Running a classroom solely on human connection is hard

In my classroom, you won’t find behavior charts, incentives, or prizes. You won’t find scoreboard, points, tally marks, or anything of the like. I tossed them out for good this summer, and a little bit of last year. But please don’t assume my classroom is perfect, the truth is that it is far from.

In the fall of 2017, I had the pleasure of being trained under Positive Discipline (which I refer to as proactive discipline) and I learned a lot about what behavior really is and how we as educators can run our classrooms from a different basis to create long-lasting results that will far exceed our classrooms. I learned three fundamental ideologies that have shifted how I run my classroom.

  1. All human beings want belonging and significance
  2. Behavior is on purpose, the goal of behavior is belonging and significance, misbehavior is a form of “mis”-taken belief about how to find that belonging and significance.
  3. The “problem” [or misbehavior] is really a “solution” to another problem that is unstated or out of awareness. The misbehaving child is a discouraged child.

A great shift in pedagogy, albeit, last year I did a poor job of implementing this and fell back on using rewards (which proved to me once again, that those don’t work.) This summer I was determined to make this school year better. I refreshed myself with the work of Positive Discipline and Responsive Classroom and have implemented several proactive measures in my classroom in all capacities to ensure my classroom runs well.

But it is exhausting. 

A few children lately have shown some discouraging behavior, and in the moment it can be incredibly difficult to understand their behavior and try to read it as a coded message (mistaken goal) vs taking it personally.

Just this week two students were sitting next to each other on the carpet again, and from previous interactions this week, it wasn’t working out. They were goofing off with each other on multiple occasions. Separately, I had been having issues with both students, and I hit my boiling point. As soon as one the students sat down next to the other student, I immediately told one of the students “move” and they immediately said “why?” in that tone that hit a nerve. I felt myself become enraged. Of course, I knew lambasting them on the carpet would not look good so I would do it in private. 

Once the students were off the carpet I took the offending student to the side and gave them the riot act about never questioning why I would have them do something. At the moment I felt anger boiling out, I was incredibly frustrated that my power as a teacher had been questioned. Needless to say this student left my presence and went to their desk more discouraged. I could see emotions on their face: hurt, anger, shame. 

I felt incredibly guilty afterward because I never want to yell at a child, and I felt like I failed, even as I try to remember that I am human and I too, suffer from my own misbehavior. 

Positive discipline is exhausting because in this moment I could have validated my own feelings and furthered the punishment and taken away recess, or punished them some other way. I could have made them fill out a sheet of why they did what they did. It would be a quick fix and it would let them know who is boss. No room for question here. But it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t help me solve the heart of the matter or help me decode their mistaken goal.

But I did not go that route. I took time to cool off myself and gave us space. I wrote them a sticky note later and placed it on their desk that said: “I have something important to tell you, please see me when you are ready.”

When we started Daily 5, I took them to the side and apologized to them. I said exactly “[John] I am very sorry for yelling at you, I got frustrated with what was happening, and I am sorry.” 

It might seem like a defeat on my part but it wasn’t. I was repairing the relationship, which was the foundational step to then making an agreement and working on helping this student come up with a solution.

The other exhausting piece of positive discipline is trying to figure out why that behavior occurred in the first place. Why did he question me on the carpet? Was his coded message really “see me, notice me”? Or was it perhaps “validate my feelings.” I am still not sure, and often students don’t know either, which goes back to guiding principle #3. Which means I need to work extra hard to uncover what my students are experiencing so I can figure out what exactly is going on. It is exhausting, and it is always so tempting to go back to rewards. But I remember something the late Joe Bower said: “Far too many teachers and parents are willing to sacrifice their long-term goals in favor of short-term compliance.” I would be laughing myself out of the room if I ever said I never gave in to short-term compliance. In the moments it is difficult and having to evaluate between that compliance and the long-term goal is tough, and I still haven’t figured out the balance. Perhaps I never will, but I won’t stop trying.

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#ForJamel

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Dear Jamel,

You don’t know me, so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jeremiah, and I am a fifth grade teacher. When I read about you, I thought how I wished you could have been in my class, we would have taken on the world together. I too, am gay, and I understand how cruel this world can be. I would like to tell you about this weekend I had at NCTE, which is an annual conference held for educators who teach reading. It helps us learn new ways to become better teachers. We discussed how to make more inclusive and safe spaces for our classrooms, and how to read and promote a wide variety of books so that our students can become more empathetic. This weekend I was changed, and as I started to remember your story, I knew that for people like us, enough was enough. It was time to start creating a better world.

When I came back to my classroom, I thought about how to keep doing the work I learned about. What would I need to do to make sure my students become those empathetic, caring humans we need? The first thing I did was come out to my students. I did this through my identity web that we were working on.

It wasn’t explicit, because I wanted it to be normal, just one part of me. My students had questions, they were whispering about it, as to be expected. I was worried of course. But I have become resilient and will not let my humanity be debated. We deserve to exist in this world. I made sure to answer my students’ questions if they had them. Which they did, and you know what happened? We talked about it like this:

“Mr. Henderson are you gay?”

“Yes”

“What does that mean?”

“What do you think it means?”

“Does that mean you like men?”

“It does.”

“Oh, okay. [Looking at another part of my identity web]: Why do you like dark chocolate?! It is so bitter!”

We discussed it and moved on. It might come back up, but I doubt it. Kids are funny that way don’t you think? Out of sight, out of mind!

The second thing I did was to start checking out more LGBTQ books to  promote and read them to the class.  Books like: In our mothers’ house, Stella brings the family, George, etc. They are starting to understand. It is becoming normal for them.

I think for a long time I was scared. Even though I was gay, I was so worried about what my students or their parents would think about me, about the books we read, about the entire LGBTQ community. I had a lot of worries, but remembering your story has propelled me to continue in this work.

As LGBTQ humans, we matter. We deserve and have the right to significance and belonging in this world. No justification necessary.

Jamel, you were taken far too early from this world because of cruel people who did not, and most likely still do not, understand.

It is time to change that narrative. I will be reading more LGBTQ titles to my students, I will live my truth, and I will stand up to hate. I will show my students that we are normal, and that they have nothing to be afraid of. I will engage other teachers in this conversation because we can’t afford to lose any more beautiful souls. 

I am starting the hashtag #ForJamel so that I and other teachers may continue to lift you up Jamel, and ALL LGBTQ students (both here and gone) in this work everyday, so that our students will become kind, caring, and empathetic.

I promise Jamel, to send students into this world that will care. May you rest in power knowing that I will fight for people like us. Starting today.

-Jeremiah Henderson

(Image of Jamel Myles obtained from Fox31 Denver)

Remembering we are human

This week I had a fantastic time at NCTE, I learned many things about creating spaces that raise and amplify ALL student voice.

I had a sort of revelation while at NCTE. Per usual on Twitter, there have been many conversations around books and children. Often, I felt like I didn’t understand somebody’s point of view, and I couldn’t agree with them. and would cast them off as people who were “angry, upset, rude…” any negative attitude I could find. I realized this was a place of privilege. I stopped listening to what they had to say.

Something changed for me this weekend, and as I write this post I want to make it clear I am not attempting to be pompous by saying what happened, but I write this for myself, to show what happened that made me understand. I also write with a word of caution. Not all experiences are like this, and it takes time for us to continuously have these conversations. This is not meant to be seen as a “positive platitude” but as a way to start the much needed conversations.

There was a person I was having a hard time agreeing with on Twitter, and I started shutting out what they had to say. I saw they were presenting at NCTE and truthfully I wasn’t interested in seeing them. So I didn’t go to their session.

Later that day, I was in the exhibit hall and I found this person, and something came over me and I decided to go up and introduce myself. I told them we had something in common (I choose to not disclose that here to keep this party confidential). In that moment we connected, and we were able to have a great conversation. What I realized in that moment is that I made them human. Everything in my perception of what I thought I knew and didn’t know about this person changed. What I realized mattered is that there they were, being completely human with me. I saw them as a human, who longed for significance and belonging in this world. I learned last year in my positive discipline course that everyone wants significance and belonging. Everything this person tweeted about was starting to make sense. They were not that “angry” person. They were a person, who, just like all of us, wants significance and belonging in this world. Their anger was justifiable. I could understand now that they were speaking up for themselves, because they are human. Our humanity should never be up for debate.

This interaction helped me to remember that everyone is human, and we need more face-to-face interactions.  We need to allow others to speak. We need to quiet down and listen fully, without interruption.  Especially for people like me who are in a majority. We need to seek out voices different from ours, and we need to see them for who they are, humans who want and deserve significance and belonging in this world. I hope after NCTE I will continuously be seeking out voices of the marginalized and oppressed and hearing them, and humanize them, understand them, and support them.

I don’t have time to get children in trouble

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Rita Pierson said in her brilliant video Every child deserves a champion: “You say it long enough it starts to become a part of you.” She was referencing that she told her students “I am somebody.
I was somebody when I came.
I’ll be a better somebody when I leave.
I am powerful, and I am strong.
…I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.”

This year I adopted a saying for myself because I needed to change how I ran my classroom. My new phrase was “I don’t have time to get children in trouble.” I want my classroom to be a safe and wonderful place, we don’t have time to get in trouble. I tell my students this all the time. I am amazed at what has happened because of this choice. It has become a part of me. I no longer have time to think of punitive consequences or to be bitter with students. I don’t take their actions personally, I remember they are children, and that they are still learning. This does not mean my classroom is a free-for-all. Quite the opposite.

Last week we were on the carpet and one of my students said something along the lines of “I can’t figure out what was ugly.” (I think she was referencing something from a book but I can’t remember) and one of the boys behind her said to his friends about the other child: “Did she look in a mirror?” [The other child didn’t hear this FYI]

Now, if you are reading this you may be shocked at that statement because on the surface it seems incredibly mean and hurtful. It may seem like his words intended to hurt.

When I had time to get kids in trouble, things may have transpired this way: he would have probably been called out in front of his peers to his embarrassment and shame. Most likely he would have denied it to save face. Naturally, he would need some missed recess too. And probably forced to apologize too. Make him feel the pain.

But, none of this would have solved the problem at hand. I hurt thinking I ever used to treat children this way.

But I don’t have time for that. Not anymore. I don’t have time for punitive consequences. I don’t have time for embarrassment or shame. I don’t have time to call kids out in front of their peers.

I do have time for solutions, for being kind and firm. I do have time for private, quiet conversations. I have time to build relationships with my students, and I know this student is a kind person. I have time to remember they are only 11 years old and are still learning to be human. They have only been on this God-given earth for 96,000 hours. Why do we expect perfection from them?

What did I do instead?

My first step was to stop the conversation right then. He needed to know that his behavior was not appropriate. I said nothing else except “John, stop.”

After we finished on the carpet, and the rest of the students were working, I called him over so we could have a conversation. Not a one-sided teacher lecture, but a real conversation.

“Can you tell me about telling [jane] to look in a mirror?”

“Oh yeah..”

“That kind of statement could be hurtful.”

[In a sincere tone] “Oh I didn’t mean it like that, I was trying to be funny.”

“I understand, next time, think about what others might feel before you say something like that.”

“Ok I will”

[Had the other child heard, we would have talked about solving that part of the problem which usually leads to a non-forced apology]

Other conversations in the classroom usually follow a similar format.

[Calling over a student who has been clearly off-task]

“Hey [joe], can you come talk to me? What are you doing over there?’

“Talking”

“Thank you for being honest, what needs to get done right now?”

“My work.”

“What can you do so that your work gets done.”

“Not talk.”

“Sounds good, need a different spot to do that?”

“No, I think I will be okay.”

These solutions work. Sometimes it takes one conversation, sometimes it takes multiple.

It takes time. It can be exhausting. But each day I enjoy it more and more. Helping students become better humans has taken on something new for me this year. I love helping them solve problems. I want them to have self-efficacy so they may solve problems without me. I don’t have time to get kids in trouble anymore, and I will never make time for it again.

Resources:

Responsive Classroom

Teaching Children to Care – Ruth Sidney Charney

Passionate Learners – Pernille Ripp

A secret to great classroom management

“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball

This past year was more painful as a teacher than I could imagine. But through the pain, I learned a valuable lesson, I discovered something that defined everything about my classroom, both good and bad.

Classroom management has a lot of facets. A well-run classroom can be defined by several things, just to name a few: procedures, high expectations, engaging curriculum, firm and clear boundaries, and relationships.

There is one thing missing from that list, something we don’t talk about, and I learned it the hard way.

Last year around October I had an informal drop-in observation by my principal, it was one of those days where everything went bad. No student was listening, I was yelling, procedures were being broken, the energy in the room was awful, I was getting frustrated, and I wanted to quit. (I had many days like this in the fall). My notes from the observation were eye-opening, to say the least. The principal commented on my tone, posture, and interaction with the children which was described as “cold and scary.” I think those who know me well would say “how is that possible?!” I wondered that myself, but the truth is, it had been like this for a while, and things in the classroom weren’t getting better.

Among my attempts to get things right in the classroom, I had found a wonderful article on smartclassroommanagement.com about liking students that left me an imprint in me, and it gave me a lot of reflecting to do. While I tried hard to like those hard-to-like students just like the article said, it wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped.

Frankly, nothing was working. I tried it all; new routines, more consistency, better rules, etc. But with everything new I tried, it never worked, things were getting way worse. I was at the point where I almost put in my notice to quit.

What changed?

I often peruse the site ProTeacher.net because I enjoy the wide array of forums available. It is not as popular as it used to be, but it is still active, and I enjoy it. I posted my cry for help because nothing in my classroom was working and I was ready to throw in the towel.

The teachers who responded were all very kind and gracious in their responses, but one stuck out to me the most. It has truly changed me and challenged everything I thought I knew about the classroom:

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“You must like yourself first and foremost.”

Those words hit me HARD, and they still do.

It was at that moment I realized I didn’t like myself, in fact, I hated myself. I hated being gay, I hated my body, I hated that I never fit in, even as an adult. I hated my back problems, I hated feeling depressed ALL the time. And then, it all seemed to fall into place, my inner hatred turned into hating my class and teaching. It showed, every day in my tone, facial expression, and in my attitude. Everything about me and how I hated myself, I brought with me subconsciously to the classroom.

Low to no self-esteem can wreak havoc on everything in your life, including relationships, but I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I thought I was checking everything at the door, but that was far from the truth. My disdain for myself overflowed to everything in my life, including my students. I hate typing these words, but I must confront myself with the truth. Relationships are the cornerstone of any successful classroom, and as I look back and reflect, I can see now that my relationship with myself = awful. My relationships with my students = awful. I was depleted of love and compassion in my brain and my heart, I had none to give to myself or my students.

For the sake of this blog post, I will cut down a major story short. That observation and some other things that happened during the fall made me angry, and it turned into severe depression/anxiety/resentment/hatred. I am grateful I was able to get counseling to help resolve some major issues I had in my life. In February I was able to come out as a gay person, and since then, things in my classroom had started looking up. Not because I was now openly gay, but because I was resolving inner conflict, I was healing. And because of this, I started to like myself again. The secret I learned is that I must like myself as a person, to be the teacher I need and want to be. I learned that I must have the confidence, joy, and love that can only truly come from within, in order to be able to then give that confidence, joy, and love to my students.

The rest of this past school year was much better, and a lot of healing took place between me and the students. There were some relationships that were severely damaged, and they weren’t able to be fixed. I am truly sad about that, but I am grateful knowing that my next classroom, I will start fresh. I am learning to like myself for who I am as a person. I am taking time to care for myself and treat myself with compassion. I know that in the fall when I meet my students for the first time, I will have a genuine smile on my face that shows I will care for and love them. But most importantly, I will continue to care for, like, and love myself.

In the book “The compassionate classroom”, there is one page that discusses the teacher-self relationship, and it offers an insightful thought:
A tendency to criticize and judge yourself usually results in being critical of others. Compassion for oneself is more likely to result in compassion for others.” 

Let us all have more compassion for ourselves this fall.

My next classroom will have the version of me who is learning to like everything about myself, who celebrates the imperfections and works to keep changing and become the best person I know I can be. Will my classroom be perfect? Of course not. But I know now that I am on the path to a great, loving, and compassionate classroom.

 

*I need to make a disclaimer here, I do not want my words to be taken as “Wow, all Jeremiah does is like himself and everything in his classroom just works!” That is absolutely not the case. While this is the foundation for a successful classroom, all the pieces mentioned above are absolutely needed to create a smooth classroom. Liking yourself is simply the foundation.*

They don’t need me anymore

This winter break I was fortunate to return home to New Mexico. I visited with family and friends and rekindled my spirit which was burning low for a few months. It is amazing how being around people who love and care about you can change your wellbeing.

I also visited my former elementary school that I taught at last year. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it was to see my former students. For a whole day, I felt like a celebrity, walking into classrooms and seeing children light up, scream my name, and give me more hugs than you can imagine! Throughout the course of the day as the excitement died down, I was able to talk to all my students and have amazing conversations with them that picked up right where we left off, it felt like no time had passed.

As I was watching my students and talking with them I came across an important realization that I feel could only come from leaving the school and returning months later: they don’t need me anymore.

Everything I taught and gave them has come to fruition. I gave them everything they needed to succeed, both academically and emotionally. As I watched them interact with their peers and teachers, I was just in awe of the self-confidence and self-efficacy they exuded. I had done my job; I was able to see the fruits of my labor.

They are doing fine without me! For the time that I was their teacher, we had great times, hard times, and everything in between. And now as they grow up and go beyond third grade, I am able to get some closure in my life that as a teacher, I have fulfilled my duty to these students by giving them everything they needed from me. The ups and downs we experienced together produced students that are well on their way to becoming some remarkable human beings.

Back to Blogging

My last post was in August, and since then I started at my new school, and it hasn’t been the easiest year, which caused me to not post anything for a while. Thankfully, things have simmered down a bit and I have a lot I want to share that has been on my mind, and I am hoping over the next few weeks to get back into blogging!