Breaking the cycle of poverty: What can teachers do? (Part II)

October 2, 2015 Published by

Please click here to read the first entry of this two-part series.

So if the first major issue in teaching students from poverty is lack of student motivation, what is the other major issue? Lack of self-discipline: Students who are disruptive . . . off-task . . . can’t follow directions . . . give little effort . . . have no persistence . . . hold negative attitudes. They don’t want to be there and neither do you.

What are the most effective teacher behaviors to address discipline issues? Managing the classroom based upon positive discipline practices that teach responsibility and build relationships. There are no short-cuts. The importance of relationships cannot be overemphasized. As Boykin and Noguera note in Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap (2011), Teacher-Student Relationship Quality (TSRQ) and student engagement mutually influence each other. Discipline that only punishes builds walls of resentment in both teachers and students. When anger replaces motivation, learning is the casualty.

Dr. Fred Jones (fredjones.com, 2014) has done extensive research on classroom management that teaches responsibility. Jones advocates three main approaches: 1) Teachers stop nagging (the most common way teachers try to control students); 2) Rather, teachers react calmly to disruption (calm is strength; upset is weakness). It is vital with students from poverty to teach that choices always have consequences. Why is this so important? They don’t see this in their everyday lives nor talk about it since vocabulary is so limited in poverty; in fact, communication is mostly through non-verbals (Payne, 2013). You want your students to learn from mistakes and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And 3), Responsibility can be fostered throughout the classroom through positive peer pressure. Students are motivated to monitor each other because the class as a whole learns how to stop wasting time, especially during transitions. This saved time becomes time earned for the class to play learning games, called Preferred Activity Time or PAT.

A secondary motivator, for example, is that instead of being the class clown or disrupting the class, a student doesn’t want to disappoint the class by losing time earned for PAT. He experiences being part of a positive group effort. In short, he learns how to give respect and earn respect – that’s the heart of self-discipline.

Of course, there are many ways to establish discipline in a classroom. What I like about Fred Jones is he calls his approach “meaning business.” He shows you can mean business while managing a classroom and still foster relationships. They are not mutually exclusive.

So how do you address these two critical issues?

1) You LINK high expectations of ALL students (which improves student motivation and engagement) with

2) positive discipline that teaches responsibility and builds relationships. They are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. Simply put, motivation produces effort . . . effort produces learning . . . engaged learners are better behaved . . . students who experience respect learn to show respect.

The teaching profession and, indeed, our society as a whole, are grappling with how best to prepare individuals in the information age – how to think critically, problem-solve, and collaborate in groups – all under the umbrella of technology. Well-paying manufacturing jobs are disappearing and aren’t coming back. Our society cannot afford to absorb the economic and human cost of a large segment that can’t compete or contribute. What is happening in too many of our schools is a tragedy of lost potential.

I believe that if our schools do the right thing for ALL our students, lives will improve and test scores will take care of themselves. Building a foundation for success – not remediation – is the focus for learning that sticks.

So will linking high expectation instruction with discipline that teaches responsibility be quick and painless? No – nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved easily. But as a former colleague of mine used to say, “You have to do things different if you want different results.” The time for different is now.

Dave Burgess is a retired school principal with Henrico (VA) public schools, an educational consultant, and associate adjunct professor for the University of Richmond (UR). At UR he teaches two graduate courses: Teaching Students from Poverty (Ruby Payne’s book is central to this course), and Practical Strategies in Instruction and Discipline. Contact him at davidburgess789@gmail.com.

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This post was written by David Burgess

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