Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Character Is Who You Are When Nobody Is Watching

Creating positive classroom climate and culture are imperative to a successful school year. I touched on this in my last post, but we're digging deep today. It is easy to lose sight of the importance of climate and culture because of pressures to push out content. Today, I created an opportunity to focus on reminding my students of the importance of learning more than just how to ace an exam or write an ‘A’ paper - Today we focused on being good people.

Yesterday my classes visited the 9/11 Never Forget exhibit that came to our school for the day. It was an experiential learning opportunity in which FDNY and NYPD officers involved in 9/11 gave tours of the traveling exhibit which contains images, videos and information recounting the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there with one of my classes but my wonderful teaching assistant was. After class I received this unsettling e-mail from her:  

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Let’s be real: It isn’t an uncommon occurrence for students to act out when a teacher is absent. But after reading that e-mail I felt disappointed and upset in their lack of respect for the adults they interacted with and for one another.

I went to sleep and woke up with this on my mind. I knew I wanted to approach it in a positive and productive way because that is the classroom environment I strive to create. I can’t stress enough how important it is to me to turn negatives into positives. Here’s why: Many of my Special Education students feel that the deck is stacked against them. They have internalized the effects of past teachers giving up on them and have been discouraged because of it. I want to make it clear to my students that I am not those teachers and I will not give up on them.

Fast forward to today. Immediately upon walking into class students saw this quote illuminated from the SMART Board screen:


I asked them to take out a Post-It and reflect on the quote, explain what it means to you and share an example of a time when you exhibited ‘good’ character and ‘bad’ character. I didn’t ask students to share answers like I normally would due to time constraints and circumstance, but I did collect all of their Post-Its and we had a short discussion. I asked, “Does anyone know why I have this particular quote on the board?” at which point some sheepish heads were lowered, some students stared at me in confusion, and one very brave student raised his hand and responded exactly the way I was hoping someone would.

“Is it because of the way that we behaved when you were absent yesterday and how some of us didn’t treat each other or the people running the exhibit with respect?”

That was exactly why. Word for word. Alas, the student that answered is (of course) a mature, honest, do-gooder who thrives on classroom participation and had absolutely no involvement of the missteps of the previous day’s events. But still, it spoke volumes to me that even a well behaved, innocent peer of the misbehaving students picked up on their disrespectful behavior.

I went on to discuss my expectations of their behavior, both when I am present and absent, and the importance of respect. I explained that their behavior is not only a reflection of themselves but also of me. I made it very clear that despite us only knowing each other for one month I have high hopes that each of them will leave my classroom as good people - Not only at the end of the year but today, tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. I challenged them to prove on a daily basis that they are the kind, thoughtful, positive contributors to their community that I know they are capable of being.

At that point in my soapbox speech, I wondered to myself whether or not other teachers make it clear that they truly believe in their students. Do you talk to your students about not only doing well in class but, more importantly, what you expect from them beyond the walls of your classroom? I firmly believe that every single teacher needs to explicitly do this. Before moving on to our next activity, I reminded them that what they put out into the world comes back and reiterated the importance of respect and teamwork.

Tomorrow, to start class off on a lighter note but still reminding them of our discussion from the day before, I am going to show a clip from my all-time favorite TV show - Friday Night Lights.   

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I never really know if what I say ‘sticks’ with my students, but based on the responses I got on some of the Post-Its, today’s mindfulness and self-awareness exercise served as a therapeutic and reflective exercise for all students and I’m counting that as a win. Or at the very least, a positive step in the right direction towards creating the kind of climate and culture I’m hoping for. Until next time: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!  


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