In Pernille Ripp’s latest blog post, Welcome Them All, she displays this sign created for her classroom. It gave me pause. We are days into school and only on the surface of learning the many layers underneath each student. Their stories are just beginning to unfold. Their identities remain largely unknown to us at this time, yet many of us have already begun to project identities onto them. We are days in, and the labeling of students has begun. And that’s where I pause because I wonder, have we even given them a chance?
Don’t get me wrong, labels, in and of themselves, are not bad. They are how we make sense of our world. But too often in education the labels we place on students come from a deficit mindset–their incapabilities, their rule-breaking.
In turn, these students become incapable rule-breakers in our minds.
Not a glamorous identity.
In Kylene Beers new book, Disruptive Thinking, she asks the reader to reflect:
Think of something you don’t do well. (golf). Think about how it makes you feel when you try it. (hopeful and anxious). Think about how it makes you feel when you try it repeatedly, and don’t make the progress expected. (frustrated, passive, defeated).
Now imagine doing that thing 7 hours a day for 190 days in front of your peers. That’s what we ask our struggling readers and writers to do every day.
And guess what?
It’s also what we ask our struggling behavior students to do every day.
We ask them to conform and follow rules and fit in boxes that their bodies and minds were not made for. Innocently enough our first actions are focused on fixing the behavior, but this often turns to a mentality of needing to fix the child. In doing this, we frame an identity for this kid that suggests they are broken in some way. Imagine having to work in that kind of space–where you are seen as broken and in need of fixing? It doesn’t exactly build a foundation for community or an environment for success, huh?
Furthermore, many times our solution to the behavior comes in the form of isolation–a safe seat, a buddy room, the recovery room. Again, none of these are bad, and that’s not the intended message. Safety is number one, and each of these have a place in keeping students safe. What I simply want to encourage is thoughtfulness when deferring to isolation as the solution, and here’s why: we have two types of students in our classroom–rules kids and relationship kids.
Rule kids are just that, they respond to rules. They have been taught to trust adults because adults want what is best for them, and they are surrounded by adults that live this message. “Rule kids” thrive on the structure and organization that rules establish. They’ve learned the system and the system works for them, so they don’t question it.
Relationship kids are the exact opposite–they do not care about the rules. If they did, they would follow them. Likely, rules have not played a large part in their existence and in their eyes, they are doing just fine. I’m here, right? Additionally, these students have to trust the adult imparting them, and this trust is not something that comes as naturally as it does for the “rules kids”. Typically, “relationship kids” are not surrounded by trusting adults, so it has to be earned. Continuing to remind them of and punish them for rules they don’t care about only creates madness and frustration for both parties. Your relationship kids respond to humans–they need the connection, they need the trust. When we send them away, so does our opportunity to create that connection so desperately need to succeed. We have to keep them close.
It’s also worth stating that the rules kids still need relationships and vice versa. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s just understanding that the thought process differs for each kind of kid when walking into a new experience or situation. One thinks, “What are the rules here? I need to follow them, and then I’ll get to know the people around me.” While the other kid thinks, “Who are the people here? Who can I trust, and what do they want from me? Those are the ones I’ll respond to.”
In the case of identities, we talk endlessly about shaping students’ to see themselves as readers and writers. What we don’t talk about is how we shape them to see themselves as successful, capable humans, even if the grade card suggests otherwise. Doing this gets buried under the demands of teaching content, yet the implications of doing so are far more lasting because when we do this we honor individuality. Students live under the fallacy that the successful people of the world are those that sat quietly and got good grades in school. We cannot continue to perpetuate this idea.
Each year teachers think about and fill their toolbox with many tools related to classroom management and curriculum and instruction. We are missing a key component. What tools do we have in place to connect individually with our students? To let them speak their identity to us, rather than us projecting ours onto them. What tools do we have for listening, for showing empathy, for focusing on their strengths, not weaknesses? We’ve got students hanging on by a thread, and we can be the connection that builds that single thread into a rope, pulling them back in and giving them hope through a life-changing relationship. We must use the power we possess to do just that.