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Promoting Academic Integrity

With the recent embarrassing mess that is the college admissions scandal, also known as “Operation Varsity Blues,”  today’s youth are getting a front row seat to watch the age-old adage come to life: cheaters never win. With high profile celebrities, executives, and elite colleges and universities involved, a spotlight has now landed on the intersection of where wealth and power meet educational opportunities. Common questions and considerations naturally arise when scandals surrounding the misuse of power and money are brought to light, especially in the realm of education—which some consider to be the “great equalizer.” All in all, most people simply wonder What happened to academic integrity and the value of achievements based on merit?

 

Of course, this current admissions scandal involves academic dishonesty on a grand scale, but anyone who tries to dupe the educational system likely has the same motive—that is, the need to avoid any potential failures. But what can we do to combat this urge to succeed and prove ourselves at any cost?

 

  • Parents and teachers should stress the importance of mastery learning, as opposed to performance learning. Mastery learning puts knowledge, growth, and personal improvement on a pedestal. Conversely, performance learning is driven by grades, points, levels, and rank. Essentially, we’re looking at intrinsic motivation (mastery) vs. extrinsic motivation (performance). While there is nothing wrong with the desire to prove oneself, the focus for performance learners becomes, “How can I make sure that I look the best, score the highest, and outrank my competitors/peers?” In this type of surface-level learning, knowledge isn’t the prize; the status acquainted with being “the best” becomes the end goal. Instead, parents and educators can take the following steps:
    • To encourage mastery learning, parents should talk with children and teens about how learning can have a profound and vital impact on their future. Talk about the opportunities and doors that education can open.
    • Explain how learning another language isn’t simply about AP credits or raising one’s GPA. Another language allows you to connect with others, verbally and culturally. As a skill, bilingualism is an asset in any workplace. Speaking another language also becomes a practical skill when travelling, either for work or pleasure.
    • Discuss how certain knowledge, skills, and abilities can translate into other areas of expertise. For instance, the dexterity and nimbleness that a surgeon’s job requires could be developed or improved by learning to play a string instrument or painting/drawing. Attorneys, researchers, and corporate executives will need to write proficiently for many different purposes. Seeing how this knowledge is applicable to a future career helps students to invest in what they are learning.

 

  • Present the “why” of learning to show that there is a greater purpose for these academic lessons and methods. Why do we learn about women’s suffrage, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement? It’s not merely to ace the history exam at the end of the semester. We may not remember the exact dates or famous landmarks involved, but the more significant take-away comes from the fact that, to know better is to do better. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot grow from our mistakes.
    • Teachers and parents can hone in on this mindset by discussing the significance of the information that we learn in school. Where would we be without the people that stood up against injustice? What would we be missing out on if people hadn’t taken risks? What advancements have helped to improve our planet, our daily endeavors, life-expectancy, etc.? To cheat on an exam about the Constitution is to rob yourself of this important knowledge regarding your guaranteed rights.
    • Even for the younger learners, it is important that students know how they will rely on these skills later on. For instance, my multiplication flashcards were the bane of my existence in elementary school, but had I known how much I’d rely on that basic skill, for everything from cooking and grocery shopping, to choosing credit card options and monthly budgeting, I’d be much more inclined to study intently before peeking at a peer’s quiz sheet.

 

  • Discuss what plagiarism really means, specifically highlighting the fact that this is someone’s intellectual property.
    • Students are probably aware of their school’s or district’s policy on plagiarism. Depending on how certain schools wish to handle it, students who plagiarize could face disciplinary action ranging from a failing grade to expulsion. However, in college, plagiarism becomes a much bigger offense. Let them know that even inadvertent plagiarism can be a huge issue for universities.
    • Parents and educators should be sure to talk to high schoolers about the serious consequences that they may face if they plagiarize any part of a college assignment. Students who plagiarize at the college level will face several consequences. They may be forced to drop the course and take it again, which essentially means paying to take it twice. Colleges may also decide to review the student’s academic record, including previous work and essays. Previous papers might be scrutinized to see if this level of academic dishonesty is a pattern. Many colleges dismiss the student all together—no money back guarantee!
    • Talk with students about how, just like movies, music, and art are protected under copyright laws, published material is protected as well. If someone plagiarizes another’s material, then happens to benefit financially from that plagiarized work, legal issues may ensue. Copyright infringement can result in damages, penalties, and even jail time.

Accountable Talk for Behavior Modification

The somewhat recent educational philosophy of accountable talk is rooted in the idea that, through discussion, students practice accountability for their learning and their contributions to others’ learning through discourse. To simplify, the word accountable means, “required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.” Therefore, when students are using accountable talk in the classroom, they are maintaining responsibility for accurate, verifiable evidence, support, or reasoning, and are expanding their own thinking through rigor and collaboration.

 

Since this strategy is shown to boost engagement, communication skills, and cooperative learning, why not utilize the same philosophies to support behavioral modifications? The idea translates quite simply—if students are able to practice accountable talk regarding academic content, try applying those skills to discussions involving behavioral issues.

 

 

Accountable Talk
Standard/Expectation

For Instruction,
accountable talk requires that students:

For Behaviors,
accountable talk requires that students:

Listening

  • Practicing active/attentive listening
  • Be able to summarize what another student said
  • Be capable of building upon a peer’s thoughts by adding their own considerations
  • Turn and face the peer or adult who is speaking to them; this demonstrates respect and builds positive communication skills
  • Maintain eye contact; avoid straying, daydreaming, and eye-rolling
  • Nod when in agreement to show that they are engaged and/or are aware of the other speaker’s position and opinion

Knowledgeable

  • Be able to defend their position, opinion, stance, etc. with evidence or support
  • Make connections between prior knowledge, other content areas, or a peer’s comment to establish relevance
  • Be able to verify one’s point if challenged or questioned
  • Unpack their position with details and analysis of how they arrived at such a conclusion
  • Explain why they made the choice that they did; discuss their thought process for acting or speaking the way that they did in class
  • Be able to recap or summarize the events prior to the incident or observed behavior
  • Examine the cause and effect relationship between triggers and decisions or responses

Reflective

  • Have opportunities to consider another’s perspective
  • Be provided with wait-time, as to ensure that thoughts are processed and responses are worded precisely
  • Consider how they might approach the task, challenge, or problem differently if given another opportunity or different circumstances
  • Think carefully before speaking
  • Consider the other person’s feelings or reactions to the incident
  • Connect this experience to something they have encountered previously
  • Brainstorm and discuss how this problem, quarrel, or conflict could be ironed out in more productive ways next time
  • Take responsibility for their actions and consider solutions for moving forward or making amends

 

Again, the same principles and benefits that accompany accountable talk practices for critical thinking and rigor during instruction can prove to be just as beneficial for addressing behavior concerns. The more opportunities that students get to practice accountability, whether with regard to academic content, or their own behavioral impulses, the more responsible students will become. Through accountable talk, they must not only listen to others to develop communications skills, broaden their knowledge, and expand on the ability to reflect, but also they must gain a sense of ownership in what they say and how they say it.

American Heart Month—Teen Relationships Pt. II

In continuing our look at unhealthy teen relationships, we hope to not only educate families on the warning signs, but also equip parents with methods to intervene. It is important to recognize that an unhealthy relationship is built by manipulation, coercion, intimidation, and by chipping away at a person’s self-worth. Because the abuse can have such a stronghold, it is crucial that parents know how to get their children out when problems begin to arise with their child’s romantic partner.

 

If suspicions arise, it is probably a parent’s first instinct to either “forbid” the relationship, or criticize the boyfriend/girlfriend in an effort to get their child to open his/her eyes to the issues. Parents should stifle both of these urges. Forbidding a teen from doing anything, especially seeing a partner, has a tendency to have an adverse effect. Rather than pulling the two apart, the demand might actually drive the two closer together.

 

  1. Instead, encourage time apart or to spend more time with close friends. Help your teen plan an “all girls” or “all boys” excursion, activity, sleepover, or weekend trip. The key is to create subtle distance by reminding children of their other friends and family that may have gotten the boot when the toxic relationship began.
  2. Instead of outright bad-mouthing their partner, focus the conversation around your teen’s feelings. Ask questions like, “I see you’ve been down, anxious, depressed and short-tempered recently, do you know what might be causing this?” Or, “how do you feel when so-and-so yells at you, criticizes you, controls you, calls constantly, etc.?” Your goal is to highlight the concerning behaviors by examining the effects they have on your child, not by outwardly criticizing the partner or abuser. Use your own experiences with controlling or difficult relationships or friendships to create a space for dialogue that is free of judgment. In the simplest, non-threatening way, you want teens to recognize the negative effects that this unhealthy relationship is having on them.
  3. Monitor and limit phone use if necessary, including text messages, voicemails, email, etc. Frame the conversation as though it is in your child’s best interest to give the phone a break during certain times of day. Create family expectations that during and after dinner, phones should be used minimally, and only for important circumstances. However, parents themselves should follow suit as well—it is difficult to ask teenagers to part with their phones if the adults are not willing to follow the same expectations.
  4. Seek help from a third party. An expert with a neutral vantage point, such as a child psychologist or family therapist, may be the key. Oftentimes, teens feel that parental advice is meant to control them or persuade them to do whatever it is that the parent suggests. A neutral third party willing to listen and absorb the whole situation from multiple sides will be better equipped at getting through to your teen. He or she is trained to help mediate family strife. Therapists are also often able to shed light on an issue without casting judgment or blame, making teens more apt to listen.
  5. Expose your teen to new experiences, hobbies, or activities as a means of taking his or her mind off of the significant other. Set up a family movie marathon, visit a local museum or art studio, go indoor rock climbing, plan a spa day, try cooking a new recipe together, or go to the driving range. The list is limitless when it comes to finding new outings for the family. Whatever you decide, make sure that your teen enjoys the activity and that it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The point is to create space between your teen and his or her significant other, while showing your teen that there are plenty more happy experiences to seek beyond this controlling relationship.

Creating a Positive Climate for Learning Pt. II

Whether schools are public or private, religious or non denominational, set in rural America or in bustling cities, the push for a more positive learning climate is a common thread throughout. Much like schools have their own ways of encouraging the entire student body, classroom teachers can employ different strategies to build the positivity around learning as well.

 

At the classroom level

  • Teachers can foster positivity before students enter the room with one simple tactic—stand at the door and greet students by name as they arrive. This easy, everyday practice is one that immediately sets the positive tone, not only for the classroom as a whole, but for a student’s motivation and engagement on an individual level. This is also a helpful way for teachers to gauge any academic or social-emotional struggles that a student might be experiencing. A student who slumps, walks slowly, appears emotionless or otherwise dreary might need some extra TLC that day. A student who appears to be agitated or worked up may need a moment to recover from an earlier incident before his or her learning can continue. Whatever the case, the point of greeting individual students as they enter is to demonstrate care for each and every learner. A simple, smiling “hello” lets students know that a teacher is happy to see them, excited to teach them, and open to communicating if a student needs a pep talk.
  • Encouraging growth, not instant perfection, is another way that teachers can positively reach those students who may not always get the honor roll, student of the month, highest GPA, etc. Praising and celebrating achievement in the form of growth allows students to see that, while natural intelligence is great, effort, motivation, perseverance, and grit are worthy attributes as well.
  • To track growth, teachers may want to have students create data folders or portfolios to collect and organize their work and scores. These simple folders help students recognize their own development and growth. They also motivate students to take accountability for and agency over their grades and schoolwork.
  • When students need a little extra encouragement, teachers should consider using real-life examples of successful people who once struggled. These inspirational stories of famous leaders, athletes, performers, scholars, etc., help students recognize that, with diligence and optimism, obstacles can be overcome.
  • Make it a point to recognize positive study skills, attitudes, camaraderie, behavior, and outlooks. When students are recognized for anything, the recognition reinforces that behavior, making it more likely that the student will want to repeat that behavior, practice, task, or skill. Of course, teachers should keep praise and recognition genuine—we don’t want to acknowledge when students are simply following the rules or directions; make sure that the act is praiseworthy.

 

When things are not so positive…

Consider time for a community circle or restorative justice meeting when things go off track. It takes time and effort (not to mention patience!) to establish a positive learning environment, especially where adolescents are involved. Teachers should not become discouraged after a rough day, or week, or even month—these things happen. Instead, educators might find that a restorative justice strategy is just the thing to help reroute the course. If behaviors, motivation, effort, academic integrity, or disrespect are prevalent issues during class, pump the breaks and talk about the issue directly.

    • Clear the class schedule or agenda for the day; a community circle does take up time, but it is time well spent when done properly.
    • Invite the students in as you normally do; however, ask them to sit in a circle with no other materials or distractions in their hands. You may want to have your room set up in advance, or you can ask students to add chairs to the circle as they enter.
    • Take a moment to go over the expectations of the circle: One person speaks at a time, comments are confidential and stay within the circle, participants should speak their truth, and students are allowed to pass the talking piece if they do not want to comment.
    • Review specifically what active and polite listening looks like; when a classmate speaks, students should shift to face the speaker, provide eye contact, listen attentively, and acknowledge a person’s moment to share.
    • Make sure that everyone agrees to the ground rules and that any distractions (pencils, phones, fidgets, candy, earbuds, etc.) are placed out of the circle.
    • Begin with a direct question about the issue you plan to address. An example might be, “When was the last time you felt disrespected?” As the facilitator, you should provide your own response to the question. Speak calmly and deliberately so that emotions are kept at bay, but your sentiments are still made to the group.
    • Pass the talking piece to the left or right and remind students that they do not have to speak or share unless they’d like to.
    • When the talking piece has made it back to you, the facilitator, thank the participants and ask the next question.
    • Alternate the direction in which the talking piece is passed around the circle so that everyone is able to share equally.
    • After the circle, ask students to reflect on what was said and how others felt. Ask students to reflect on their own feelings. Encourage them to think about how they as a class can use this teachable moment to make adjustments and progress forward.

 

The point of the circle is to build community and use communication as a positive tool to do so. As students get used to the process, community circles will become more proactive and meaningful.

Critical Thinking Skills as an Approach to Behaviors at Home

Especially as children become stir crazy cooped up inside during the winter months, behaviors can begin to plummet. Perhaps routines have been off, bedtimes have been extended, or one too many holiday desserts has sent someone into a tizzy. Whatever the case may be, we can always appreciate a fresh approach to dealing with misbehaviors. If time-outs, confiscated iPads, or groundings are wearing on the family, a different approach could be beneficial. With a little patience—okay, maybe a lot of patience—conversations where parents prompt children to think critically about their behaviors can change the way in which children see misbehaviors all together.

 

Critical thinking encompasses a complex set of higher order thinking skills. As opposed to memorization or fact-based knowledge, critical thinking includes relational, analytical, reflective, argumentative, or systematic thought processes. It is not so much what you know or think, but why or how you know and think that way. Because critical thinking often involves aspects of perspectives and/or decision making, these strategies can be the perfect platform for dealing with behavior management.

 

When siblings or peers argue:

  • Parents can mediate by asking questions about how an argument began. By taking a moment for reflective thinking, children begin to see how a small issue may have escalated or blown out of proportion.
  • If children are calling one another names, diffuse the situation by talking about how these are opinions; they are not based on facts. Just because someone calls you stupid certainly does not mean that you are stupid. These words hurt, of course, but ask your children why this person’s cruelness affects them; do you value this peer’s hurtful opinion?
  • Encourage siblings to take the other’s perspective for a moment. Ask why she thinks her brother acted that way towards her. Why might his friend have behaved this way? The key is not so much in finding the exact purpose, but instead taking a moment to consider where that other person could be coming from.
  • Ask about alternative responses for next time. Is there a better option for dealing with a conflict like this in the future? What is the best way to respond to your little brother next time this happens? What are we not going to do again, and why?

When “so-and-so’s parents” let them do A, B, or C:

  • A rational explanation and some critical thinking can go a long way when children are upset over things that other kids are allowed to do. Calmly explain that everyone’s family operates differently, and so-and-so might be able to stay up until 10 pm simply because their parents work late… Or perhaps so-and-so sleeps in and rushes out the door every morning…Or it is possible that so-and-so feels like a walking zombie at the school most days? Whatever the scenario, remind your child that there are reasons behind your household routines—and another family’s routine is frankly irrelevant.
  • Discuss the implications of these decisions. If a friend is allowed to see R-rated movies, but your children are not, explain how an inappropriate movie could make them scared, uncomfortable, worried, restless, sleepless, and ultimately cranky or sluggish at school. Help them connect the dots between the rules and their purposes so that they see these guidelines as meaningful, instead of arbitrary.
  • Ask your child flat-out: “Besides the fact that so-and-so is allowed, do you have a valid reason or justification for changing the rules this time?” This forces children and teens to justify or support their stance with effective reasoning.

When frustrations boil over:

  • Encourage children to take a beat to evaluate the situation—what can we do to potentially solve this problem or ease this frustration? Think about why this particular task is causing so much frustration and use that as a new point of entry.
  • If math homework is about to cause a fit, take a brain break, walk away from the math packet, and cool down. Then, approach the problem with a cool head and fresh viewpoint. Think about it in “grand scheme of things” terms—is this something that is going to keep me up all night or ruin my month? Chances are, this meltdown will be a non-issue in a matter of hours.
  • Help them break down the problem or situation and tackle the parts that they feel confident about. Remind them to apply what they know and then use those methods to chip away at the task.
  • If the task is still complicated, encourage children to write down exactly what it is that they don’t know or are missing—what would they need to solve this problem or complete this assignment?
  • Apply the skill to a simpler problem and use that momentum to approach the more complex problem. Oftentimes, in simplifying a question, we are better able to see aspects of the problem that we may have missed due to the complexity.

When problems are on the cusp or horizon:

  • Call it psychic power or paternal/maternal observations, but parents are often able to tell when an issue, conflict, or temper is about to erupt. Teach children this reflective skill by modeling how to gauge one’s feelings and emotions. This helps to avoid or circumvent conflicts or attitudes that could be problematic.
  • Discuss the concept of foresight and how such anticipation can help in our decision making. Remind children that everything they do has an impact or effect on those around them.
  • In considering these implications, children are able to pause to consider the ripple effect that any decision might have. The ability to contemplate and deliberate based on past experiences and logical reasoning allows children to make more informed choices, and thus behave in more considerate or responsible ways.

Dealing with School Drama at Home, Part II

Encourage honesty with themselves and their peers. Teach your teen the importance of giving and accepting genuine apologies. Remind them what an apology should look like and that it should never happen just for the sake of apologizing or out of obligation. If a friendship is truly over, encourage teens to have an honest conversation with the peer about their feelings, as opposed to just dropping or ignoring the other person. Mutual respect when ending a friendship means providing the other person with an explanation, no matter how uncomfortable that might be at first.

 

Provide an alternate perspective to encourage empathy. The teenage brain does not always allow for seeing the other side of the story. However, parents can help children mediate issues and deal with drama by respectfully playing devil’s advocate. Of course, you want your children to know that you hear their concern and that you support them. However, at the same time, it is imperative that teens begin to see how others may be affected by their words or actions. Parents can provide helpful insight by encouraging teens to think beyond themselves for a second. Consider what that other person might be going through at home. What issues could they be dealing with that your child knows nothing about? Is it possible that this drama began as a misunderstanding or came from some deeper level of hurt at home?

 

Teach them to exhibit maturity by walking away. This means that, when drama arises, teens should feel empowered to simply say, “I do not want to be part of this.” Remind children that, just because one of their friends is having an issue with someone, does not mean that they must automatically join in the drama or choose sides. The “mean girl” ages certainly see this pack mentality more often than male peer groups, but choosing sides can happen in any peer group. On that same topic, remind your child that she should avoid pitting friends against one another as well. Do not try to gain sympathy by spreading the drama or expecting friends to fight your battles.

 

Seek help from school. If your child or teen seems to be experiencing an unusual heaviness, but is hesitant to open up about the issue, parents have a responsibility to seek answers. This might mean phoning or emailing a teacher or counsellor about what he or she is seeing at school, both behaviorally and academically. It is helpful to know in advance which teachers, coaches, or mentors your child prefers, as these are the adults that they are most likely to open up to. Ask about noticeable moodiness, loss of appetite or avoidance of the cafeteria or recess, and any perceived changes in peer groups or social circles.

 

As a last resort, do your due diligence. If children simply are not opening up about the issue, parents should consider checking their child’s search histories, social media profiles, and any other digital platform that could provide insight. Of course, the issue of reasonable privacy and trust will arise, as no teen likes to be “spied on” or “checked up on”; however, parents must always err on the side of caution when something seems off. If your teen becomes upset by your actions, explain to him that your number one priority is always his safety and happiness—therefore, since you had reason to believe that a situation was causing him distress, you did what was necessary to help.

Do not, however, take matters into your own hands. If you find information about drama occurring on social media, do not react, respond, or step in online. Instead, speak with your child about the posts. A parent’s interference online can end up making issues worse. It can also cause a teen to be ostracized and/or further targeted. Instead, if you do find out that your child is dealing with peer drama online, use the information to initiate an honest conversation about what might be happening and how the situation can be handled appropriately.

Dealing with School Drama at Home, Part I

While the middle and high school years are most notably fraught with drama, elementary-aged children are also seeing their fair share of peer disputes and social squabbles. More often than not, drama that occurs during the school day makes its way home with students. Like gum on the bottom of a sneaker, a social issue with a peer tends to latch on and attract more dirt and grime throughout the day, only to become an even bigger issue later on. Since the prevalence of peer issues truly reaches all age groups, it is important that parents have plenty of strategies and tools to utilize when drama rears its ugly head.

 

Avoid fueling the fire or taking on the emotional burden. This is easier said than done because, of course, as a parent, your instinct is to defend and protect by immediately taking your child’s side. However, this instinctual defense mode could simply cause your child’s emotions to become even more dramatic. Instead, use these conversations as an opportunity to diffuse the situation simply by listening. Merely talking about the issue can bring about a level of comfort, so act as the sounding board, not the hype girl.

 

Try not to downplay your child’s feelings with phrases like, “Everyone deals with drama,” or “It’s not that serious.” Your perspective is helpful, but not when it serves to discredit or minimize your child’s feelings. As adults, we can easily forget how these moments in school felt like the end of the world.  Compared to our real world drama we get to experience in adulthood, these quarrels may seem like nothing, but to your child, they are a big deal. Therefore, it is important that they feel heard.

 

You want to be sure that you are not pressuring your child about maintaining or discontinuing a friendship one way or another. It is perfectly helpful for parents to give advice when it comes to friendships, but often times, you may find yourself saying things like, “You two have been friends for years, why let something like this ruin that?” Or, “Our families have known each other since before you were born, you should really try to work this out.” You must allow children to make their own judgement call when it comes to friendship drama; you also want to avoid minimizing their feelings by simply telling them to work it out for your own sake. Furthermore, just because the “close family friends” scenario is convenient, it does not mean that your children are naturally going to get along with your friends’ children.

 

Help them take their mind off of the drama by expanding their circle to include new peers and activities. Ask about neighborhood friends, after-school activities, weekend extracurricular opportunities, and clubs they may want to join. Sometimes a little “friendship break” is all it takes to breathe, regroup, and reset the relationship. In the interim, it is helpful for children and teens to have different options for socializing—casting a wider net ensures that drama can be avoided simply by socializing with other peer groups from time to time.

Hard Truths Part II

As we discussed in part I, our exploration of pivotal life lessons continues below. These lessons often involve the more difficult truths that reveal themselves organically in the classroom—the teachings that might not necessarily be prescribed in the curriculum, but that can be just as influential and beneficial for adolescents.

 

You’ll attract more bees with honey than you will with vinegar

This metaphor will take a little bit of explanation for teens to truly grasp its meaning; however, the realization is crucial for middle and high schoolers as they begin to navigate their way into early adulthood. Essentially, the proverb encourages students to use kindness, camaraderie, and an agreeable demeanor to assuage an otherwise worthy opponent or adversary. In social situations, especially when power structures or supremacy is imbalanced, it is to one’s benefit to appease, mollify, and react calmly when confronted. Educators can help students to understand this by modeling communicative, persuasive, and argumentative techniques. In showing students how to “work” an adversary more easily by leading with an affable manner, teachers can subtly teach students how to manipulate situations where an imbalance of power might otherwise nullify the student’s position. This hard truth also reminds students of the intense effect that benevolence can have in easing a situation or decision. Adolescents begin to learn that, while we cannot necessarily control another’s decision or behavior, we can have a meaningful impact on how that person reacts to our position or behavior.

 

Adults, including parents and teachers, have made and will continue to make mistakes

It always amazes me to see a student’s reaction when I apologize, admit fault or wrongdoing, or disclose flaws or previous mistakes. Teachers are occasionally held up on an undeserving pedestal, where students unconsciously align that adult with an expectation of faultlessness. Students tend to forget that, just like their peers, we adults are human, too. Parents, teachers, and presumably all authority figures have experienced failures, made mistakes, admitted culpability, and faced blame or defeat. This hard truth is two-fold, really. Adolescents need to know that everyone, including adults and authority figures, have flaws and commit missteps—no one is perfect. They also need to expect that, although they will age, mature, and learn, they will never be immune to errors—we are all a constant work in progress. To help shatter the impossible ideology that anyone in authority should maintain a level of perfect, teachers should be prepared to readily admit their mistakes to students. If we lose our tempers, err in our instruction, or provide misinformation, we must humbly admit these mistakes and use it as a teachable moment. When students witness adults owning a mistake, they begin to realize that to err is to be human. We all have something to gain from admitting our shortcomings or mistakes.

 

Your talents and passions may not coincide—and that’s okay—but don’t abandon either one

Wouldn’t it be nice if the area in which we were gifted or talented was also one of our personal passions? If we could simply master whatever skill, talent, or subject piqued our interests? Well, yes, of course, but the world does not work that way. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are just beginning to uncover their tendencies as learners. They have just begun to understand their strengths and weaknesses, hobbies and interests. That said, it is an important lesson to learn that, while we should always follow our passions and strive to grow our interests, we should also keep a keen eye on our natural talents and areas of strength. What we love to do might not be our greatest strength, and that is okay. It is important for adolescents to foster a growth mindset, meaning that they continue to strategize and work towards their goals, no matter the obstacles or challenges. Similarly, high schoolers should especially try to capitalize on their natural talents, as these could impact college and career options shortly down the road.

Hard Truths Pt. 1

The middle and high school years are transformative for students, marked by varied sets of challenges and mishaps. In a sense, educators have a front row seat to watch as students learn, grow, mature, and navigate their way through adolescence. Among the daily academic lessons, unit goals, and semester objectives, teachers are also given the opportunity to impart various life lessons. These hard truths are sometimes relayed covertly, often through scenarios that subtly allow students to seemingly come to these conclusions on their own. Other times, teachers impart these life lessons using a direct and straightforward delivery. Whichever the case, I’ve found that some of my most pivotal moments in the classroom, those moments in which relationships are formed and a culture of care is crafted, happen when students are gaining life lessons, rather than focusing solely on academic content.

 

Friendships will change—this is to be expected as people discover who they really are

This concept is especially challenging for middle schoolers, where peer acceptance is paramount. It is important for children and teens to understand that friendships are fluid, and while some friendships can truly last a lifetime, most are fleeting and circumstantial. Remind adolescents that as they grow older, begin to understand themselves better, and branch out socially, they will be more likely to make genuine connections with peers on a deeper level. With these sincere friendships comes the realization that perhaps other acquaintances were more surface level or temporary.

 

You will not always like everyone; not everyone will always like you

Similarly to finding their more authentic social groups, the teenage years are when students begin to discover that, while kindness is essential, there will be plenty of people that simply rub them the wrong way. It is okay and even expected that adolescents will encounter people that they simply do not care to be around. The hard truth, however, is that these “undesirable” peers are in fact going to be around. The key is to learn how to not only coexist, but to cooperate civilly. Does this mean you must befriend everyone you encounter? No, that is not realistic. But just because you are not someone’s biggest fan, does not give you the right to treat them any differently. Common courtesy is not conditional—your rudeness says more about you than it does the person you might dislike.

 

If the smartest, most educated person in the applicant pool cannot work well with others, they are likely to lose that position to a more collaborative/agreeable person with the more modest resume

For high achieving students, this hard truth is, well, hard to hear. Students are used to striving to be the best, know the most, and score the highest. However, that “every man for himself” strategy is becoming less and less desirable in the workplace. Admissions officers, project managers, and even chiefs of surgery will be seeking qualified applicants who are able to work well in collaborative settings. The person who always has to be right, or first, or fastest, or the best is also probably pretty tough to work alongside. This is where social skills truly set people apart. Remind teens that listening, cooperative learning, perspective-taking, and compromise are all exceptionally valuable skills.

Teaching Tolerance in Secondary Classrooms

Much of what goes on in our world makes its way into our classrooms in some form or another. In this sense, many view classrooms or schools in general as microcosms—mini representations of society. Ask any teacher, and tolerance is likely not part of their curriculum. However, much like with a productive and stable society, tolerance plays an essential role in creating a welcoming and productive classroom environment. Fostering a positive environment is no easy task, especially when our world is in the midst of such grave negativity. Tolerance in the classroom takes time, patience, practice, and reflection.

 

Remind students that everyone they meet knows something they don’t. Whether rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, foreign, or not—every single person has lived a different life, experiencing their own realities and garnering life lessons along the way. Instead of viewing someone’s vastly different experiences as weird or wrong, students should be reminded of the value that varying experiences, perspectives, and lifestyles offer.

 

Change the language of the classroom when it comes to discussing differences. To avoid “othering” certain groups, encourage neutral or positive ways to address differences. Instead of allowing students to use weird, odd, strange, unusual, etc. to describe people, groups, or customs, a positive classroom environment should be one where words like unique, unfamiliar, uncommon, fascinating, diverse, various, or distinctive are used.

 

Approach confrontation with logical questions. Since students bring differing experiences and opinions into the classroom, occasional clashes are to be expected. When this occurs, teachers can use these opportunities as teachable moments by addressing the issue with open, honest, logical conversations. Guided or rhetorical questions also allow students to reflect on their own perspectives and how they react to others. For instance, a teacher might ask, “In what way does his/her different opinion or belief threaten yours?” “Is there a reason that their differences affect you?” “How can we focus more specifically on ourselves and less on how others behave, speak, learn, etc.?” “What do you think you know about certain people? What if you took a moment to consider where these beliefs/opinions come from?” “Saying that someone’s choices are wrong do not necessarily make yours right.” “This argument could simply be de-escalated by considering it a difference of opinions.” All of these talking points prompt students to reflect on their own belief systems while maintaining an open mind towards others.

 

Learn how to recognize your own implicit bias. This is often a difficult practice for teachers—we aim to be impartial, objective, open-minded educators that provide equal opportunities to all of our students. Therefore, recognizing, questioning, and shedding light on our own innate judgments goes against what we are working towards in the classroom. It also summons feelings of discomfort by forcing us to identify our own stereotypes and belief systems. As difficult and uncomfortable as this may be, we must address our own biases before we can ask students to do the same. To foster tolerance, there must first be a foundation of understanding—what better way than to begin with our own reflections?

Create opportunities for students to learn about one another on deeper, more meaningful levels. Free writes, warm up topics, discussion starters, and icebreakers are all optimal opportunities to help build a solid, positive rapport in the classroom. Ask students to respond to questions such as:

 

  • What is one way that your family likes to celebrate an important accomplishment?
  • What types of traditions are unique to your family/community?
  • Do you have any rituals, superstitions, good luck charms, etc.?
  • Where do most family gatherings happen?
  • What important memory from your childhood makes you smile?
  • What does your typical Saturday look like?
  • What do you like to do on a snow day?