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New Century, New Kid, Same Old School

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September 14, 2017

New Century, New Kid, Same Old School

The nature of authority, in case you hadn’t noticed, has changed. Yet school, especially how adults interact with students, is still largely a rendition of the way teachers themselves were taught and it is, unfortunately, perfect for another time. Or better still, perfect for the fantasy of another time.

For good or ill our current students do not offer teachers and school officials respect simply because of their positions. Of course it is also true that few teachers offer administrators respect simply because they are administrators, nor can even a president or prime minister expect respect simply because of his or her position. In our schools, in our classrooms, in our society leadership, as Dennis Sparks has written, ‘is no longer a position, it is an action. One can lead from anywhere.’

Authority and respect, which used to be commanded, now must be earned. While teachers must maintain authority in their classrooms to be effective, the means by how that authority is established has become more complex and negotiable. Hence, new teacher practices must be developed where high expectations, such as in building student responsibility for self-management, as well as respect and trust, are facilitated rather than demanded.

Here is a perfect example of how to shift that dynamic.

Many teachers use the beginning of the school year as an opportunity to set rules and expectations for the year. Once upon a time this could be accomplished by merely posting the rules and strictly enforcing them. Of course this still works, albeit less effectively, but more to the point, it is also much less useful to our children. For instance, the modern economic structure is built more and more on employees being independent, resourceful and able to apply critical success skills such as self-regulation and persistence to see a vision through to fruition. In this context learning to be compliant is much less important than learning to be cooperative out of self-interest: compliance for a purpose.

Instead of just posting rules, consider asking students to collaborate on developing a chart of successful learning behaviours. The fear many teachers have when embarking on such an enterprise is that if they allow students to create such a list, it will merely devolve into silliness:

Rule 1: no homework, ever!
Rule 2: class attendance optional!

The key to avoiding disappearing down this rabbit hole is to get students to own some truth about their own successful learning experiences before opening the gate for brainstorming. Get them to think deeply about times when they genuinely learned, perhaps through a writing prompt or discussion before beginning the process by which they create behaviors for their classroom. Ask students to visit a time when they really, really felt successful as learners. Such experiences can be school or even non-school related. Learning, after all, can happen anywhere. Although for the most part you will get school related learning victories, you may also be amazed at what proficiencies some of our most reluctant learners are achieving outside of the walls of school.

You will hear stories of coaches and parents and bosses at work engaging our students in all kinds of amazing ways to help them connect their competencies to their accomplishments. Many students will discuss other classes, and talk about phenomenal experiences mastering complex subjects that will make your mouth drop open. But, after all the anecdotes have been shared, drill down to what qualities were extant during these successes.

Doubtless you will have to wean them of such phrases as, ‘I had a good teacher’, or ‘it just kind of happened’ to get them to be a bit more specific. Ask instead what qualities the teacher was exhibiting, and what qualities they were bringing to the learning experience. What you begin to evolve are classroom conditions and specific behaviors that identify positive learning and teaching instances through which students were able to be successful such as: teachers excited about their subjects; students paying attention; staying on task; everybody using positive language; being encouraging. Work at it a bit more and you can refine it into a series of behaviours that can be created into actionable items that both the teacher and student can employ to achieve learning success such as:

• use encouragements instead of criticisms;
• listen more than you speak;
• talk myself through difficulties by reminding myself of when I have succeeded before.

Once you have asked students to base their suggestions for a great classroom on previous actual successful learning experiences, the silly get replaced by a startlingly accurate list of what students must do, and want to do (and how teachers can help them) to foster a great classroom work ethic and achieve academic success (by the way ,you would also be teaching cause and effect).

Of course such a chart, like a bicycle helmet, is only effective if it is used. Savvy educators employ these charts not only as teacher driven assessments (to be clear this in no way diminishes the need to hold students accountable) but as key reference points to facilitate guided student self-reflection for growth and progress toward their own long-term, proactive plans for successful behavioural and academic outcomes. It also gives teachers excellent ‘data’ for developing effective teaching behaviours that these students have already identified as effective.

Educators that do this do more than teach a subject. They do more than teach students how to develop habits of success and critical thinking skills. They do more than teach children how to be life-long learners. What they teach, is the future.

Steve Heisler

Steve Heisler is the author of The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills. Steve is a speaker and professional development consultant with a focus on teaching and instructional development, building student success skills and parenting. He is an experienced teacher and school administrator having worked K-12 in schools in New York City and New Jersey. His blog and contact information are available at

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