ALSUP – Assessment of Unsolved Problems and Lagging Skills) on his Lives in the Balance website

NOTE: I understand that life is full of choices and there are times when behaviour is a choice. I am writing primarily about significant behaviour challenges in this post that we often assume are choices (but have been shown in my experience and many that Greene has worked with) to be caused by underlying unsolved problems. Also, Greene is very clear that PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports) does not align with this philosophy as the focus is often on changing behaviour (with positive rewards/prizes/tickets) rather than determining lagging skills and working collaboratively to solve them.

I also like the term “unexpected behaviours” (rather than problem or challenging behaviours) that my friend Karen Copeland has encouraged me to use. The goal of the approach in this post is to make these behaviours more expected because when we know what is causing them, we can work collaboratively to prevent them from occurring. 

For a quick preview to Greene’s approach, watch the video below.



6 Keys to Connecting With the Disconnected

I recently had the honour or being asked to come back to work with the passionate educators of the Fort Nelson School district to continue our conversation in strengths-based education. For the keynote, we wanted to back up a bit and look at the importance of connection… the importance of relationships.

We know we cannot teach a child without a connection. Talking about the importance of relationships is nothing new but sometimes we need a reminder of our WHY.  With the high volume of tasks, checklists and day to day duties in schools, our why (larger purpose) of making a difference through relationships can somehow get lost.  The session in Fort Nelson was designed to be a summary and a reminder of what is truly important in education.

The kids who need the most love

CC image from Madstreetz

Connecting with students who are disengaged, acting out, absent, closed down, or have almost given up in school can be very challenging. Sometimes students, no matter how much we seem to try, will continually shut us out and/or push us away. As Russell Barkley writes, “The kids who need the most LOVE will often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”  We must remember our why, stay the path through the bad and the good to connect with our kids that need it the most.

Connecting is more important now than ever. According to a 2011 study of youth done by the Public Health Agency of Canada, just over half of our grade 10 students feel that they belong and have a teacher that cares about them in school. It is difficult for me to hear this as I know how hard we work in education. How can almost half of our students not feel cared for and a sense of belonging? The question must me asked… knowing this, now what? We know the links between positive school environment and mental health and we know the impact we CAN have on our students so what are we doing about this as educators, schools and as a society?

I know there are many more but here are my “6 Keys To Connecting” – these keys are designed to create connections, moments, memories, and an overall positive school experience.

  1. Be Interested. Make the time. Listen. Build trust. Josh Shipp tells us that “To a child, trust is spelled T-I-M-E”.  We need to make the time to listen, get to know students, and build trust… and we must make this a priority. Spending just a few casual minutes a day or per class with a student that lacks connection can go a long way. Greet every child, every day. As students enter our schools and classrooms, acknowledge them. Say their name. Value them. Let them know “they matter”. Greeting a student is something that takes zero additional time but can have a lasting impact when done over time. Listen – truly listen. My kids remind me to “Listen with your eyes, Daddy”.  Take a moment to not listen to simply respond or solve something but to listen to… just listen. When you make the time, you listen, and show you care, you will build trust. When you have this trust, students will let you in to their stories and you can then better understand their behaviours and where they are coming from. This helps to meet them where they are at and help from there. We know we are busy but we must always make time to be interested.
  2. Start With Strengths. Theirs and yours. I have written extensively on this topic as I truly believe it can create significant transformations in school culture (watch a recent TEDx Talk from me on this).  If we find what we are looking for, what ARE we looking for? What do we see? Look for both the character strengths and the strengths of skill and then tap into these with our students. I believe that the best way to connect with a child is through his/her strengths. Rachel Macy Stafford reminds us that we have many butterflies in our school – those students who we regularly see fly and are beautiful in what they do. The challenge is to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions. It is our job to create the conditions for these fireflies to also shine and show their beauty. When we know students’ strengths, we can tap into this and even place them in leadership roles to help bring out the best.  Not only do we need to look for the strengths in our students but we also need to use the strengths of ourselves. It is no secret that when people spend time in an area of strength, they are less depressed, less anxious, and have more joy in life. This is true in school as well – for students and staff. I encourage people to bring in their strengths to their lessons and also volunteer their time once in a while at lunch or before/after school with kids in an area of strength. There are few stronger connections you will make with kids than when you and the students are engaged in activities in an area of strength.
  3. Celebrate and Build on Sucess.  Many of our students who lack connection have gone through their school life on a “losing streak”. They have not experienced success for months or years. The thing about a losing streak is that it only takes one “win” to snap it. When we seek out the good and then find, capture, and share it, we can snap the streak and sometimes even start a new positive one. I am not a huge fan of public acknowledgement. I know it works for some people but I prefer a more private moment. When you see a positive in a student, acknowledge it privately with feedback and a pat on the back, a fist bump or just a message saying thank you and you appreciate the effort. With the access to technology, we can also capture this in a photo or video and share it with the student, his/her family and, depending on the student (as well as permissions), with a larger audience.
  4. Be Interesting. Be relevant. Be engaging. George Couros asks us, “Would YOU want to be in your class?”.  Telling kids they will “need this in the ‘real world'” doesn’t cut it. It needs to relevant right now and connected to their lives. This is the same for adults – it is very difficult to learn anything when we are disconnected from the purpose. We often take ourselves too seriously when we need to be more vulnerable, share who we are, and bring joy and passion into the classrooms (and other learning environments). As I have been told by my kids, it is time to “let it go” – laugh, smile, and take risks with our kids. I know there is a needed balance but the “never let them see you smile before Christmas” simply pushes kids away. In addition to making our own classrooms more relevant and engaging, we can look to doing more school-wide events that make overall school life more engaging for kids. We can also develop programs that are purposeful and relevant for students (ex. trades, arts, etc) that also tap into the strengths of students and staff. Students often see us as “teachers” or “principals” rather than who we are. Being an educator is a huge part of who I am but it does not define me – it is part of my story. By sharing my love of dogs, I always have kids bringing their dogs and new puppies to meet me. This is a connection developed just because I shared a little of who I am through a video when I started at my school.
  5. Create a Sense of Belonging.  Include. Value. Belonging and being part of a community is a need for ALL of us. Do all our kids feel they belong? Do all kids feel they are included for who they are (regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, colour, race, religion, income level, etc)?  How do we know? An inclusive school culture is so important and it is not simply about students with disabilities – inclusion is for all of us. Many behaviours are a result of a drive to belong. Work to create safe, inclusive environments in our schools. (Do we REALLY believe in inclusion?)
  6. Lead with the heart. Teach with an ethic of care. Students may not always be listening but they are always watching. How we teach becomes what we teach – we are always modeling what we believe through our words and actions. I understand the challenges we face but we must always do our best to ensure that the decisions we make must comes from the angle of what we believe is best for kids. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk, “Every Child Needs a Champion”.  Why not you?

In the end, we need to start with these keys as individuals and also combine this with ideas and events that create more of positive culture as a school.  We cannot do this alone but we can start with one. We can start with just one of our students who seems to lack connection and make the time, learn his/her strengths, build on success, make it relevant, ensure they are included… all the while by leading with our heart.

6 Keys to Connecting With Students

Download a PDF of the summary slide.

How do YOU connect with students? What was missed? 



Take the Lids Off Kids… and Watch ’em Shine!

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

As I walk in and out of classrooms this week (the first week for our students with their 2015-16 teacher), I love seeing the “about me” activities. There is never an easier time to strike up conversations with kids than when they are sharing something about their culture, family, strengths, and interests.  The harder part is getting a word in with them and moving around to talk to more kids as so many love to share when this is the focus.

Last week we had Marika van Dommelen, from the Rick Hansen Foundation, come and speak to our kids about accessibility and inclusion. As a woman with spina bifida, she shared how, growing up, many doors were closed for her as she was told that she would never swim, never drive, never have kids, and never complete a “regular” education. Her family fought hard to keep these doors open for her as she said they focused on all that she COULD DO instead of what she could not do. Years later, she has proven everyone wrong and opened all those doors that were once closed by adults close to her as a child.

It was yet another reminder of how often we respond to a child’s struggles and, although unintended, possibly hold kids back from success in an area of strength. Chief Marilyn Gabriel of the Kwantlen First Nation recently said to our admin team,

“The role of our elders is to look for that gift in our children… and then work to develop and nurture this gift so they can become our artists, nurses, singers, and teachers.”

It is our job as teachers to not only work to help areas of student struggle but also work to bring out the gifts and strengths that lie within.

Kids flourish when they are given the chance to work in an area of strength. They rise up when asked to lead. Yet, when a child is misbehaving, our first reaction is often to close the doors… to put a lid on the student. We take away “privileges” that are possible strengths like PE, play time at recess, extra-curricular activities, and helping out in other classes. Of course, there must be (logical) consequences for misbehaviours but maybe we aren’t looking at the bigger picture or maybe we are looking through the wrong lens. What if there were consequences for behaviours and ALSO the opportunity for students to lead in areas of strength? What if a child’s identity was able to positively shift based on the opportunity to work in an area of strength?

I have seen this over and over again – when kids are placed in leadership roles in a school, they always rise up.  Students with “behaviour problems” become our tech crew, our big buddies, our gardeners, and our own “Mr. Muscles’ Moving Company”. Their identity as a student changes. They no longer see themselves as a “problem” but instead see themselves as worthy and even a positive leader.

If a child is struggling, don’t close the doors and take their strengths away. Schedule time in each day/week for students to be able to use their strengths in such a way that their behaviour has no impact on whether or not they get to do this important leadership work.

As educators and parents, it IS our job to bring out what is within… so the question is: what are we bringing out? This year, let’s work to bring out the strengths in our students. Take the lids off kids… and watch em shine!


10 Belief Statements About Student Discipline


CC Image from Charlie Baker

As I continue my journey in the first 4 months at James Hill elementary, I wanted to share my beliefs around student discipline with the staff.  Although my views continue to evolve and grow through formal and informal learning and school/home experiences, I want to be transparent about the lens I look through around student discipline.  At a recent staff meeting, I took the time to share these brief belief statements with staff:

  1. “Kids do well if they can…. if they could do well, they would do well.” (Dr. Ross Greene)  Behaviour is a skill. When a child struggles with reading, we provide interventions and differentiation to support and teach. When a student struggles with behaviour, we also need to support and teach… and then we teach some more.  Many students do not do well living in a grey world so, as with all learning, students need clear models and criteria (ex. criteria) of what effective behaviour looks like.  By focusing on skills, I am not saying that we do not use consequences;  however, when we use consequences, they must be logical and not punitive. We must be investigators of the skills that students lack to be successful and then work to teach those skills.  (See video below from Greene.) Create the conditions for student success.
  2. Start with strengths.  We must create the conditions for students to see and feel real success. We cannot wait until a student is on a long string of setbacks before we talk about what the students strengths and interests are… include these in their learning from the start!  These strengths should be embraced and never used as a carrot to be dangled or taken away.  If a child’s strength is working with younger students, put it in their schedule.  This will help build confidence and give them a sense of purpose and positive identity at school.
  3. Students need to belong.  We ALL need to belong.  If a student is consistently being sent out of class or moved from school to school, how can we expect a sense of belonging?  I realize that there are some students whose behaviours can pose a safety concern and we must look at and balance each student’s needs… but we must maintain the goal of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom.
  4. Students need to know they matter.  Take the time to connect with kids.  Find out their strengths and interests.  Find out who they are.  Take the time to show the students that you do care about their life beyond the classroom.  Differentiation is not just about teaching at a child’s level, it is also about including their strengths and interests.
  5. Focus on self-regulation and self-control skills.  If a student cannot sit still, they are telling us they need to move.  Yes, sitting still is a skill but it is also developed more easily for some.  If a student has meltdown, there are likely many opportunities to intervene (that occur prior that point) to help teach the student the skills needed to self-regulate his/her emotions.  We also need to reflect on if our classroom environments help or hinder a child lacking self-regulation skills.  Do our classrooms have a calming sense (as Shanker asks… have we removed some of the “visual clutter” in our classrooms?)?  Do we provide opportunities for students to move as needed?
  6. We cannot motivate students.  We can only create the conditions for students to motivate themselves. (adapted from Ed Deci and Richard Ryan)  The use of carrots and sticks will help students to become good at… getting carrots and avoiding sticks.  Students should learn to do the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  Carrots and sticks are effective in the short term but ineffective in the long term.  Teaching the needed skills and creating the conditions for students to motivate themselves takes a lot of time but it is worth it in the end.
  7. Students make mistakes… and they need to make things right.  Every student will make a poor choice, an error in judgment, or react inappropriately at some point. When this occurs, it is important that we look to restitution to help make things right (ex. doing something meaningful for the person that was hurt – see the work of Diane Gossen). Some view this as “letting him/her off the hook to do something positive” when what it is really doing is helping a child FEEL what it is like to do something positive and then creating a moment to reflect on the difference between what it FELT to do something negative.
  8. We need to move from MY students to OUR students.  We need to tap into the many relationships and resources in our school.  If there is an education assistant or former teacher that has a positive relationship and can help, embrace this. If the teacher across the hall can offer a quiet area when needed (for self-regulation), explore this idea.
  9. “How we teach becomes what we teach.” (Larry Cuban)  If we want to see it… model it.  If we want children that our caring, kind, empathetic, inclusive, etc, we need to model this at all times.  We are not perfect and we make mistakes but it is how we respond to these mistakes that teaches our students how to respond to theirs.  Whenever we have that opportunity to discipline and “teach the child a lesson”, we need to be reflective on what that lesson is.  Even at the most challenging times, we must do our best to remain respectful as our actions teach so much.  Being respectful, kind and caring does not mean we need to be permissive.  A teacher once told me that when we are working with students with challenging behaviours, we need to be kind and firm.
  10. “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” (unknown)  We must seek to understand.  We often hear that we should “send kids home” when they misbehave.  There are many problems with this but the main one is that for many (not all) students who struggle,  life outside of school is not filled with love and care. Sending a child home to a stressful, uncaring situation can make matters worse.  In addition, if the goal is to teach a child to behave at school and in life, when we send him/her home we are crossing our fingers and hopeing for change… which rarely (never) happens when he/she returns to school.  As stated, kids need to feel they belong and they are cared for… sending a child home can escalate behaviours  in the long term.

Kids need us.  For students who struggle with behaviour challenges, it is never a simple solution.  Teaching 30 students (with a variety of academic, social and emotional needs) for an entire day can be completely exhausting.  When discussing solutions, though, we need to ask the question: who is this about – the teachers/admin? or the student?   It likely falls somewhere in the middle but it is important to keep in mind the needs of everyone.  In the end, it is our job as admin, teachers, and staff to create the conditions for student success.  Meet students where they are and teach the needed skills from there.

I share these statements here not to state that my views are correct but to share with others for understanding as well as provide an opportunity for feedback to help me grow.  Please add your thoughts (support AND challenge) in the comments.  Are there key areas that I have missed or need to be changed?



Creating the Conditions: Student Discipline

“The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ ” — Edward Deci

In the past number of years we have gone through a very positive and significant transition at our school.  Through the work of the staff (current and previous), we have moved from a punish and reward mentality to one that is focused on creating the conditions for students to learn the skills to be successful. We have gone from long line ups of students at the office at the end of lunch to maybe one or two students ‘arriving’ at the office during an entire day.  Most of the issues we now deal with are minor and dealt with in the moment in a learning manner, away from “the office”.

So how has the staff of our school worked to create these conditions?

A few teachers and special education assistants often talk about “backing up to where they are” when working with kids.  When we discuss student discipline or “behaviour plans” we do not discuss what needs to be done TO the child but rather what can be done FOR the child.  Appropriate behaviour is full of self-regulation and social skills that needs to be taught; punishment and rewards do not teach.  There is no standardized boxed program (or one in a big white binder) that we can buy that will solve our discipline issues.  Students are individuals and the conditions need to be created that not only help school culture but also help the student.  At our school,  staff work hard to create the conditions so we can back up to where the student is and help him/her develop the self-confidence and social skills needed to be more successful in a school setting.

For about the past 4 years, we have had a group of boys that are the rough and tough jock type.  They have turned every square inch of our school and field into some sort of hockey rink at some point. I love these guys… I coached them at recess times when mini-hockey sticks were almost regular sticks to them; however, their drive  and ultra competitive nature often gets the best of them.  Last year, their aggressive play came to a head as we seemed to be dealing with some sort of minor altercation almost every day.  We banned hockey for a few days and then the game of choice became “touch” football (their definition of touch turned out to be different than mine).  It seemed like any activity they played turned into a physical battle. I met with a Special Education Assistant (who is also a supervisor at recess/lunch) as well as a few teachers (and phoned a parent who has a similar perspective on student discipline) and we asked the question, “what conditions can we create for these students to be successful?”.  The answer came to us: they needed a coach.  They needed someone nearby that could bring them into a huddle every now and then to have some reflective discussions so they could come up with their own rules to create more fair play in the games.  Also, this coach would help some students to understand when they needed a break to regulate their emotions.  We decided we would decrease the area in which they could play – not as a punishment but but to create the conditions for them to have an adult closer if/when needed.  This small group of boys decided they wanted to play soccer and have the supervisor nearby to help them with any disputes.  They came up with some rules together and then began the games.  What happened next was one that made me sit back and smile.  What started out as a game of 8-10 boys turned into a game of 12…. then a game of 16.  A week later there were over 30 students – of all genders, skill levels, needs, and ages – playing soccer in this small area.  The game had the conditions – a level of intensity coupled with a sense of fairness – that made these students all want to play.

The start of something special – a few more students join the reflective huddle with the recess “coach”.

Of course we still have students that struggle with behaviours and some learn much faster than others; however, when we change the lens of discipline from one of punishment and rewards to a lens of skill development and self-regulation, we see students begin to develop and actually shine in an area of their life in which they once struggled.  There is not one main thing that can be pinpointed as something that changed the culture of discipline at our school.  Through the years before and during my time at the school, there has been dialogue on restitution, strength-based teaching, growth mindset, mediation, First Nation culture, awards ceremonies, leadership/mentorship, relationships, etc… all with a focus on kids.  All of these conversations have pushed us forward and provided us with more tools in our toolbox so we can work together to create the conditions for more student success.  We still have a lot to learn but I believe we are definitely on the right track.

All students are good kids – some come to school with more skills than others in certain areas.  When we have a student struggling with reading, we find ways to create a support network to teach the skills; this support network also must be developed when children struggle with behaviours.

Create the conditions for students to be successful: back up to where they are, support them through coaching, be patient… and watch them flourish.




It ALL Starts With Relationships

CC Image from Beatnic

I am thrilled to have a former student, Kenny Kou, write a guest post on my blog.  Kenny and I have been conversing (and challenging each other’s ideas) for the past few years on the topic of education reform through email while he was enrolled as an math/engineering student at the University of Waterloo.  He has now started a new journey as a grade 5-7 teacher in Nigeria.  He sent me an email about his experience during his first 6 weeks; his narrative demonstrates the importance of working WITH students by building relationships through understanding.

By Kenny Kou

On the first day of one of my creative writing classes, some of my students were acting up, so I asked them to stay behind afterwards. Instead of cussing them out (as was my initial plan), I decided to listen instead. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and what they enjoyed about school. One of the students said he wanted to be an engineer. After a few leading questions, he made the connection that to be a successful engineer, he would have to be able to write well. He’d have to be able to articulate his points, and outline his ideas in proposals. Since that class, he’s been very co-operative and friendly.

I’m also teaching Language Arts to a class of five Grade 7 students. All of them are quite energetic, but one of them takes the cake. He is always jumping around, spouting out random comments during the lesson and interrupting both his classmates and me while ignoring instructions. Even when it comes to his writing assignments, you can see the energy flying all over the page as he’ll frequently go from one idea to the next without completing the first thought. One day, I pulled him aside at lunchtime and spoke with him about the upcoming story-writing project. We talked about what he was going to write, and then he gave me a few of his ideas. They were all fantastic ideas, and he could have made a great story out of any of them. But then we talked about how it was important to create structure for his ideas. That he would be able to write a great story once he put his ideas into the framework and combine the structure with his creativity. After that chat, he started to pay much more attention to instructions, as he could finally see the value in them. Although he still gives me trouble occasionally, his behaviour has vastly improved. Some of the other teachers in the school have complained about him being difficult to teach, but he has been a welcome presence in mine.

In my Grade 5 Language Arts class, two of the students have exceptional difficulty reading at grade-level; when they failed to follow along with their classmates, they resorted to misbehaving, which set off a chain reaction of the other boys joining in and goofing off with them. Since the second week, I have had two hours per week of class time with just those two boys to work on their basic language skills. During those sessions, we joke around with one another, talk sports and keep the atmosphere really relaxed; but, we also get through the lessons. We’ll intersperse social and academic, while occasionally blending the two together to make the lesson individualized and relevant to their own interests. Over the past few weeks, they have demonstrated great growth in their comprehension abilities. As a bonus, their behaviour in the class has also substantially improved. Not only are they not acting up in class, they’re preventing their classmates from stepping out of line by calling them out whenever anyone misbehaves.

Only six weeks down, but I’ve learned first-hand so much about the importance of working WITH the students. As opposed to resorting to discipline as a first strike, I’ve been working to understand WHY the students behave the way that they’re behaving. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to make the lesson meaningful to the students. In order to do that, I have to learn about what is important to them and figure out how to incorporate those values into creating a lesson that they will buy into. Only then will I be able to provide them with the education that they deserve. It’s been a great learning experience so far and it truly has been learning with the students.

Here are more thoughts from Kenny from previous emails…

  • The students are able to see me as their ally instead of their boss. It’s allowed them me to connect with them, and improve the overall classroom environment and their attitudes toward learning.
  • My next battles: education is not a race and convincing students that learning is more important than grades. Despite my efforts thus far, “Is that an A” is still a very common question and “I’m done” is a very common phrase in my class.

I look forward to hearing more reflections from Kenny during his journey as a new teacher. Thanks for taking the time to share, Mr. Kou!

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