Thursday, October 29, 2009

Encouraging Positive Interactions

Children and adolescents can be mean. We all know it. We've all seen it. They can also be wonderfully caring. We've seen that as well. Most will come to your classroom as a mixture of both. Some will be a little more mean and others a little more caring, but they will look to you to set the example. What will you tolerate? What will you not tolerate? What do you encourage? If your students see and hear you making snide comments or ignoring the needs of others, they will begin to reflect that negative attitude. If your students see and hear you make positive comments and encourage others, they will begin to reflect the kindness they see in you. This is an unconscious action on their part to help them "fit in" to the culture of the classroom. As the leader, you set the foundations for your classroom culture. What are some ways you can set positive foundations?

The first is to establish your classroom climate as one with "No Hunting." This is a phrase I picked up in one of my earlier trainings and it means that no put-down, teasing, or hurtful behavior towards others is tolerated. You might even put up a large No Hunting sign in your classroom so that it garners attention. Explain to your students exactly what you mean by this phrase. As a class, talk about examples of hunting and then discuss more appropriate actions and behaviors that you want to see.

    Second, discuss and encourage positive life-skills in your classroom. You might think about having a "Life-Skill of the Week" where you highlight one particular skill. Hand out "Caught You!" notes to students you see exhibiting the life-skill. You might create a series of notes or bookmarks using Microsoft Publisher or Word that already show the life-skills. That way you'll have everything ready to hand out when you need it. You might have "Caught You Cooperating", "Caught You Participating", "Caught You Working as a Team", "Caught You Being Friendly", "Caught You Being Helpful," or any one of the many positive life-skills. Copy them on colored paper and put them in a folder that is easily accessible. Now all you have to do is pull one out, draw a smiley face (or not) and sign it. For a list of life-skills, go to .

    Third, treat your students with respect. By doing this you are modeling what respect looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Although it won't happen over-night, when students see you consistently showing respect, they will begin exhibiting that same behavior. The key word here is consistently. If you are respectful one day and shouting the next, the behavior of your students will not change. You will have those who challenge you to the brink of insanity and those who chink away at your patience, but you must continue to behave in a positive way towards them. It is not easy, so don't give up after the first week or two thinking that it will never work. Instead, keep in your mind how you want to be treated by your students. Then, turn around and give them that same favor.

     You can also implement tools to help you encourage positive behavior. Sometimes it takes an extra push to get your students focusing on the positive rather than the negative. One idea is to have a Kindness Box. You can call it anything you like -- obviously middle and high school students may not respond to the "Warm Fuzzy Box" or the "Happy Box," so give it a name that your class will enjoy. Perhaps let your students name it. Have a supply of paper strips (I like to use colored paper for this) near the box. Now, in order to get the box started, ask each student to take several strips and write one positive comment or characteristic about each person at their table or in their row. Afterwards, each day encourage students to put a positive comment in the box when they see someone else being helpful, nice, cooperative, friendly, etc. to other students in the classroom and in the school. Depending on how much time you have, and how much your class needs the positive influence, take some time either once a day or once a week to read some of the strips in the box. You don't need to read them all. It is enough to read a few at a time.

    Another idea is the R.I.P. box. Have students write down those behaviors, actions, and thoughts that are not positive or that may be hurtful. Explain to your class that you want to bury this negative energy so that everyone can focus on what is good in the class. Once these things are buried, we need to let them go and focus on those behaviors that are positive. Simply placing these in the box is not enough. You need to enter into a discussion with your class about why you are putting those negative issues in the box and what you hope to accomplish.

     If you are already in a classroom that seems steeped in negativity, don't give up. It will take time, but you can turn it around. Be determined and put in place these strategies to help get everyone back on track. Again, I must stress that it is not easy, especially if you have been existing this way for several months. Persistence and sheer determination are the best ways for turning the tide of negative energy into positive energy. If you are in a classroom where your students treat each other (and you) with respect, where they are helpful and kind to one another, tell your class how proud you are of them. They need to know. No matter which scenario you face, whether it is either extreme or something in-between, remember that you and you alone set the tone for your classroom climate. Keep that in mind and put some thought into the foundation that you are building with your students.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Collaborating with Colleagues: Being a Team Player

"Be a team player." It's one of those sports analogies used frequently in the business world -- and in education. District and school administrators also want team players. The days of closing the classroom door and creating a self-contained world are over. The autonomous classroom simply doesn't exist -- and for good reason. Our students need more than just one person to guide their education. They need the added power of several brains working together for their good. Yet collaboration does not always come easily.

Teachers are, for the most part, determined course setters. We also have strong opinions about what works and what doesn't work. That determination and self-direction are beneficial for our students; those characteristics facilitate learning and help us make it through each day. Put a group of determined, opinionated individuals in the same school, however, and you often have a recipe for headaches. How, then, can such strong personalities work together as a team?

The first requirement is a willingness to work with others and the ability to recognize that you can't do it all on your own. No one can meet all the needs of all the students who walk through our doors without help. It just isn't possible. The best way to find that help is by asking questions.

If you have a mentor, look to your mentor for guidance. Write down questions as they occur to you. (Don't think you'll remember them later, because you won't.) When you get an opportunity, ask the questions. If you don't have a mentor, look for a veteran teacher in the building -- one you know has a positive outlook on teaching. Ask if that person would mind helping you out. Most will be glad to offer their knowledge and expertise. Administrators are another good source of information. Don't be afraid to ask them questions. You are showing your willingness to learn and your willingness to go to others for help.

The second step is to seek out the support faculty and staff. Those are the people in the school who know your "special" students best. They can help you decipher IEPs and modify assignments for those students who need it. You also can learn how to modify your lessons to best meet the needs of different students in your classroom. Schedule some time to sit down with the department chair and/or the teacher who works with your students and pick their brains. Ask for advice -- and listen to it. That kind of collaboration benefits your students greatly.

The third requirement is to be humble. Listen to the wisdom gained by veteran teachers. Although you might think that some of their ways are outdated, don't discount their skill and knowledge. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. It isn't always easy to be humble when you've waited so long to get into your own classroom. You'll save yourself a lot of extra grief by asking and listening, however.

The fourth step is to plan with other members of your grade level team. What is being taught in Math, Science, Social Studies, and so on? Can you find a way to connect your topics and objectives to those being taught in other classes? The more you work with other subject area teachers, the more you'll be able to help your students see that the world does not exist as separate parts. Everything is interconnected. If you are in a self-contained classroom, share ideas and brainstorm lessons together. You might have a great idea for presenting a lesson, but another teacher might be able to add to that idea and make it better.

Don't forget about the other professionals in your building. The librarian is an excellent resource and should be consulted frequently. Let him or her know what you are teaching and ask for ideas or resources. The art, music, and phys-ed teachers also might be able to enhance your lessons with ideas and their own special strengths. Each person in your building has a variety of strengths and talents. Get to know each one so you're better able to call on those different resources within the building.

Collaboration takes hard work and effort. It's not easy, but it's worth it. Ultimately, your students are the ones who benefit, but you don't lose out either. In the process of collaborating with different colleagues within your school, you are building relationships that will last, and making a place for yourself within the school community. Being a team player is a win-win situation for everyone.

Column by Emma McDonald reprinted with permission from Education-World –