Four police cars were parked in front of the school building. The front office was full. I sat with a handful of students, along with a parent with a newborn baby, waiting to talk with a school administrator. I overheard one student explain to his mom what had started the fight that had gotten him in trouble: “My teacher called me a fat-***”
“Your teacher said that to you?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes, my teacher called me that in front of everyone,” said the tall teenager who was reduced, emotionally, to a six-year-old boy in the presence of his mama.
I listened in unbelief. Why would a teacher talk that way to a student? Why would an adult say that to a child?, I kept asking myself.
During my meeting with the administrator, I learned that the school board had made sweeping changes at the school. When they decided to move the principal at the end of the school year, six teachers immediately resigned. All but one member of the teaching staff requested a transfer. This would be the second complete turnover in two years. The dysfunction I observed was the result.
Another school leader confessed, “Our kids live in chaos, and now they have chaos at school. That’s not what they need.”
Her words resonated in my heart. What do kids living in chaos need? Consistency. Refuge.
Healthy relationships are the key to creating a safe place for students to learn and grow. These relationships are fostered through communication― the give and take of meaningful conversation.
A May 2018 report from the Aspen Institute, Pursuing Social and Emotional Development Through a Racial Equity Lens: A Call to Action, emphasizes the importance of relationships and an asset-based approach. We must focus on our students’ strengths, providing opportunities for them to cultivate their gifts, talents, and abilities.
As leaders in our schools and communities, we must commit ourselves to speaking life to our students and our colleagues. To see those in our school community become their best selves, we must build them up with our words, our tone, and our actions. Our goal is growth, not perfection.
An essential part of speaking life is establishing a common language for expectations and behaviors for both students and staff that shapes the culture and climate of the school. What do words like respect, honesty, and kindness mean? And what do they look like in action?
Here are some tips for creating a common language and common understanding among all stakeholders―students, teachers, families, and community partners―in the school community:
1.) Define – What values does your school community hold most dear? What do these words mean and what do these ideas look like in action?
2.) Dialogue – Have open conversations with staff and students about these core values. Using a story, song, or short video often helps focus the discussion.
3.) Deepen – Seize moments of connection throughout the day. In the hallways, before the bell rings, at recess, during lunch…find the time to listen and learn from your students about what is going on in their worlds. Show you care.
I wonder how differently the young man’s day would have been if his teacher had made the effort to define, dialogue, and deepen. Maybe his teacher would have gained insight into the chaos of welcoming a newborn home and whatever other issues the family is facing. Perhaps, his teacher could have provided a safe place for him to process some big life changes. As W.E.B. DuBois said, “Education must not simply teach work, it must teach life.”