A good portion of my time working with educators is spent on relationship building and creating a positive school culture. This work was really important to me during my time as a classroom teacher and building level administrator and took on even greater significance when I moved to a central office position where I could see a larger scale difference in the environments of schools and their relative success on most measures including staff and student satisfaction.
Initially folks connected my work with discipline and dealing with challenging students. I remember quite clearly when I interviewed for the Vice-Principal job that discipline and behavior were the most oft-repeated words by the panel. After I landed the position former colleagues shared a concern about how dejected I would become after dealing with middle school behavior all day. My approach then is the same as the message I share now – it’s all in the perspective you bring and the motivation you have to build relationships.
Let’s establish some basic premises. First, kids are going to make mistakes (and so are the adults). Second, consequences are a part of a positive learning environment (especially when they are connected to the behavior and are a natural result). Third, behavior can be changed through an instructional approach (just like we do with academics). Fourth, all kids can engage in positive relationships (although some may need more guidance from us). With that as the backdrop, the work becomes increasingly more positive, relationships get strengthened, and culture shifts as our words and actions align.
When I work with school staffs today, we begin with identifying attributes or expectations for all (kids and adults) members of the school community. We use those in conjunction with key settings in the school to create a matrix of expectations that drive what we want to see throughout the school. When we don’t see them, we respond immediately, and with a positive re-statement of the desired expectations. Can you see the difference between this approach versus the approach that involves staff members creating an exhaustive list of “thou shalt nots” for kids? For those who think this may be another example of “going soft”, remember premise two above. Violations of the expectations may still result in a consequence – one that has a connection to the difference between what’s expected and what’s displayed. A continuum of consequences may include a suspension if there is not evidence of growth when we engage in teaching the expectations. It’s also important to remember the consequence is the consequence. It’s not that plus public humiliation in front of your peer group.
When our focus is on kids being taught – both academically and behaviorally – and not solely on kids being caught, we shift the culture of the school to expecting the right things, modeling the right things, and acknowledging the right things. After all, isn’t that what schools are all about?