I have a vision: A classroom of 25 nine-year-olds is abuzz with students discussing the story they are reading. One student asks, “Why did Charlotte decide to use all her energy to help Wilbur?” Two students excitedly start to answer at the same time. They pause and one student says, “You can go first.” The other student says “Thank you” and shares why he thinks Charlotte helps Wilbur. The students do all this on their own because the teacher is on the other side of the room working with a different group.
In achieving this vision of a respectful and kind classroom, I believe I need to start with myself.
First step in my plan: Shift my mindset. For a long time I viewed behavior management as a hurdle we [teachers] need to jump so that a class can get down to the real learning. I thought about discipline as controlling my class in order to create a safe environment for all students to learn.
While I still want a safe environment in which all students can learn, I see now that my previous mindset led me to miss some critical learning opportunities. Previously, I approached challenging situations with students thinking, “How can we fix this so we can get back to learning?” Now, I approach thinking, “How can I support this student in developing skills to successfully navigate this challenge and ones like it in the future?”
My vision has always been for my students to be empowered, self-motivated and caring individuals, but now I am embedding that belief not only in academics but in every moment I interact with children.
Second step in my plan: Breathe. When a child is struggling with healthy communication (i.e. “Ewww, I don’t want to sit next to her.”), my gut reaction is to bristle and feel angry. I hate it when students say unkind things to each other. My own bad habit is to think, “I am a failure as a teacher. I cannot create a culture of respect and kindness in my classroom.” This reaction is obviously not going to help anyone, so I am going to interrupt this cycle by first taking a breath. Then, I return to my new mindset: this student is using words she learned somewhere along the way and needs support in finding respectful language to express herself. Rather than angrily telling her, “I’m disappointed – that is such a disrespectful thing to say!”, I can calmly tell her, “When we treat each other with respect, we all win because we can feel comfortable and safe in school. I’ve seen you be an awesome friend many times, and I know you can use respectful language. Some other options are keeping an open mind and doing your best to be partners with people even if they aren’t your best friend, or talking to me privately to let me know that you would really prefer a different seat.” She might say, “Ok, I’ll give it a try.” Or she might blurt out, “But she’s always taking my stuff!” But we will keep working at it and maybe the next time, or maybe the 20th time, she will respectfully work with students that she previously had conflicts with.
We call it many different names – social and emotional learning, discipline, behavior management – but it all boils down to this: children observe adults and mirror their behavior. Adults guide children in how to respond to stress, challenge, success, fear, anger and so on. The question for adults is – will we be healthy models of behavior, or will we teach children the bad habits we have picked up ourselves?
I will undoubtedly revert to my old mindset at times and make mistakes, but I feel equipped like never before to approach challenges as learning opportunities. I’ll keep writing about lessons I learn from my successes and mistakes in this adventure throughout the year so stay tuned in!
Note: My new mindset comes from reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in previous years of teaching, but also from recent readings and podcasts. I highly recommend Conscious Discipline by Becky Bailey, the Responsibility-Centered Discipline training with Larry Thompson, and Headspace, a podcast on mindfulness and meditation.