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Resilience and a Revolution in School Discipline

education_blocksAs an ex-teacher, I’m still passionate about education – about what needs to happen in our schools to make them safe, vibrant and successful learning spaces for both students and teachers.

I’ve written about this before in other blog posts: The More Things Change (a personal reflection on my own teaching experience) and A Passionate Plea (in which I reflect on the similarity between many school and prison, but also highlight examples of inspirational schools doing things differently).

One aspect of many schools that I believe needs to change is their disciplinary policies and strategies. Much of the action that’s taken in response to poor behaviour from students is less than effective – frequently not effective at all!

It’s a fact that poor or ‘unacceptable’ behaviour – from swearing and fighting through to not completing homework or being out of uniform – rarely has anything to do with what’s happening at school but everything to do with what is happening in that student’s life outside school. Good teachers know this. The best teachers act on it.

So it was with delight I read about yet another example of a school that’s ‘getting it right’. :)

It’s Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington State, USA, where the Principal has led a ‘revolution’ in school discipline, focusing on resilience.

Jim Sporleder, principal of Lincoln High School, had always taken a compassionate approach with students, but realised this wasn’t enough.

As says in a blog post where he outlines this new approach:

Before I learned about how toxic stress impaired a student to problem-solve or to take in new knowledge, I disciplined students in what I thought was a respectful approach. I took time to listen, I shared with the student why his or her behavior was inappropriate, and then I gave what I thought was a consequence that matched the infraction … I used to have a saying: “Discipline teaches; punitive discipline hurts”. I’ve had a history of being a relationship guy, and I have always interacted with students fairly and built positive relationships.

Two years ago I was introduced to the ACE Study and how toxic stress blocks the brain’s ability to process information. The student is in a fight or flight mode. This is when I took a hard look at my discipline philosophy and accountability and realized that I had been working with students who had toxic stress in a way that just didn’t work. Yes, I had to look in the mirror and say, “Jim, you are wrong, and you need to change”.

And how did he change and change the school?

I told them I was committed to making this a safe place, a place of learning and a place where they felt cared for.

At Lincoln it started by building relationships. We made changes on how we communicate on a personal level with students. We prove we are trustworthy through transparency. We set a goal to have a safe and welcoming learning environment.

Still sceptical? The results of this new approach at Lincoln High School have proved themselves over and over again, including an 85% reduction in suspensions and:

As a result the culture of our school has dramatically improved. I see the success in students every day in our classroom and in our community. When young people are able to process their emotions there’s more time for learning. We have a healthier environment where students aren’t afraid to take risks.

Watch the video below and be inspired! Jim’s blog post is also well worth reading!

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The More Things Change …

For various reasons this  last week, I have found myself in a deeply reflective space.

I’ve walked again in an earlier me, revisiting events and experiences from 10-25 years ago.

I’ve unearthed diaries, letters and other mementos and spent time reading them. It is fascinating to have such a clear record of what I was thinking and feeling so long ago!

It’s good to reflect on how I believe I’ve grown, mellowed and matured over the years since then.  But it’s also true that some things just don’t change.

As an example, I thought I’d share a snippet of something I wrote almost 25 years ago – complete with the doodled sketches that graced (dis-graced?) those pages. :)

[Read more…]

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A Passionate Plea

Imagine ….

KeysYou enter an organisation and sign in. You’re given keys to hang around your neck or clip to your belt. There’s A Block, B Block, perhaps even H Block. You unlock each door as you enter and lock it again as you leave. Any infractions of the rules by the inmates mean they ‘go on report’.

It’s a prison or a juvenile justice centre, right?

Wrong!

It’s a large, modern high school.

And in some of the classrooms in these modern schools, teaching and learning are still following models that were in place over thirty years ago.

Sure, there are whiteboards instead of blackboards – but students still copy reams of notes from the board. The textbooks may now be in full glossy colour with new information – but many of them are being used in the same ways they were used all those years ago. All the students are doing the same thing at the same time from the same textbook.

Teacher-centred learning, policing of uniforms and ‘out of bounds’ areas, a focus on the rules and processes for detentions, suspensions and expulsions.

In these classrooms and schools, how are students engaged, connected and encouraged to experience a love of learning? How do teachers retain the ‘fire in the belly’ – the passion for their craft – and avoid falling victim to the ‘don’t smile till Easter’ brigade?

Where is the 21st Century learning? Where are multi-age classrooms, multi-ability learning, problem-solving, students being involved in decision-making about their own learning, self-reflection and self-assessment? Where are the creative uses of the wonderful new technology that’s available?

TeacherIt’s certainly out there! In many schools there are individual teachers who are inspiring their students. Who are reflecting, dreaming, collaborating, implementing fresh and exciting inititiatives. And there are students who are fully engaged and encouraged to become the best they can be.

And there are whole schools around the world doing things differently to make a very real difference for both students and teachers.

For example,  there’s Thembaletu Primary School in George, about 450 km from Cape Town in Africa, which has 25 teachers, 983 students –  and only 20 computers!  Here the Principal is leading the way in the use of technology, changing classroom practice and changing the face of learning for both teachers and students.

There are schools like Sherbrooke Community School, in Melbourne, Australia, where curriculum is negotiated with the students, there’s a whole-school meeting every morning that’s chaired and minuted by students, and student learning becomes increasingly self-directed as they go through the school.

Or  Heathside School in the UK, where the “Imagine Heathside” project involved all those in the school community in co-creating a better future.

So here’s my plea to all those teachers who are energizing our schools …

Wherever you are, shout out. Please tell your stories, and encourage your students to tell theirs. The world needs to hear your voices!

And please don’t let the pressures or constraints of ‘the system’ get you down or burn you out. Know that the work you are doing is appreciated and is making a difference.

Your experience, your skills and your wisdom are sorely needed today – perhaps more than ever.

We need you.

Our children and our young people need you.

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Stink Bombs

A wonderful evening spent with old friends recently, in which we talked about many things ‘from cabbages to kings’. One of my friends, John, is a primary teacher and shared this wonderful story.

He was sitting in the staff room with colleagues one day, when suddenly two Grade 6 girls ran, giggling, past the open window and flung two ‘stink bombs’ into the room.

Stink BombAs the stink permeated the staff room, teachers gasped and reacted with disgust and horror. John was the first to leap to his feet and race to the playground, where he caught up with the two miscreants.

The other teachers were obviously waiting to hear John give the girls a good ticking off, and no doubt smiled and nodded with approval as he began sternly, “Really girls! I am VERY disappointed in both of you! …”

But I imagine the expression on many faces changed as he continued, “I noticed both those stink bombs were bought from a shop!  That means you didn’t learn anything about what makes a stink bomb work, did you? In MY day, we made our own – we had to learn what to use and all about the sulphur that made them stink …. ”

Even as I laughed at this story, I also recognised some of those things that make John and others like him exceptional teachers. An appreciation of the ridiculous, a wonderful sense of humour and a passion for encouraging learning even when – and perhaps particularly when – children are ‘pushing the envelope’ or misbehaving.

So I wanted to share the story, with John’s permission, as a salute to him and all the other teachers who make learning – and life – so much fun for kids!