When teachers meet students where they are at—when they say “I will stay with you until you get it”—that is leadership. Inside the Conversation at The Good Men Project.
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Lisa Hickey: This is my first call from my new home in Pasadena. I am getting office space as of Monday, so if anyone wants to meet with me in Pasadena starting then, I’ll be able to. Also, I went to a meeting today of Innovate Pasadena, which is tech people, start up, and innovators. And Ken Goldstein, who is on our Board of Directors—spoke there. Ken has a new book out called Endless Encores, which is a business parable on how to repeat success with people, product and profits (in that order). And it was so inspiring—about how we re-invent ourselves through failure (and success) every day. We can’t exactly repeat success—because it’s already been done. So we have to try something that might fail. And the reason it might fairly is because we are relentlessly trying to make something awesome and world-changing. And that is hard.
Lisa Hickey: For today’s topic, I want to start with a story.
My youngest daughter had an internship this past summer. And the internship was working with ex-convicts in the heart of Harlem. She was assistant teaching a GED class, so these people who had been in jail for varying lengths of time could get a high school diploma equivalent. And the main teacher was working with a group of people, so she had a group of about a dozen people and she was teaching them fractions. And she’s at the point where she’s teaching about “lowest common denominators” and she sees a lot of blank stares. So she does a quick survey and realizes no one has heard the phrase “lowest common denominator” before. She then backs up to go over numerators and denominators and realizes that is still way past the people she is teaching. So she backs all the way up—to fractions and why they are important in life and why you need them and how they work. And all of a sudden the class lights up, and they are engaged, and they really want to learn. And gradually she was able to get them to understand “lowest common denominator” and how to multiply and divide fractions.
They people in her class were all different ages—the youngest was 18, the oldest was 60. They had been to jail for a variety of crimes, had been to different school systems in New York. The only thing that tied these people together, as far as my daughter could tell, was that they had all been to jail and none of them knew fractions.
And she said to me “I can’t imagine not knowing fractions. I never would have got to where I am, majoring in economics at a good college, without knowing fractions. I just take it for granted that I know them.”
And I replied, “That’s called privilege.”
When something gives you access to things, when it is a foundation to your success, when it is such a part of your identity that you take it for granted—that is privilege.
I think about the enormous responsibilities teachers have—that what they are teaching is not just “knowledge” but is really the foundation for what people need to survive.
And then — if you add in the gender mix, the way girls have been encouraged and the schools have changed the way they operate in order to make them more girl-friendly. And these changes have succeeded to the point where boys are now falling behind.
I’ve heard of two innovative solutions for boys who can’t sit still long enough to learn. One was that a teacher gave one of the boys a rolling chair, and he could sit on it on the carpeted area in the way back of the room, and as long as he wasn’t disruptive to the rest of the class he could use that to change the position of his seat.
And another—bigger, broader, more scalable solution that I heard about was in the form of a charter school, where the students are judged more on results than they are on time in the classroom. The school new that these kids were simply unable to attend all the time—some were also working, or came from unstable homes, or didn’t have the attention to sit through a full class. So this charter school arranged it so they did have to show up sometimes—but not nearly as much as in a regular school, and as long as the students met certain criteria and got results they could move on.
And the last thing that I’d like to tie in is the boy who brought the clock that teachers thought was a bomb. And that makes me sad on so many levels—the fact that teachers and administrators have this enormous pressure to make sure that kids don’t get killed while on their watch—but at the same time, that they would feel the need to arrest someone for building a clock. Protecting children from harm becomes so important that it gets in the way of learning. I think that is something we’re going to see the implications of across many diverse areas—from helicopter parenting, to safety on the internet, to dealing with people who have been through actual trauma and have PTSD and other problems—it doesn’t feel as if we’re equipped to handle it all.
I’d like to open it up to the group now:
Jed Diamond: It is vital we look at the issues of boys and men in school. One small bit of research I heard recently is that male’s hearing differs slightly from female’s. Males don’t hear higher pitched sounds in the way females do. So if there is a female teacher with a higher pitched voice, boys might not actually hear her as well and could be missing out on a lot.
Jessica Lahitou: I was the one who worked with the boy with the roller chair in my classroom. And I am finding there is not enough research done in the area of boys in school.
Also—with regard to the boy with the clock. I taught two boys in eighth grade. As a joke they wrote a bomb threat on a bathroom wall. It was obviously a joke, obviously done by a kid. But cause of the protocol, the police came, the school was evacuated. When they found out who did it, they arrested the boys who had to go to juvenile detention and were expelled from the district—not just the school but the entire district. And I had taught them both—they were good kids.
I think that 13-years olds just don’t have the historic context for the violence in schools they don’t have a deep understanding of how bad it is, and that is why it went so horribly wrong. I think we need to do a better job very clearly informing students that they will get in trouble for their actions.
Cynthia Barnett: This conversation made me think about the incredibly well-trained first responders—the ones responding to these critical situations such as potential suicides or hostage situation. I can only imagine the patience, wisdom, ingenuity and kindness needed to prevent people from doing things like that.
I’d like to tell a story that I heard about a chaotic situation in a classroom where a boy was acting out so violently that the students and teacher were terrified. They managed to leave the room and lock the student in there, where they could still hear him. Another teacher—not his regular teacher—went into the room and locked herself in with the student. She brought a guitar, and she played guitar and sang to the boy. While she was singing, the boy kept pointing to pictures of trains, and this teacher told the boy she understood that there was something about trains that was important to him. Turns out, the boy had been on a school bus that very morning, and they were stopped at a railroad crossing, and a train had gone by that was so loud and close that it was terrifying to the boy. Once the school administers figured this out, they changed the route of the bus so the boy wouldn’t have to pass the train.
What I learned is the quality of patience needed to uncover those obstacles. My daughter couldn’t get angles. The teacher, my husband and I kept going over it with her and just couldn’t figure out what the problem was. She just didn’t get it. Then we finally figured out—she thought the length of the lines mattered. Once she understood that the length of the line did not change the angle, she had a breakthrough.
Hector Ray: If we can realize the way the words we use have impact, then we can continue to get better at using words to have more of an impact. The words we use can help you get the outcome you are looking for—as teachers, parents and brothers. When I am not getting the outcome with words, I check my principles, and I check my my purpose. And I also ask if I am treating the other person with kindness.
Valerie Complex: In school, I was the one who sat in the back of the room and fidgeted. And my difficulty learning drove me until I learned what the issues were for me personally that were obstacles for learning. I then needed to tell my teachers, “This is how I need to learn.” I would make it as clear to them as possible what I needed. Then we could create a plan for how we could work together.
Hector Roy: One of the best things a teacher can do is remind a student that they are interested in you as a person. And that student will respond back.
Valerie Complex: I have a nephew who is 17. The way that he communicates with his mother—my sister—I find harsh. There is a lot of screaming going on.
But what I’ve found is that you have to meet people where they are at. A lot of people don’t ask enough questions.
I’d also be interested in studies that show mental illness in school and how teachers are aiding students where there is a problem, either in themselves or their families. I don’t think this gets talked about.
Hector Roy: When teachers meet students where they are at—when they say “I will stay with you until you get it”—that is leadership.
Cynthia Barnett: In 7th grade I had a math teacher, Dr. Savage. And this teacher had incredibly high standards and never smiled. But somewhere under that armor was deep compassion. She would say “I want and expect you to get a 90 on each test. Come and see me if you don’t do well, and I will explain to you what you don’t understand. I will be there for you.” And she was true to her word.
Hector Roy: I tell my students that the safest place to fail is in my own classroom.
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