By Philip Brown
A recent article (July 20) in the Washington Post by parenting consultant Meghan Leahy entitled Five things you can do that will make you a better parent right now captured my attention because each of her five points are also sound recommendations for educators. I’ve reworked her five points – see if you agree that school culture and teachers lives would be much saner if we kept these in mind and took them to heart:
1. Cultivate a value system in your classroom and school. Of course core ethical and performance values are core aspects of the 11 Principles of Charcter Education, and Character.org has emphasized the importance of including stakeholders in the process of creating core values. Beyond establishing core values as the bedrock for your school culture, the important word here is ‘cultivate.’ As Leahy points out, “Americans don’t have a common parenting culture that has been passed down to us. Our wonderful mix of religions, ethnicities, worldviews and customs means that we are able to create our own parenting and family mores.” This means as well, that, if we are lucky, children bring those diverse values into the school house, and we must send a very clear message in our cultivation that just as families need to have their values to function effectively, so must our classrooms and school. And if there are values conflicts, a discussion with parents early in the school year is important to avoid misunderstandings and support both diversity and the need to adapt to American school culture.
2. Prioritize self-care. Do you know colleagues who are facing incredibly hard situations in their personal lives and/or in their classrooms? Leahy wisely points out that one of the common threads for parents who are exemplars for thriving despite difficult odds is self-care. And the same is true for us all. We need to start by realizing that self-care is not being selfish. We can’t give our best to others if our own psychological and physical resources are so depleted. Educators often are called upon to work to their limits, but being a martyr is not a formula for survival or good modeling for a fulfilling life.
Prioritize self-care by talking about what you need to those who care about you. Ask for their support and understanding that you need a break, time at the gym, coffee with a friend, a date night with your partner. Prosocial school faculties find creative, even inspiring ways, to support each other, whether it’s a rainy day fund, regular potlucks, or play time with your students.
3. Create strong but kind boundaries and routines. Establishing classroom and school rules can be done autocratically. It takes little time at the front end: you expect obedience and spend time punishing kids or excluding them from school. Or you can use a democratically informed process to build consensus and reap the benefits. I spent more than two years working with three school districts in New Jersey to redo their codes of conduct using an inclusive approach involving all stakeholders. When we started, it was to take only a year, but we based the rules on reestablished core ethical values, looked at the programs, policies and procedures that were used to support prosocial approaches to student discipline as an opportunity for growth rather than punishment, and discovered how much change was necessary to have fair, just rules that all agreed to abide by. (See a full explanation of this approach in Chapter 2 of Student Discipline: A Prosocial Perspective, 2016.)
Effective teachers and administrators also know that there needs to be room for flexibility within the rule structure. Restorative practices, for example, offers a structure that allows for dialogue and support while insisting on accountability. It is better for children to struggle against a boundary or routine based on socially supported values that they have helped create than to struggle against an authority figure. “Because I said so” is a response rooted in control, while “because it’s the way we do things in our school” reminds students of the accepted and continually reinforced values everyone must work on upholding to live as a successful, safe and happy community where the central intrinsic reward is linked to inclusion in the community of learners, not in extrinsic rewards.
4. Don’t take your students’ behavior personally. While your role in school is a professional one, great educators care deeply about their students as people. This is a beautiful and complicating aspect of school life that can make all sorts of behavior personal. Whether parent or teacher, part of our job and challenge as adults is to both care and love the children in our charge, but not get hooked by behavior that is part of their maturation process. When we react emotionally to our student’s behavior we need to feel it, acknowledge it to ourselves and to the student in an appropriate way (a version of the infamous ‘I message’ – “I felt disappointed when you…”), talk to others about it if necessary, but keep our cool, as long as our own safety is not at risk.
5. Take the time to connect, and know how to laugh, play and not take yourself (or your students) too seriously. With all the pressures educators function under these days, time seems to never be on our side. Without finding ways to connect with our students as people, and structuring ways for them to connect and build in opportunities for social bonding, trust, that glue of prosocial school climates, is hard to build. As far as I know this is our only life, and woe be it to classrooms and schools that feel like prisons or academic performance farms. If this is the dominant climate, it is no wonder some of our brightest kids seek to escape hoping to find a little fun or a way to fight back.
One aspect of a growth mindset is not being devastated by setbacks and failures. If our message to ourselves and our kids is that we are judged by and our identities are determined by how we ‘score’ on objective or performance tests, then we are asking for social-emotional trouble. We need to take our roles as teacher, principal, student seriously, but that’s not all of whom we are. Treating our work seriously, but not so much ourselves, allows us to survive hard times more gracefully, enjoy good times more fully, be more open to alternative solutions to tough problems, and feel better about ourselves and others. That sounds like the kind of community of caring we’d all like to be a part of making and sharing.
Philip M. Brown, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant for the National School Climate Center and a Fellow, Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers University. He serves as a member of Character.org’s Educational Advisory Committee. Following 25 years managing student support services for state government agencies, he established the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional and Character Development, which administers the NJ State Schools of Character program. He has authored numerous government publications and articles, and edited the two volume, Handbook of Prosocial Education (2012) and School Discipline: A Prosocial Perspective (2016).
Looking for more support to become a better educator? Register now to attend the 2016 National Forum for Character Education October 14-15. Attend Dr. Philip Brown and Theresa Ricci's breakout session "Student Discipline: A prosocial perspective!"