Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Educators Must Become More Sensitive to Bullying Issues

An 8th grade student huddled in the rain next to the school building wall during a class period. I went outside to investigate and found him crying in the rain. On this day after Halloween, he told me that he had been unable to remove all the Halloween makeup off his face and that other students had been teasing him cruelly about his sexuality. This was not the first time; they had found ways to tease him before as well. He told them to stop but the teacher didn’t take it seriously and joined in the teasing, whereupon he ran out of the classroom crying. I knew this young man as a very intelligent student with initiative and was able to talk him into going inside to my classroom. I called the guidance counselor who led him to the guidance office. Then, I asked the vice-principal not to suspend this child for running out of the classroom. I expected understanding and cooperation. Instead, he raised his voice and laughed so that students in trouble sitting outside his office could hear. He concluded that he had to suspend this student. No one in authority understood the problem.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kindergarten Bully

When my youngest daughter began kindergarten a year early, she was a petite figure among giants in her class. After several weeks, she told me that one of the girls in her class was teasing her about her size. I figured it was a one-time occurrence and that would be the end. It wasn’t.

The next day she complained again and asked if I could do something about it and make it stop. It was obviously bothering her and it bothered me that another child was making her feel bad about herself. I thought about my options: go to the teacher, go to the parent of the child, empower my child to handle the situation. I thought the empowerment option was the best and that if it didn’t work, I would try the other options as a back up.

First thing I did was to talk with her about her feelings. I explained that it was not fair for someone to tease her about her size just like it was not fair to tease someone about the color of their skin. (Her class had students of several nationalities in it.) 

I acknowledged that the bully was right about her size but told her it was okay. Now I needed something to counter that. I said, “Yes, you are small in a class that has extra tall kids but I know for sure that you have a big heart.”  Now she could associate the word “big” with herself. 

Then I gave her a response for the next time the girl teased her. “Yes, you’re right. I’m small but I have a big heart.” This was a win-win situation. The bully was told she was right but the victim responded with the word “big” in a way that couldn’t be argued.

For the next half hour, we practiced the response. I had my daughter go to the end of the hall and practice speaking in a “big” assertive voice. My daughter was empowered with a way to deal with an unpleasant situation. 

I was prepared to bring in the adults to solve the problem but, as it turned out, the other options were unnecessary.  

Non-Academic Challenges in School

I  taught junior high English in Baltimore City between 1967 and 1975 where I met the usual and expected challenges of dealing with adolescents. When I returned to teaching middle school in 1988, the subject “English” had been changed to “language arts.” Not only was this vocabulary different, but I began to notice more subtle changes. For a long while I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it dawned on me that students lacked empathy for others on a large scale.

I observed and become involved because of these incidents:

  • An 8th grade student huddled in the rain next to the school building wall during a class period. I went outside to investigate and found him crying in the rain. On this day after Halloween, he told me that he had been unable to remove all the Halloween makeup off his face and that other students had been teasing him cruelly about his sexuality. This was not the first time; they had found ways to tease him before as well. He told them to stop but the teacher didn’t take it seriously and joined in the teasing, whereupon he ran out of the classroom crying. I knew this young man as a very intelligent student with initiative and was able to talk him into going inside to my classroom. I called the guidance counselor who led him to the guidance office. Then, I asked the vice-principal not to suspend this child for running out of the classroom. I expected understanding and cooperation. Instead, he raised his voice and laughed so that students in trouble sitting outside his office could hear. He concluded that he had to suspend this student. No one in authority understood the problem.
  • A 7th grade Chinese girl was teased daily by a group of girls in her class because her simple clothes were not the usual teen brands and styles.  She tried to ignore them and received care and support from teachers. However vigilant teachers are though, they cannot prevent all bullying. One day, some students put wet nail polish on her chair just before she sat down. Not only was she embarrassed and hurt, but an article of clothing that her family had struggled to afford was ruined.
  • An 8th grader, with whom I had worked in 6th grade, reminded me of the peer pressure students frequently put on successful students. She was an average student who wanted to help her best friend deal with her first experience of a death of a close relative. She also understood there were other students in the school struggling with the same issue and designed a grief project: a survey of 7th graders about their experience with losing loved ones through death; creation of a resource brochure to distribute to students; and an assembly she planned with a local hospice representative to talk with a select group of students about how to deal with grief. This unique project  was the last time she showed initiative. When I spoke to her 8th grade class about projects students had done in my program, I was planning to draw attention to the project she had completed. However, as she recognized the direction in which I was going, I noticed panic on her face and an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She did not want to stand out. Her peers  did not value success and she did not want their derisive comments to haunt her.
  • A 7th grade student in my class had experienced much taunting by bullies, but encouraged his victimization through his behavior with his peers. I was frustrated and had tried unsuccessfully many times to resolve the problem until an unexpected solution presented itself when I assigned a project. This student chose to research medieval music and to demonstrate it on his keyboard. His peers, tired of the drone of poor presentations, took interest. Peer comments afterward tell the verdict, “Hey, I didn’t know you were so cool.”
  • A group of 7th grade students were giving me a difficult time, making it impossible to teach them on a particular day. In desperation, I stopped trying to teach content and, taking a chance with potential adolescent cruelty, talked with them about my feelings. I talked to them, without lecturing but just as one human being to another, about how frustrated I was because they weren’t letting me do a good job. I tried to connect their feelings and behavior with mine and show them the similarities. I could tell from the looks on their faces that perspective taking was new to them.  I was trying to help them empathize.
What happened during the years I was not teaching?  Have attitudes really changed? The culture and media have changed. For example, when I first heard of a new television program called “Survivor,”  it sounded full of promise. I envisioned a group of people on an island faced with survival challenges that they would work together to overcome. Silly me. It turned out to be a  “me vs. them” situation. The prevailing competition, along with all the subtle innuendoes exemplified by reality shows, make a cultural statement. Do these television shows reflect a societal change?

In our schools, should we accept that “kids will be kids?” Should we accept the prevailing attitude that bullying is a rite of passage that all kids go through in growing up?  This kind of behavior is not new to our times, but research shows it is much more prevalent than it used to be and it creates very damaging long-term effects on the victims and bullies..and the very fabric of our society.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Easy Grading

From the Washington Post:

Why Easy Grading Is Good for Your Career

By Jay Mathews
Friday, January 30, 2009; 6:13 AM

New Jersey high school teacher Peter Hibbard flunked 55 percent of the students in his regular biology class the year before he retired. There were no failures in his honors classes, he said, but many of his regular students refused to do the work. They did not show up for tests and did not take makeups. They did not turn in lab reports. Homework was often ignored.

"Still, the principal told me that the failure rate was unacceptable, and I needed to fix it," Hibbard said. "The pressure to give grades instead of actually teaching increased. A colleague told me that he had no problem. If students showed up, they got a C. If they did some work, they got a B. If they did fair or better on tests, they got an A. No one ever complained, and his paycheck was the same. He was teacher of the year, and a finalist for a principal's job."

I often get helpful letters from teachers. They are fine people who assume I am educable, despite evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, as in Hibbard's case, teachers are so candid and wise I am compelled to quote them, and see if readers share their view of reality.

Here is what Hibbard told me:

"The pop phrase is that 'those who can't do, teach.' I would like any serious critic to spend a month in the classroom. It is easy when you are a guest speaker and don't have to worry about discipline. But do the planning, maintain interest, do practice and review, write and grade a test or three, and then deal with the parents. In your spare time, maintain records, deal with teen angst and crisis, monitor the bathroom (I went to college for this?) and be available for extra help. Break up fights and shouting matches over who loves whom more, and shepherd students to assemblies and fire drills.

"The message comes from the top. When the leadership sets the example, and backs the good teacher, it is so much easier. When I have to justify failing a student who refuses to try, you can only tilt at windmills for so long."

Hibbard taught biology for 27 years. Before that he was a field biologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department and a lobbyist on environmental issues for the housing industry. He thinks his experience in the field was invaluable. When he started teaching he was able to give students practical answers to the frequent question, "Why do we have to learn that?"

He said when his students asked why he left a job in industry for teaching, which paid less, he replied that his reasons were selfish. His students were the citizens who would pay for his Social Security. "The more they learned, the more they earned, and the more they made, the better off I would be when I retired," he said.

To Hibbard, one of the most irksome parts of teaching was leadership that failed to take responsibility for its mistakes. "I was part of a committee to choose a new text series," Hibbard said. "We were given three choices, all terrible, and all from the same publisher. The public was told that the poor choice was because the teacher picked it. We had no options other than the three presented."

In retirement, he is working part time on a program to give prospective teachers some of the real world experience that helped him. I decided to exploit his experience also, by asking his solutions for the apathy and buck-passing he observed. He sent me seven ideas. I am going to play teacher and grade each suggestion, based on wisdom and practicality. Let me know if you agree. These are direct quotes from his e-mail:

1. Get parents involved, not in the grades, but in the learning. If Johnny cuts school or misbehaves, on the third detention, one of the parents must also be present. The time should not be "quiet time" but a session with a professional on behavior modification. Parents have actually asked me what to do because their child wouldn't listen to them. One dad asked his son why he didn't turn in homework. The kid's response was, "Shut the [expletive] up, Dad" And daddy shut up. Dad had previously yelled at me over the phone about failing grades. I had guidance arrange a conference. Guidance and I knew where the problem lay.

Jay's grade: A (Many of us parents hunger for support of our desperate attempts to deal with teenagers. Those of us who are totally clueless can still use a taste of reality.)

2. Since we cannot require teachers to gain more experience in their field, the school system should arrange for industry to pick up teachers on a paid internship during summers. Either colleges or school systems can do this, and to meet some districts' five-year continuing education requirements, at least 20 weeks should be required during the five years.

Jay's grade: B (This strikes me as expensive, thus unlikely, but worthwhile.)

3. Do away with social promotion. The federal government should set specific standards for knowledge and application. States may add to it but not teach less. The committee that sets the standards should have equal numbers of teachers, administrators, college officials and business executives. Parents should have representation. Recommendations should start on the local level and be sent for review to the next level up. A national committee sets standards. Students who do not pass the test at the end of the year are retained. They may get supplemental help during the summer, and retake the test before the fall session starts. How this is paid for should be a local decision.

Jay's grade: A (This is expensive, too, but essential. It is possible under our current system to miss half of the questions on some state achievement tests and still be judged proficient in that subject.)

4. Protect tenure. I almost lost my job because I failed an administrator's child who did no work and got in my face, assuming his parent's position would protect him. Good teachers must not be subject to political pressure for grades. It happens far too often. On the other hand, unions must sit with the administration and decide on a procedure that does not protect the bad teacher. In one district, a teacher with political connections was reassigned to three schools, getting a student pregnant in each one. He eventually became an administrator with no student contact. Others relied on being popular with the students and did little real teaching. Reading the sports page out loud is not teaching history. Nepotism must be banned, not just discouraged.

Jay's grade: C-plus (The problem is real, but enforcing tenure rules is not a solution. As Hibbard's own clash with his principal shows, an administrator can wear down even a tenured teacher.)

5. Funding must be reliable and consistent. In New Jersey, the entire budget is sent to the voters. While they provide the students, they don't approve enough money to educate them. We refer to it as expecting a Cadillac education for the price of a Chevy. As a result of new construction, my district saw an influx of 1,200 new students with no increase in funding. Developers should be required to place money in escrow against the need for new construction. Towns should increase the funding for new development based on the taxes received from the new residents or industry. Instead, the town keeps that money because they have financial trouble too. The result of budgets being voted down was science books that were 15 years old in my classroom, and lab tables that were crumbling.

Jay's grade: C-minus (Reliable and consistent funding is a fine thing but impossible to arrange in a free-enterprise, non-recession-proof democracy. So this is a pipe dream.)

6. Give teachers ownership of their program. With the requirements set by the state and district for what is learned, the teachers should have sufficient collaborative time to decide how to best achieve the goals, what books to use and what equipment is needed, within the limits of the budget. Most people with any skills want to be told what the job is, but not how to do it. That is why I went to college, and go back for continuing education programs.

Jay's grade: A-plus (Harnessing the creative energies of teachers is the key to making schools work.)

7. Districts must set up programs for parents during the evening or weekend for those who want to learn how to help their children with school. So many parents tell me that they didn't do well when they were students. They understand their children's frustration, but they don't know how to help. They must be part of the new programs, such as new math or whole language. Once part of the process, they can speak from experience, not frustration, if a program does not work. First grade teachers often teach study skills, but after that some teachers assume students know what to do. Teach these skills to both students and their parents throughout their school careers. What is learned in partnership will be retained better. Besides, who is the greater role model for the child: a teacher they see for only a few hours on weekdays, or their parents?

Jay's grade: A (My mother taught parent effectiveness classes after she retired as a classroom teacher. They were very popular, and I wish more parents had the same opportunity to learn proven techniques.)

Saturday, March 23, 2002

A Few Quotes for Thought

"Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him." ~ Booker T. Washington

"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come ." ~ Isaac Asimov

"The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do." ~ John Stuart Mill

"Our plans miscarry if they have no aim." (?)

"When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind." ~ Seneca

"All lasting wealth comes from enriching others in some way." ~ Brian Tracy

"Out of clutter, find Simplicity." ~ (?)

"From discord, find Harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies Opportunity." ~ Albert Einstein

"Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, 'What's in it for me?'" ~ Brian Tracy

"The starting point of all achievement is desire. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat." ~ Napoleon Hill

Monday, March 4, 2002

Department Meeting

Department meeting today - Discussion of report of Southern Conference and Making Middle Grades Count:

My comments at meeting:

1. Everyone (at the top) is adding their own special ingredients to the soup and because of this we lose the ability to focus and be effective.

2. The emphasis on data makes us lose connection with the human beings we are teaching.

Glad I'm getting out. I don't want to be a part of what we're doing to kids. No one listens to the teachers in the trenches.

Friday, February 22, 2002

Absolutely the Best Dentist

This originally appeared on the Web site, American Association of School Administrators. The original link is no longer active but it was a guest column that appeared in June 2000.

Absolutely the Best Dentist


My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me. And, at 52, I've still got all my teeth.

When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the state’s new initiative to help him succeed in his work. I knew he'd think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.

"No," he responded. "How will they do that?"

"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"That's terrible," he said.

"That's not a good attitude," I told him. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele? So much depends on things we can’t control.

"For example," he went on, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also, many of the parents I serve have allowed their kids to consume way too much candy and soda from an early age, unlike more-educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he continued, "so many of my clients have well water that is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

On the Defensive

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.

"I am not!" he protested. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."

"Don't get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned the color of a beet. From the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth.

"Try furious," he raged. "In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse. My more-educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called state rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

"I think you are overreacting," I said, turning to some printed material about the new statewide accountability program. "'Complaining, excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental health.' That was straight from a leading member of the DOC."

"What's the DOC?" my dentist asked.

"It's the Dental Oversight Committee, a group made up mostly of laypersons to ensure dentistry in this state gets improved," I explained.

"Spare me," he said. "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won’t buy it," he said with hope.

Help at Hand

The program still sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said.

"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you."

"How?" he asked.

"If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.

"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? Big help."

"There you go again." I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children’s progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

Legislative Rescue

I just shook my head sadly, but he had started to brighten. "I'm going to write my representatives and senator," he said. "I'll use the school analogy--surely they will see the point."

He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and suppressed anger--the same sort of look I’ve seen in the mirror a lot lately.

John Taylor is superintendent of the Lancaster County School District, P.O. Box 130, Lancaster, S.C. 29721. E-mail: