Posts from the ‘Parenting/Teaching Articles’ Category

The Power of Introverts

Susan Cain on the Power of Introverts…

Love TED.

9 Essential Skills Kids Should Learn

9 Essential Skills Kids Should Learn

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Kids in today’s school system are not being prepared well for tomorrow’s world.

As someone who went from the corporate world and then the government world to the ever-changing online world, I know how the world of yesterday is rapidly becoming irrelevant. I was trained in the newspaper industry, where we all believed we would be relevant forever — and I now believe will go the way of the horse and buggy.

Unfortunately, I was educated in a school system that believed the world in which it existed would remain essentially the same, with minor changes in fashion. We were trained with a skill set that was based on what jobs were most in demand in the 1980s, not what might happen in the 2000s.

And that kinda makes sense, given that no one could really know what life would be like 20 years from now. Imagine the 1980s, when personal computers were still fairly young, when faxes were the cutting-edge communication technology, when the Internet as we now know it was only the dream of sci-fi writers like William Gibson.

We had no idea what the world had in store for us.

And here’s the thing: we still don’t. We never do. We have never been good at predicting the future, and so raising and educating our kids as if we have any idea what the future will hold is not the smartest notion.

How then to prepare our kids for a world that is unpredictable, unknown? By teaching them to adapt, to deal with change, to be prepared for anything by not preparing them for anything specific.

This requires an entirely different approach to child-rearing and education. It means leaving our old ideas at the door, and reinventing everything.

My wife Eva and I are among those already doing this. We homeschool our kids — more accurately, we unschool them. We are teaching them to learn on their own, without us handing knowledge down to them and testing them on that knowledge.

It is, admittedly, a wild frontier, and most of us who are experimenting with unschooling will admit that we don’t have all the answers, that there is no set of “best practices”. But we also know that we are learning along with our kids, and that not knowing can be a good thing — an opportunity to find out, without relying on established methods that might not be optimal.

I won’t go too far into methods here, as I find them to be less important than ideas. Once you have some interesting ideas to test, you can figure out an unlimited amount of methods, and so my dictating methods would be too restrictive.

Instead, let’s look at a good set of essential skills that I believe children should learn, that will best prepare them for any world of the future. I base these on what I have learned in three different industries, especially the world of online entreprenurship, online publishing, online living … and more importantly, what I have learned about learning and working and living in a world that will never stop changing.

1. Asking questions. What we want most for our kids, as learners, is to be able to learn on their own. To teach themselves anything. Because if they can, then we don’t need to teach them everything — whatever they need to learn in the future, they can do on their own. The first step in learning to teach yourself anything is learning to ask questions. Luckily, kids do this naturally — our hope is to simply encourage it. A great way to do this is by modeling it. When you and your child encounter something new, ask questions, and explore the possible answers with your child. When he does ask questions, reward the child instead of punishing him (you might be surprised how many adults discourage questioning).

2. Solving problems. If a child can solve problems, she can do any job. A new job might be intimidating to any of us, but really it’s just another problem to be solved. A new skill, a new environment, a new need … they’re all simply problems to be solved. Teach your child to solve problems by modeling simple problem solving, then allowing her to do some very easy ones on her own. Don’t immediately solve all your child’s problems — let her fiddle with them and try various possible solutions, and reward such efforts. Eventually, your child will develop confidence in her problem-solving abilities, and then there is nothing she can’t do.

3. Tackling projects. As an online entrepreneur, I know that my work is a series of projects, sometimes related, sometimes small and sometimes large (which are usually a group of smaller projects). I also know that there isn’t a project I can’t tackle, because I’ve done so many of them. This post is a project. Writing a book is a project. Selling the book is another project. Work on projects with your kid, letting him see how it’s done by working with you, then letting him do more and more by himself. As he gains confidence, let him tackle more on his own. Soon, his learning will just be a series of projects that he’s excited about.

4. Finding passion. What drives me is not goals, not discipline, not external motivation, not reward … but passion. When I’m so excited that I can’t stop thinking about something, I will inevitably dive into it fully committed, and most times I’ll complete the project and love doing it. Help your kid find things she’s passionate about — it’s a matter of trying a bunch of things, finding ones that excite her the most, helping her really enjoy them. Don’t discourage any interest — encourage them. Don’t suck the fun out of them either — make them rewarding.

5. Independence. Kids should be taught to increasingly stand on their own. A little at a time, of course. Slowly encourage them to do things on their own. Teach them how to do it, model it, help them do it, help less, then let them make their own mistakes. Give them confidence in themselves by letting them have a bunch of successes, and letting them solve the failures. Once they learn to be independent, they learn that they don’t need a teacher, a parent, or a boss to tell them what to do. They can manage themselves, and be free, and figure out the direction they need to take on their own.

6. Being happy on their own. Too many of us parents coddle our kids, keeping them on a leash, making them rely on our presence for happiness. When the kid grows up, he doesn’t know how to be happy. He must immediately attach to a girlfriend or friends. Failing that, they find happiness in other external things — shopping, food, video games, the Internet. But if a child learns from an early age that he canbe happy by himself, playing and reading and imagining, he has one of the most valuable skills there is. Allow your kids to be alone from an early age. Give them privacy, have times (such as the evening) when parents and kids have alone time.

7. Compassion. One of the most essential skills ever. We need this to work well with others, to care for people other than ourselves, to be happy by making others happy. Modeling compassion is the key. Be compassionate to your child at all times, and to others. Show them empathy by asking how they think others might feel, and thinking aloud about how you think others might feel. Demonstrate at every opportunity how to ease the suffering of others when you’re able, how to make others happier with small kindnesses, how that can make you happier in return.

8. Tolerance. Too often we grow up in an insulated area, where people are mostly alike (at least in appearance), and when we come into contact with people who are different, it can be uncomfortable, shocking, fear-inducing. Expose your kids to people of all kinds, from different races to different sexuality to different mental conditions. Show them that not only is it OK to be different, but that differences should be celebrated, and that variety is what makes life so beautiful.

9. Dealing with change. I believe this will be one of the most essential skills as our kids grow up, as the world is always changing and being able to accept the change, to deal with the change, to navigate the flow of change, will be a competitive advantage. This is a skill I’m still learning myself, but I find that it helps me tremendously, especially compared to those who resist and fear change, who set goals and plans and try to rigidly adhere to them as I adapt to the changing landscape. Rigidity is less helpful in a changing environment than flexibility, fluidity, flow. Again, modeling this skill for your child at every opportunity is important, and showing them that changes are OK, that you can adapt, that you can embrace new opportunities that weren’t there before, should be a priority. Life is an adventure, and things will go wrong, turn out differently than you expected, and break whatever plans you made — and that’s part of the excitement of it all.

We can’t give our children a set of data to learn, a career to prepare for, when we don’t know what the future will bring. But we can prepare them to adapt to anything, to learn anything, to solve anything, and in about 20 years, to thank us for it.

NY Times Article by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries
Published: April 30, 2011

Op-Ed Contributor: A New Measure for Classroom Quality (May 1, 2011)

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a minimum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari are founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher.”

The Struggle is Essential

It is our job as parents and teachers to teach our children how to be self-sufficient and independent.  And I cannot stress this enough.  Much of the work we do in this classroom and the school are self-help skills.  The kids clean up after themselves, they put on their own shoes and coats and clothes when needed, they have classroom jobs that aren’t always easy and are significant to the success and livelihood of the classroom.

We expect the kids to be responsible for their own things and their own work, which includes packing it up and taking it home with them.  When I think about how to help kids be successful and achieve these  expectations, I think of what they need to reach our mutual goals:  shoes and coats they can put on themselves, backpacks to pack home their work, encouragement and high expectations from both the teacher’s and the parents.  Kids will rise to the expectations we set, otherwise they will let us do everything for as long as we’re willing.  But this does not create learning, independence or self-reliance.

As a parent I had to learn this the hard way, so I’m extra sensitive to how we teach our children to think and act for themselves and how to not become enablers as parents.  As a parent of a child with special needs, I often thought that she couldn’t do it, so I had to do it for her.  This was so not the case and I became resentful and she became dependent and eventually she lacked the confidence to even try.  Instead the goal was manipulating me into doing everything.  So, I’m on the path to self-success for us all.

We HAVE to let our kids struggle, even though it is sometimes the hardest part of parenting and teaching.  We want to help and do and take care of.  But sometimes the “help”, is really what is keeping our kids from being the confident, self-motivated beings we are hoping they become.

I read the following piece and just had to pass it on…

It is Not Your Job to Make Your Children Happy

By Jane Nelsen

If you believe it is your job to make your children happy, it is likely that they will believe you—and insists that you do? Instead of learning that they can be capable, they may develop the belief that they are “entitled.”

The story of the little boy and the butterfly may help you understand how rescuing children from all suffering creates weakness.  A little boy felt sorry
for a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. He decided to help so
he could save the butterfly from the struggle. So he peeled the chrysalis open
for the butterfly. The little boy was so excited to watch the butterfly spread
its wings and fly off into the sky. Then he was horrified as he watched the
butterfly drift to the ground and die because it did not have the muscle
strength to keep flying.

It is important that parents do not make children suffer, but sometimes it is helpful to “allow” them to suffer with support (empathy).For example, suppose a child “suffers” because she can’t have the toy she wants. Allowing her to suffer through this experience can help her develop her
resiliency muscles. She learns that she can survive the ups and downs of
life—leading to a sense of capability and competency. The support part is that
you validate her feelings and/or show understanding. Then skip the lectures and
have faith in your child to handle it.

Some helpful links:

Sound Discipline

Positive Discipline

Encouraging Solutions

Ready!  Set!  Go!



A Little Peak Into the Pre-School Classrooms at CSWS

The pre-school classes at The Community School are involved in the program Seeds to Success. It’s for pre-school only, so we aren’t included but here is Amy, Whitney, Sarah and their coach April talking about the importance of empowering teachers.  We are quickly becoming the go-to place to show off the shining example of what pre-school CAN be, especially in not-so-affluent areas.

Since the K-2 class cannot be involved in the program and don’t receive the coaching that comes with it, Sarah has given Steve, Jaala and myself the gift of April and her coaching.  We will be working with her independently of the Seeds to Success program.  We look forward to it setting our own goals and working toward them during the school year.

Represent Sarah.  Represent!

Positive Dicipline

This past year, the staff was fortunate enough to have Jody McVittie come to our school and lead a class in Positive Dicipline.  It truly was an multi-facited exchange of ideas and tools.  It not only helped us with dicipline in the classroom and with our own kids but it gave the staff a different way of seeing each other.  I was also able to attend most of Jody’s Sanity Curcius Course, which included many of our parents from the school. 

I was then sent to Portland for a weekend of Positive Dicipline for kids on the Autism Spectrum.  This was slightly different with a few new tools.  As a parent of a child on the spectrum, it is sometimes hard to negotiate tools that work for “typical” children and what will work for your child (this is also true in the classroom). I find that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes I just need to alter the approach a bit differently. 

It is always a struggle to find balance and I don’t know anyone who has all the answers but it has certainly caused me to think differently and approach situations with more firmness, much kindness and a little more confidence.  I have written a personal account of a specific incident where Positive Dicipline made a radical change in my life.  Enjoy.  ~Michelle


Holding On

Positive Discipline:  Teacher as Student – Student as Parent

Michelle Taylor

As a teacher, I am confident and flexible with firm boundaries.  I have high expectations that almost always get met.  But most of the time as a parent, all the emotions between my daughter and me make it hard to draw boundaries.  For years I actually never knew you could do too much and as an attachment parent, I thought all the attention,” helping” and doing was positive but as she grew her expectations of me to do everything for her and her out-of-control behavior began to show that maybe this wasn’t quite the right approach. 

I was struggling with these issues to the point of seeking counseling and then I took the Positive Discipline class.  After the experience of “Teacher Helping Teacher” (although I worked on the problems I was experiencing at home with my daughter), I realized I was actually hurting her by doing everything for her.  I was keeping her from being confident, keeping her from growing and learning and experiencing and becoming her own person (although I’m not really sure I wanted this for a long time). 

So I thought about what I had learned and decided that when the time felt right I would try to work toward some autonomy for my child and myself.  I kept my “Teacher Helping Teacher” sheet on my refrigerator to remind me of the suggestions and ideas given to me by the other teachers and parents in my group.

My daughter is on the Autism spectrum and I have overly protected her as well as have done almost everything for her because I have thought (wrongly) that she wasn’t capable, so in turn she has come to think that she isn’t capable.  Learning new things and separation cause her anxiety and the crying and wining and fits are sometimes more than I can bear.  So I’ve just sucked it up and done everything for her including carrying her.  My daughter is a very tall seven year-old and I carried her almost everywhere.  If I didn’t, she would lie down and throw a fit. 

And then one day when I went to pick my daughter up from school, as we were walking to the car, she seemed to have forgotten I wasn’t carrying her.  She remembered and immediately dropped everything she was carrying and raised her arms to me.  And in my gut I thought, this is the moment.  Instead of trying to convince her to walk and feeling high anxiety because I knew it wouldn’t work or just picking her up to avoid conflict, yelling, crying and staring from other parents, I calmly told her, “You can do it.” 

She immediately began to wail.  I said, “I’ll hold your hand.”  She began to scream louder.  Instead of repeating myself a million times, I waited, then after about five minutes of yelling and screaming and her not budging, I said,  “I will be waiting in the car,” which was a few feet away, next to the sidewalk.  Then it began to rain.  Other parents were staring at her and me.  Her teacher came out and asked if everything was alright and I said, “I’ve been carrying her for over six years and today she’s going to do it on her own” and the teacher said, “Because today is the day” and I felt so understood in that moment. 

I was taking another, older child with me to carpool.  And as we sat in the car, in the rain, she said, “She’s never going to get in.”  I sighed and thought she might be right.  I again told my daughter that I would hold her hand.  And then she began to tear at her skin and clothing and use words I didn’t even know she knew.  She then began to tear a bush apart that she was standing next to.  Then she flung herself on the pavement and kicked and wreathed.  This nearly killed me but I tried to not get emotionally sucked in.  I got back out of the car into the now pouring rain and stretched out my hand once again, she took it, still screaming and walked on her knees to the car.  She crawled up into the seat.  I buckled her in (one thing at a time). 

She was shaking and drenched and scratched up from the sidewalk.  She cried all the way home.  When we were getting close to the other child’s house, the other child said, “You are going to have to do that so many times.”  Again I thought she might be right.”  We drove home.  When we got to the house, my stomach clenched.  I didn’t with all my being want to repeat what had just happened.  I got out of the car, walked around to the other side.  I opened the door and she got out, still crying and walked herself inside. 

This was the first time she had done this.  I was stunned.  I thought it might be a fluke but when she wanted me to carry her from room to room that night, I said, “you can do it” and with some objection but without fits, she did it and has done it ever since.  And it only took thirty minutes.  Thirty minutes exactly.  I know because I timed it.  It was so hard but so worth it for both of us.  I know how much she misses me carrying her and after a while we started something we call an “up hug,” where I pick her up for a giant hug and kiss and then put her back down.  It’s an occasional thing and something we both enjoy. 

We are still working on getting this down and it hasn’t worked for everything. We still struggle to work it out with the Positive Discipline tools and I am often frustrated that every single thing in our lives is something we have to “work through” with much patience and difficulty.  But the boundaries that I have set are clearer.  It’s almost as if you can feel them in the air now.  This isn’t always easy but it feels so much less stressful to have some tools and something to lean on.  This was just one specific incident in our struggle to become two people.  But it truly seemed like something of a miracle.

An Article I Always Give My New Families


It is one of the best parenting/teaching articles around:

“Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’”, by Alfie Kohn, Young Children, September 2001

Unconditional Teaching (It’s important to our children’s mental health – please read.)


September 2005

Unconditional Teaching

By Alfie Kohn

Has there even been a wider, or more offensive, gap between educational rhetoric and reality than that which defines the current accountability fad? The stirring sound bites waft through the air: higher expectations … world-class standards … raising the bar … no child left behind. Meanwhile, educators and students down on the ground are under excruciating pressure to improve test results, often at the expense of meaningful learning, and more low-income and minority students are dropping out.

Some of the results of that pressure are plainly visible to anyone who cares to look: You can see practice tests replacing student-designed projects, children appearing alternately anxious and bored, terrific teachers quitting in disgust. But there are also subtler effects. The current version of school reform is changing what we value. If the sole goal is to raise achievement (in the narrowest sense of that word), then we may end up ignoring other kinds of learning beyond the academic. It’s exceedingly difficult to teach the whole child when people are held accountable only for raising reading and math scores.

Moreover, when some capabilities are privileged over others, and a broader approach to education is sacrificed, we begin to look at students differently. We come to lose sight of children “except as they distribute themselves across deciles” (Hogan, 1974, p. iii). That means that some kids – namely, the high scorers – are prized more than others by the adults. One Florida superintendent observed that “when a low-performing child walks into a classroom, instead of being seen as a challenge, or an opportunity for improvement, for the first time since I’ve been in education, teachers are seeing [him or her] as a liability” (Wilgoren, 2000). I’ve heard essentially the same rueful observation from teachers and administrators across the country.

Debilitating Effects of Conditional Acceptance

A diminution in what we value, then, may affect whom we value. But the damage isn’t limited to those students who fail to measure up – that is, by conventional standards. If some children matter more to us than others, then all children are valued only conditionally. Regardless of the criteria we happen to be using, or the number of students who meet those criteria, every student gets the message that our acceptance is never a sure thing. They learn that their worth hinges on their performance.

That’s more than distasteful – it’s debilitating. Psychological theorists and researchers (e.g., Deci and Ryan, 1995; Kernis, 2003) are coming to realize that the best predictor to mental health may not be one’s level of self-esteem but the extent to which it fluctuates. The real problem isn’t self-esteem that’s too low (“I don’t like myself very much”) so much as self-esteem that’s too contingent (“I like myself only when…”). Conversely, kids who have an underlying sense of their own value are more likely to see failure as a temporary set-back, a problem to be solved. They’re also less likely to be anxious or depressed (Chamberlain and Haaga, 2001).

In turn, the best predictor of whether children will be able to accept themselves as fundamentally valuable and capable is the extent to which they have been accepted unconditionally by others. As Carl Rogers (1959) argued half a century ago, those on the receiving end of conditional love – that is, affection based not on who they are but on what they do — come to disown the parts of themselves that aren’t valued. Eventually they regard themselves as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific ways.

In the course of researching a book on these issues, I discovered considerable empirical support for this theory. One summary of the research put it this way: “The more conditional the support [one experiences], the lower one’s perceptions of overall worth as a person” (Harter, 1999; also see Assor et al., 2004). When children receive affection with strings attached, they do indeed tend to accept themselves only with strings attached. For example, investigators at the University of Denver (Harter et al., 1996) have shown that teenagers who feel they have to fulfill certain conditions in order to win their parents’ approval often end up not liking themselves. That, in turn, may lead a given adolescent to construct a “false self” – in other words, to pretend to be the kind of person whom his or her parents will love. This desperate strategy to gain acceptance is often associated with depression, a sense of hopelessness, and a tendency to lose touch with one’s true self. At some point, such teenagers may not even know who they really are because they’ve had to work so hard to become something they’re not.

In short, unconditional acceptance is what kids require in order to flourish. And while it’s most critical that they experience that kind of acceptance at home, what happens at school matters, too. “Unconditional parenting” (Kohn, 2005) is key, but what might be called “unconditional teaching” is also important. One study found that students who felt unconditionally accepted by their teachers were more likely to be genuinely interested in learning and to enjoy challenging academic tasks — as opposed to just doing things because they had to and preferring easier assignments at which they knew they would be successful (Makri-Botsari, 2001).

To provide this unconditional support, we must actively oppose the policies that get in the way, such as those that encourage us to value children on the basis of their academic standing – or, worse, merely on the basis of their test scores. Although there are risks involved, there may well be a moral obligation to participate in organized, active resistance to destructive mandates. “Putting children first” is an empty slogan if we watch passively while our schools are turned into test-prep centers.


Taking a stand against oppressive policies that are imposed from outside our schools may well be a necessary component of unconditional teaching, but it’s not sufficient. Even if we succeeded in eliminating external pressures related to standards and testing, it’s possible that some of our own practices also lead children to believe that we accept them only conditionally. Sometimes that acceptance seems to depend on their doing well and sometimes it depends on their being good. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Acceptance Based on Performance

All of us want our students to be successful learners, but there is a thin line that separates valuing excellence (a good thing) from leading students to believe that they matter only to the extent they meet our standards (not a good thing). Some people elevate abstractions like Achievement or Excellence above the needs of flesh-and-blood children. Thus, by steering extra resources to, or heaping public recognition on, students who succeed, we’re not only ignoring the counterproductive effects of extrinsic motivators (Kohn, 1993), but possibly sending a message to all students – those who have been recognized and those who, conspicuously, have not – that only those who do well count.

Nel Noddings (1992) made a similar point in discussing the kind of teacher who pushes students relentlessly but also praises those who manage to live up to his high expectations (“You are the best!”). Such instructors are often admired for being both demanding and encouraging. However, if “You are the best!” just means “You can do A.P. calculus,” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations are “the best.” Surely, says Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at A.P. calculus to gain a math teacher’s respect.”

Or consider those educators, particularly in the arts, whose professional pride is invested in the occasional graduate who goes on to distinguish herself as a well-known novelist or violinist. There is a big difference between trying to help as many students as possible cultivate a love of, and some competence at, one’s field and trying to sift through many hundreds of students in search of the very few who will later become famous. The latter suggests a profoundly antidemocratic sensibility, one that sees education as being about winnowing and selecting rather than providing something of value for everyone. And, again, all students realize that they matter to such a teacher only if they measure up.

My point is not that we shouldn’t value, or even celebrate, accomplishment. But paradoxically, unconditional teaching is more likely to create the conditions for children to excel. Those who know they’re valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot. It’s the experience of being accepted without conditions that helps people develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a belief that it’s safe to take risks and try new things.

Acceptance Based on Obedience

Sometimes the conditions placed on acceptance have more to do with compliance than with success. A case in point: temporarily ejecting a student from a class activity – or even from school – for misbehaving. This practice is sometimes rationalized on the grounds that it isn’t fair to the others if one student is allowed to act badly. But those other students, the ones in whose name we are allegedly taking this action, are being told, in effect, that everyone is part of this community only conditionally. That creates an uneasy, uncertain, and ultimately unsafe climate.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (1995) ask us to put ourselves in the place of a child who has been subjected to the punishment known euphemistically as time-out: “As an adult you can imagine how resentful and humiliated you would feel if someone forced you into isolation for something you said or did.” For a child, however, it is even worse, since she may come to believe “that there is something so wrong with her that she has to be removed from society.”

Those who seem to accept students conditionally – requiring them to act in a particular way in order to be valued, or even in order to be allowed to stay – often see themselves as trying to reinforce or eliminate specific student behaviors. What they often don’t see is that traditional classroom management techniques, along with the narrow emphasis on observable behaviors that underlies those techniques, make it very difficult to attend to the person who engages in those behaviors. In fact, I would propose the following rule of thumb: the value of a book about dealing with children is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behavior. When our primary focus is on discrete behaviors, we end up ignoring the whole child.

That doesn’t mean exemplary educators who avoid time-outs, detentions, and other punishments are simply ignoring misbehavior. The real alternative to making children suffer for their offenses (or dangling goodies in front of them for doing what they’re told) is to work with them to solve problems. A “working with” approach (Child Development Project, 1996; DeVries and Zan, 1994; Kohn, 1996) asks more of the teacher than does a “doing to” approach, but it’s a good deal more effective because even if the latter succeeds in imposing order temporarily, it does so by undermining students’ moral development, compromising the relationship between teacher and students, and making it more difficult to establish a supportive environment for learning. In sum, giving the impression that we value children only when they’re good doesn’t promote goodness any more than giving the impression that we value children only when they succeed promotes success.

In an illuminating passage from her recent book Learning to Trust (2003), Marilyn Watson explained that a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing “a very deep kind of reassurance – the reassurance that she still care[s] about them and [is] not going to punish or desert them, even [if they do] something very bad.” This posture allows “their best motives to surface,” thus giving “space and support for them to reflect and to autonomously engage in the moral act of restitution” – that is, to figure out how to make things right after doing something wrong. “If we want our students to trust that we care for them,” she concludes, “then we need to display our affection without demanding that they behave or perform in certain ways in return. It’s not that we don’t want and expect certain behaviors; we do. But our concern or affection does not depend on it.”

This is the heart of unconditional teaching, and Watson points out that it’s easier to maintain this stance, even with kids who are frequently insulting or aggressive, if we keep in mind why they’re acting that way. The idea is for the teacher to think about what these students need (emotionally speaking) and probably haven’t received. That way, she can see “the vulnerable child behind the bothersome or menacing exterior.”

The popular view is that children who misbehave are just “testing limits” – a phrase often used as a justification for imposing more limits, or punishments. But perhaps such children are testing something else entirely: the unconditionality of our care for them. Perhaps they’re acting in unacceptable ways to see if we’ll stop accepting them.

Thus, one teacher (quoted in Watson, 2003) dealt with a particularly challenging child by sitting down with him and saying, “You know what[?] I really, really like you. You can keep doing all this stuff and it’s not going to change my mind. It seems to me that you are trying to get me to dislike you, but it’s not going to work. I’m not ever going to do that.” This teacher added: “It was soon after that, and I’m not saying immediately, that his disruptive behaviors started to decrease.” The moral here is that unconditional acceptance is not only something all children deserve; it’s also a powerfully effective way to help them become better people. It’s more useful, practically speaking, than any “behavior management” plan could ever be.

Providing Unconditional Acceptance

Teaching in this way is not just a matter of how we respond to children after they do something wrong, of course. It’s about the countless gestures that let them know we’re glad to see them, that we trust and respect them, that we care what happens to them. It’s about the real (and unconditional) respect we show by asking all students what they think about how things are going, and how we might do things differently, not the selective reinforcement we offer to some students when they please us.

Unconditional teachers are not afraid to be themselves with students – to act like real human beings rather than crisply controlling authority figures. Their classrooms have an appealing informality about them. They may bring in occasional treats for their students – all their students – for no particular reason. They may write notes to children, have lunch with them, respond from the heart to their journal entries. Such teachers listen carefully to what kids say and remember details about their lives: “Hey, Joanie. You said on Friday that your Mom might take you to the fair over the weekend. Did you go? Was it fun?”

It’s not possible to like all one’s students equally well, but unconditional teachers try hard not to play favorites. More than that, they do their best to find something appealing about each child and respond accordingly. They make it clear that, while there are certain expectations in the classroom – expectations that, ideally, the students themselves have helped to suggest – the teacher’s basic affection need not be earned. Caring that has to be earned isn’t real caring at all.

Accepting students for who they are – as opposed to for what they do – is integrally related to the idea of teaching the whole child. That connection is worth highlighting because the phrase “whole child” is sometimes interpreted to mean “more than academics,” which suggests a fragmented education. The point isn’t just to meet a student’s emotional needs with this activity, her physical needs with that activity, her social needs with something else, and so on. Rather, it is an integrated self to whom we respond. It is a whole person whom we value. And to do so in any way that matters is to accept children unconditionally, even (perhaps especially) when they screw up or fall short.

It isn’t easy to create these sorts of relationships when there’s no time to know each student. Huge classes, huge schools, and short periods are impediments to more than academic achievement. That’s why, once again, unconditional teachers understand the need to work for systemic change – for example, pressing for the demise of the factory-like American high school model, an impediment to good teaching if ever there was one. But in the meantime, within whatever structures we work, we need to think about whether our posture toward students really provides them with as much of the unconditional acceptance they need as possible.

Imagine that your students are invited to respond to a questionnaire several years after leaving the school. They’re asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree – and how strongly – with statements such as: “Even when I wasn’t proud of how I acted, even when I didn’t do the homework, even when I got low test scores or didn’t seem interested in what was being taught, I knew that [insert your name here] still cared about me.”

How would you like your students to answer that sort of question? How do you think they will answer it?



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