Years ago, a student walked into Miss Nelson’s classroom and behaved because if she didn’t, she would receive “the look,” parents would get a note or phone call, and the child would get in trouble when she got home. Good behavior was an expectation of most parents. Teachers were respected as being knowledgeable and having the best interest of each child in mind when they dealt out assignments and discipline. Parents supported the teachers; teachers supported the parents.

We’ve seen a shift in our attitude toward schools, teachers, and education. Barriers are being erected,

Barrier 1: Policies Restricting Schools and Teachers

We have seen a shift in the public’s respect for our teachers and our schools due in part to elected officials creating new requirements for teachers without a clear understanding of what is feasible. Adding more and more to our teachers’ list of responsibilities without giving them the time, training, and support they need is undermining the respect of the profession. No wonder we have high turnover and low numbers entering the profession. Asking a teacher to do more than humanly possible in a ten-hour day, not just an eight-hour day, and pointing a finger and calling it incompetence when things don’t get done is what paints teachers in such a negative light that our society has lost respect for teachers and teaching.

Christopher Flor, a central office employee of a major school district in Tennessee, agrees. He says many of their experienced teachers are retiring or leaving the profession for higher-paying jobs. He sees greater instances of parental disrespect for teachers. Teachers often don’t have the training/tools to handle these situations.

According to Dr. Jennifer Williams, former principal and current central office administrator in a large school district near Houston:

There is a growing distrust that is happening between schools and the home which makes teaching and learning difficult. Parents do not trust schools and schools are not effectively communicating. Parents are left to make up their own stories about what is happening at school. When you add the growing mistrust to the fact that schools are understaffed or staffed with those who are unqualified, the disconnect gets increasingly larger each year. For an educator, communication is key. We have to provide clear, consistent communication that tells our story in a positive light. We have to make the effort to share the why and what of school so that it begins to break down those areas of distrust.

Barrier 2: High-Stakes Testing

Another issue is our practice of high-stakes testing. Tennessee has now joined the ranks of states holding students back if they don’t pass a third-grade-level achievement test. There are many who disapprove of the practice of making a test so important that eight- and nine-year-old children are so stressed and anxious that they become physically sick. Moreover, many question the validity of the tests. Michael Holland, executive director of Region 6 Education Service Center in Texas, referred to Natalie Wexler and her work with the teaching of reading and comprehension and standardized testing. She maintains privileged students have more opportunities to acquire knowledge and vocabulary through experiences outside the home than do children of poverty. Therefore, children of poverty have much less background knowledge and familiarity with the topics on reading tests, creating a disparity of knowledge and experience rather than skills.

However, testing is not going away anytime soon, so we have to figure how best to help our students be successful. A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne was a game changer for me when I was teaching in a district in which 88% of students were economically disadvantaged. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t reach some of my students in order to build the relationships we all know are necessary to teach: before knowledge comes love, trust, and caring. Jill Dworsky, our school principal, saw the need and requisitioned Dr. Payne’s training for us. Suddenly, everything made sense, and my teaching ability ramped substantially, to the point my students and I were able to form better connections. My test scores also soared as a result.

Barrier 3: Policies Restricting Discipline Options 

Legislatures throughout the country have restricted administrators as to what they can do to correct a student’s behavior. As pointed out by Dr. Williams, when a discipline is not effective, students return to class to disrupt again, causing diminishing rapport between the teacher and administrator, as well as the parent.

Tara Williams, assistant principal for a large school district in South Texas, points out:

Schools are seeing more and more [homeless and] foster care facilities housing students with significant behavioral concerns. The trauma these students face usually requires one-on-one support. State funding provides minimal support and resources to meet the many needs of these students.  From [Ruby Payne’s Emotional Poverty] training last year, we gained valuable insights into the importance of building positive relationships with students, creating learning environments that are welcoming and inclusive, and using proactive strategies to prevent misbehavior or de-escalate behavior. We used specific strategies as calming techniques to de-escalate students when they were experiencing high emotions. One specific strategy that we used “in the moment” was getting the students to look up when they were upset. This strategy worked consistently because when students look up, it’s harder for them to access emotions. On the ceiling of our “reflection room,” we had stars for this very reason.  Another strategy we used with good results was offering water to students because water helps the body to break down cortisol. We also learned about the benefits of implementing restorative practices in schools and their positive impact on student behavior and academic performance.

 Barrier 4: Culture Wars

 Culture wars take valuable time away from teachers, administrators, school boards, etc., that could be devoted to instruction and student well-being.

 Until politicians across the country request educator feedback in order to discern what is feasible, raise teacher pay to a level competitive with outside interests, and stop creating mandates for school systems that are not in the best interest of the students, the education system is going to have problems.

However, academic performance and student behavior do not have to be in a state of chaos. aha! Process has given us explanations of behaviors and the research-based strategies needed for dealing with the different kinds of behaviors we see on a daily basis. Let’s take the time to reread, rethink, and reimplement them for a healthier, calmer, and more productive year.