The following blog post, by Kevin Cormier, was created in collaboration with TeachPlus.
A few months ago, scrolling through Twitter, I saw a post from former Minnesota Teacher of the Year (and great Twitter follow), Tom Rademacher, highlighting a Facebook post (it’s always a Facebook post!) in which an educator was advocating for a routine for connecting with “difficult” students – that routine is to commit with that student for a 60-second hug.
After discovering that it was not, in fact, a parody account, my mind raced. It started with, “Who would possibly think this is a good idea?” and quickly ended with me setting an over/under on how fast the police would be called if I did that. I’m a 45-year old male teacher of 7th and 8th grade. I generally have good relationships with most of my students, but those students are in their early teens, and embracing them for the same amount of time it takes my lunch to warm up in the microwave is probably not high on either of our lists of things we’d like to do that day.
Now, I had seen training videos about some of the ways in which schools and districts are incorporating Social Emotional Learning initiatives in their schools and districts. And, I did see one where there was a scenario that encouraged teachers to make physical connections with students – it was a kindergarten teacher. Not just a kindergarten teacher, but a female kindergarten teacher that just exudes the type of matronly qualities I certainly do not possess.
Our school is undertaking a much more intentional approach at incorporating SEL strategies into our daily routines. This is indisputably a good thing – though one could argue we’re probably even behind where we should be because for too long we fell back on, “We do that already” instead of breaking down what “that” is and should be. So, to be clear, I’m for it.
What is missing in many of these conversations is implementing it at age-appropriate levels. In a 5-8 middle school like mine, the strategies to use with 5th graders look much different than what works for 8th graders. And it’s much tougher to get current 8th graders, who have been in the school for three years, to immediately buy into new routines that they haven’t done, and likely think that they’re “too cool” to do. That’s the realism overlooked in much of the training material that I’ve seen to this point. So, you can set up a system like a call and response to regulate student attention with 5th graders as they enter a school, because they’ll think that’s how it’s always been; they don’t know any different. The older students are resistant to it.
Over the course of the next three years, we will be at a point where all students in the school will have that experience. That will be when we can truly build a whole-school culture, which we lack at times. But until then, I’m going to resist the calls to hug my students, and instead use my mornings to greet them all by name, have conversations with them about non-school activities, and try and build a rapport with them that is a little more age-appropriate.
My most successful strategy was straight-up stolen from Twitter: Attendance Debates.
Every student in my homeroom has a small magnetic name plate that I made for them – I start with their names as they appear on my opening day roster, but once I get to know them, I make them new ones if they have preferred nicknames (“Abigail” became “Abbey”, etc.). Then, on the whiteboard, there are three columns. All of the names start in the ABSENT column. The other two columns are divided by a piece of painter’s tape, and each one has a choice in an either/or question. When students come into homeroom, they take their name out of the ABSENT section, and choose one of the two options.
First of all, it made attendance much easier for me. I look at the remaining names, see if those students are there, and I’m done. But, more importantly, I get to learn a little about the students. I started picking the questions when I began this exercise last year, but after a while the students wanted to pick the questions (I only approve them for school-appropriateness). So, not only do I gain insight into my students about whatever that day’s poll is, but I also learn about what THEY want to know about their classmates. Every afternoon homeroom, a group of them hustle back to lay claim to the markers, and some debate amongst themselves about whether a question is worthwhile or not happens. Sometimes it’s a superficial question (“Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts?” was a recent poll), but sometimes it’s a little deeper – like the second day back from the holiday break, the question was about how students felt the first day back went (“Awesome or Tiring?” were the choices). Students who chose Awesome may have come from a not great home situation for two weeks and were happy to get back into a routine. And, recently, it extended a lesson from their Social Studies class which asked them to consider “Should Hate Speech Be Protected by The First Amendment?” I know that the discussion they had in my class helped inform their discussion the next day when they returned to Social Studies.
And this isn’t just good for my homeroom students – the poll and the names are on the board all day, so when other classes come in, they see the questions and they debate among themselves. They even discuss them in the hallway. And, as a teacher, I take it all in, gaining little pieces of insight into as many of my students as I can, in hopes of being able to use that connection in a meaningful way later. Sometimes it’s cool when the teacher agrees with you. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. But we learn a little more about each other every day, and that’s what lies at the root of all of the strategies, no matter what the grade level.