The new school year has begun. Heavy book bags, textbooks, lunch boxes, school supplies, and grades are the focus. Millions of students are waking up with different levels of trepidation about school. Will my teacher be nice and fair? Will I be liked and have friends? Will I look stupid? Will I know the answer when my teacher calls on me? Will I have enough time to do my assignments? Will I make good grades? Will I have a life anymore? Having researched and worked in conventional education as a teacher, administrator and a W.E.L.L. Coach for the past 25 years, I found that the level of stress students feel about school is extremely high. And for the most part, the teachers and administrators stress levels are high too with all the pressure to do well on standardized testing and to graduate students to their next level. If I had to boil it down to two underlying questions that would tie the stress together for everyone, it would be – “Will I be good enough to be successful, and will I be liked and belong?”
The current educational system philosophy and structure was created over 150 years ago to mass educate large numbers of students in the same way to do the same types of jobs. Since then, volumes of research have been done that show what students really need to be successful and belong in our world today. Teachers and administrators who know this information struggle to implement it because they are afraid that if they don’t use their time to teach to the standardized testing information, their students will not do well, the school will not get their needed funding, and they will lose their jobs. (Funding, salaries and jobs are based on standardized test s). What I have found is the old, one-size fits all disempowering, conventional educational system that focuses on standardized testing is pretty much the underlying cause of stress and is doing way more harm than good. Our young people are graduating from college not having the confidence and skills their employers say they need. This generation of students have gone to school to get good grades because they’ve been given the message loud and clear that this is the pathway to success. This is just not true and our students are paying the price for it emotionally, socially, physically and mentally.
It is time for the educational system to change and put the values, talents and needs of each student first and be a model of self-responsibility, respect, compassion and resilience. Thousands of educational leaders, researchers, teachers and parents know this and the momentum of the BIG SHIFT is beginning to happen. Thank goodness for the educators that are doing their best to move away from the conventional model that disempowers and into the new model that empowers our 21st century students.
In my Empowerment Education research, I have cultivated over 25 Empowerment Education Principles of Success that serve as critical and effective strategies that teachers can use to help shift their classrooms into healthy and empowering environments so today’s students are getting what they need to thrive in school, career and life.
There is ONE foundational principle that leads all the others because it is the one the others depend on. This principle is CONNECTION and it is the key to building students’ capacities to be more confident, skillful and free to be themselves which are vital to being healthy, empowered and successful overall.
Connect, Connect, Connect
Being able to connect is easier said than done because of the lack of social-emotional skills being taught in our society. But when teachers learn to empower students through connection, they will find that it will rekindle each student’s natural desire to learn, grow and contribute and be able to find their own way to success without the manipulation of grades and negative behavioral management.
What is connection?
University of Houston’s Social Work Researcher, Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” When teachers can step into the shoes of their students and see things from their perspective with empathy and compassion, a deep sense of trust and respect develops. This sets up a strong foundation so students are more confident to be themselves and make mistakes without feeling judged. (growth mindset) Judgement is the main deterrent that keeps students from having the freedom, confidence and skills to be themselves. Connection is the main foundation for learning social and emotional skills which should be a priority in the classroom. As young people learn key social-emotional skills, they have better outcomes in all areas of their lives including academics and behavioral management for the teacher becomes easy.
Here are a 5 basic strategies for teachers to have the best chance of connecting with students.
1-Take time every day to learn about your students.
Let them talk, talk, talk about who they are, what they love, what their fears are, what causes stress, and what they do when they are stressed. Help them determine how to best get their needs met when they are struggling. Be open to their suggestions. Mendler (ASCD, 2012) found that by just asking behaviorally struggling students about their hobbies, home, friends and anything but school and behavior for 2 minutes every day for 10 days, resulted in significant positive changes in behavior and engagement. What do they love? Connect with them through working and playing with them. Get into their world and create projects that get them excited and learning about the things they are passionate about and relate to the real world.
2-Reflect back to students that they are valued.
When students are talking, model how to listen. Look at them with compassion and accept and validate what they say instead of judging them, telling them their wrong, or try to fix them or change how they feel in that moment. Get curious and try to understand their point of view. Ask them what do they think would help them. Guide them to what would work for the both of you. This can be a challenge when students are upset or not doing what you want. But treating them with respect will save time and build more connection in the long run. Take the time to send the message that who they are and what they want to learn is more important than the grades they make and that you will do your best to support them in making sure they get what they need to succeed. Get them oriented to why they want to learn and come to school in the first place. Connect them to why learning your subject or being in your class is important to them (and important to you).
3-Teach and model how to get along with others.
Teachers who can model and teach conflict resolution and democratic principles in the classroom, have more connected and successful students, bottom line. When students are sharing, working, playing or collaborating together it is vital that everyone learns to move through challenges and still feel good about themselves no matter what. When you or your students get emotionally triggered by something and are upset, make sure you have different activities that they can choose from (that they decided upon ahead of time) that they can do to calm down and get refocused.
4-Have the students help in designing classroom guidelines so they feel safe to be themselves and can be successful.
Prior to beginning of school, either select your own or use your school’s set list of 3 or 4 main school values such as respect, learning, fun, safety. (Sometimes these spell out the schools mascot like “B-E-A-R-S”.) With the students, design positive guidelines for these values. For example, under the value of learning, the guideline of “asking for help on an assignment right away if there are any concerns, or questions” will build all four of the “Selves”. Or under the value of respect – “find your calm place when you are mad or upset and ask for support when you are ready so you respect yourself and others.” Or, under the value of fun – “if you are doing something that is not fun, put the frowny face up on your desk or give a thumbs down where the teacher can see it and we will talk about it so you can find value in it.” As the teacher models and guides the students in how to do these things through connection, then there will be little need for negative consequences even for the most challenged students. When these guidelines are designed effectively, they should increase the students abilities to build their “4 Selves” – self-leadership, self-responsibility, self-discipline and self-worth.
5-Be light-hearted with your students.
Don’t take things personally or so seriously. Have fun with your students as you are holding them accountable for the values of the classroom. No need to be angry or yell. Stay calm and connected. When students don’t follow the classroom values, schedule an “empowerment coaching session” with them to determine what was going on that had the students forget the value they believed was making their classroom a place they loved to be, with people that care for them and think they are amazing human beings.
What if the truth was that every student was good enough just for being alive. Many people would think this thought too simple. However, this is what human beings naturally want more than anything else even if they don’t know it. We must ensure that our students feel this about themselves no matter their grades or performance. If they do, they will naturally grow, learn and contribute to your classroom and their community in ways they never thought they could, creating a more connected and peaceful society.
Dr. Meg Hanshaw coaches and consults teachers and principals in the Empowerment Education “Principals of Success” designing a classroom or school plan that meets them right where they are then moving forward with small actions steps (or big ones) to shift into a thriving empowering and healthy learning environment where everyone thrives.