The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Students, Please Forgive Us (pt.1)

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Climate is tricky business in schools.  We can have high expectations for academics and behavior that we demand students meet, but the grind of getting to them can be exhausting and even futile if students don’t feel some degree of a positive, nurturing climate in the building.  That vibe is especially important when dealing with a large at-risk population like the one at my school, where two-thirds of the students come from low-income families.  Without the proper climate, it’s not uncommon for students to give up or act out or not even buy into what we expect of them.  With the proper climate, we can motivate students to not only show up, but have an appropriate attitude and see the worth in the demands we make on them as we help them develop the academic skills we are charged with helping them develop.  The district in which I work recognizes this and has prioritized climate for years now, to the point that the school board and administration have sought out a number of names renowned for their angles on school climate and contracted them for in-service days, mostly at the beginning of the school year.  People like Tara Brown, Hal Urban, and Mark Scharenbroich have delivered  meaningful and engaging seminars to us about the nature of school climate and how to maximize its effects for our particular demographic.

When we have such esteemed guests in our building, they bring with them an air of hard-earned gravitas after teaching for decades, studying for advanced degrees, writing books and conducting research, and earning heady testimonials about what they have to say.  What’s more, their delivery and content is fresh and engaging even to veteran staff who have lengthy tenures in the classroom.  We listen to and absorb what these experts say because of all that, and each of the presenters I mentioned (and more) have had concrete, applicable ideas regarding how to improve climate in the building and our classrooms.  Given our track record in this regard, I’m struggling with our recent decision to hand the microphone to students who were concerned about the issue.  The results thus far have lied in stark contrast to some of my core beliefs as a teacher.

It started with some upper-classmen speaking to a teacher about how they were disillusioned with the climate in the building.  They formulated a plan for change and put together a presentation that was delivered at a faculty meeting late in the school year.  After a brief introduction during which one of the students told us that what they were doing was “110% student-driven,” the students shared videorecorded testimonials in which some of them, and several others, discussed their disillusionment.  Students spoke under the utmost privacy:  A large black box digitally concealed their faces.  In one of the testimonials, a student spoke about a friend who had to serve detention after accumulating cuts to his first period class.  But, according to the testifier, his friend had to stay home and take care of his sick mother.  There was no mention of contact with the attendance office to excuse the absences, nor was there any indication of the student speaking with his dean or counselor about the situation, or one of the six social workers the school employs, or if he spoke to his advisor or any of his six or seven teachers, most of whom could have helped the situation.  That might be a lot to ask of a teenager, though if nobody knows about his situation, it’s very hard to get him the help he needs.  There is also the possibility that the proper people did know, but there was more to the story than what was being told second-hand behind the black box on the video.

A subsequent testimonial featured a student who had a friend who was upset with a counselor who supposedly wouldn’t let her drop an Advanced Placement course because she would “end up working at McDonald’s.”  At that point, I was seeing a pattern emerge.  The testimonials being shown to us were second-hand accounts of something that happened and may have been missing some context critical to the individual situation; most notably, were the students to whom these things happened outraged, or were their friends outraged?  Another student took exception to one of her teachers offering candy for correct answers or cooperative behaviors because she felt students were being bribed.  She equated it to students being treated like animals.

The testimonials were difficult to watch since someone helping with the presentation was trying to omit content as we watched the video by scrubbing back and forth.  I was wondering why that happened until a colleague who saw the entire video told me that the omitted content was too inflammatory or inappropriate to show during the presentation.

We could have spent the rest of the meeting or even the rest of the school year listening to testimonials, regardless of how appropriate their content might have been.  Students typically have gripes about some way they feel they were mistreated at school or some injustice they feel was done unto them (or someone they know).  Of course they do.  It means they are paying attention to what is happening in their institution and are becoming critical consumers.  I’d be more worried about them if they didn’t have gripes.  In many ways their gripes are precursors to what they’ll talk about once they are members of the workforce and they know their respective fields well enough to develop frustrations with it.  What the students don’t know is that most of that chatter amounts to background noise.  The faculty knows this well—we engage in it, too.  It’s venting that I hope most of us do in private with trusted friends or colleagues.  I wonder how many others viewed the testimonials and sundry other gripes in a similar manner.  I have thought since then that the concerns broadcast to us would be excellent issues to bring before something like a student council where students can filter concerns and moderate issues through student leaders and then move forward from there.  Unfortunately, we don’t offer a student council at our school.

What we most needed to see were testimonials from students who said, “Hey, this is what I found out, and this is what we want others to know:  Our choices about behavior and attitude can make a big difference in how we are treated.”  That would have helped bring forth in a more effective manner what the group before us wished to propose:  The advancement of a disposition in which students are mindful of their internal locus of control; a disposition that has the potential to improve each student’s academic standing and contribute to a positive classroom and school climate.  It was becoming apparent during the meeting that they had some ideas for how the climate could be improved in the building, and they had some notion of how they could implement that change.  They called it a student constitution for the school.  They only alluded to the particulars of their plan.  There were few if any concrete steps announced.  Why they started off with a gripe session against people who they wanted to buy into their plan was lost on me.

At one point during the presentation, a student said she knows the perception is that she and her classmates have senioritis; they “have one foot out the door” and don’t necessarily  care.  “But,” she continued, “it’s discouraging when teachers have it, too.”  I didn’t know who in particular she was talking about among the 150+ teachers in the audience, and I started to wonder how the group went from showcasing what they were going to do about school climate to accusing teachers of being as checked-out and disinterested as many of our seniors are.  It wasn’t long before I thought I knew the answer.

Written by seeker70

August 8, 2016 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] And I surprise myself sometimes not by what happens but by what doesn’t happen.  I thought this three-parter two years ago might grant me an audience with the principal in the building given its content and […]

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