"I have a real concern about the way these kids treat each other," he said. We were gathered in the school library for another conversation about the bullying issues bubbling up in the intermediate school. "They put each other down. They talk to others as if they're ignorant. They say and do things on social media that they'd never have the guts to do to someone else face to face."
"Exactly!" his colleague agreed. "They live inside of their phones. Why do we let them have access to those monstrosities in school? They don't need their phones. They need to be talking to one another and paying attention in class."
"It's all distraction," he said. "They can't focus. How could they? They're blasted with information and social drama all day long through those devices. And it's vicious. No wonder we're surprised when it all erupts. We can't see it coming to a boil anymore. It's all happening online, and when it explodes in school, we're all surprised."
"And their mommies and daddies just want to be their best friends instead of setting limits," someone chimed in from the back. "No one wants to be the bad guy anymore. These parents indulge them to no end. Their children do no wrong. It's everyone else that's the problem."
"The trophy generation," he said. "Everyone gets a prize. It's all reward and no punishment."
"You know, the last time I sent a student out of my room for misbehaving, he wasn't even punished by the principal. That's right. They had a cozy conversation instead, and he came back to class beaming," another teacher lamented.
"It used to be that a principal was feared," he said.
"Our kids love ours because he lets them get away with murder," the voice from the back of the room added.
"And now kids are bringing guns to school and shooting up classrooms."
"Well, that hasn't happened here, but I was shoved by a student last week."
"I was spit at."
"I was hit."
It's a common story.
Ellen and I wrote our book because we've spent much of the last two decades watching teachers and parents struggle hard in the face of shifting school culture. Like you, we're aware and afraid of all that seems to be going wrong. We've also witnessed much that is going right, too.
We wrote the book because we want to share those ideas with you.
One of the most important things we've learned is that often, healthy school cultures are born in classrooms. They take root inside of the relationships that are built between teachers and students and families, and they thrive inside of compassionate classroom communities.
But what kind of communities? That's an important question.
Classrooms are systems that often function much like families. Healthy families produce healthy individuals. Dysfunctional families produce less healthy individuals, and this creates challenges that all of us must face and work to heal, regardless of who we feel might be to blame.
Even if we feel we aren't responsible for the damage done, we must have the wisdom to respond in ways that heal it. We've learned that compassionate classrooms are typically led by teachers who strive to be response able in the face of dysfunction even if they aren't responsible for creating it. They appreciate the distinction between responsibility and response ability.
So, what makes someone response able?
Response able people are willing to do their own work, even as they inspire others to change. There are many ways to do this, of course. Consider these examples:
1. Some teachers have begun to explore the unintended consequences of identifying bullies and attacking bullying head-on. Do you ever notice how, whenever the word "bully" is employed, people tend to dissociate it from themselves and those they love? It's pretty easy to identify the bullies in most systems, but how often are we willing to recognize at least some of those tendencies in our own selves?
When someone is behaving like a bully, shame and punishment might provide short term satisfaction. Ellen and I agree: A bully's behavior should not be without consequence. Justice matters, and shame and punishment often provide the illusion of it.
Real solutions that truly improve school culture demand a different kind of thinking, though.
What might change if we dropped the shame, owned the fact that we're all human, and learned how to gently call ourselves and one another out when we behave in ways that diminish others or their experiences or worse, intentionally undermine them?
The fact is that we all tend to feel justified when we behave this way. We tell ourselves that others struck us first, that their thoughts or actions are wrong, or that we're simply standing up and protecting ourselves or those we love. With right on our side (or our perception of what's right, at least), we act in aggressive or worse, passive aggressive ways, and we justify our behavior by reminding ourselves of our virtues instead of our vices.
Here's something else to consider: When bullies are identified within any system, they're often ostracized. I can't help but wonder: How's that approach working out for us right now? That sad story is all too common as well.
2. Some systems have begun to use mirrors and not just magnifying glasses, in order to elevate levels of respect. When children speak disrespectfully to one another or to their teachers we're quick to notice, but how often do we reflect on our own tone of voice and the level of respect we treat others with--especially those who have less power than us and those who have made us angry?
Several years ago, a friend and I were discussing ageism, a brand of stereotyping that occurs when we make universal assumptions about people based on their age. Children are often victims of ageist beliefs and behaviors, particularly when the adults in their lives are trying to redirect or correct them.
"Spend a few days paying attention to how you speak to your own children," she suggested. "Listen to how others speak to them too, especially when they're trying to help them do better. Then ask yourself if you'd ever speak to a friend that you respect in the same way. Ask yourself how you would feel if someone spoke to you that way."
This was a life changing moment for me. Those questions are giving many other people pause, too.
3. Finally, the response able teachers that we have met are revisiting their classroom policies and practices with careful intention. "We put these rules and guidelines and procedures in place to establish and maintain order," a teacher recently told me, "and that's important. I'm not suggesting that any of these things are bad things."
It's important to consider the unintended consequences of our policies and practices, though. Are they cultivating the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that we value, or are they undermining them? This kind of alignment matters, and response able teachers make time to study and improve it.
How might we create response able school cultures?
Character education and bullying prevention programs are common, and while we know that some of these efforts are helping, they just aren't enough. Healthy school cultures aren't created by layering initiatives like these on top of policies, practices, and relationships that undermine their development.
Maybe it's time to do some deeper work.
A few years ago, I began putting blame aside in my own work as a professional learning facilitator--work that is, many will tell you, fraught with opportunities to lay blame. I also dug down deep and found the courage to start rethinking why I do what I do and how I do it. If this interests you, you may appreciate my next few posts.
I plan to share some questions that are worth wrestling with, no matter what your role might be inside of your school system. I'll share a simple protocol that can help you practice self-compassion while taking a look in the mirror and a magnifying glass to the one thing you can control: your own decisions. And if you're interested in thinking about all of this through the lens of parenting, Ellen will be following my posts with a few of her own.
Drop us a line, reach out to us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter if you'd like to chat more. We're @AngelaStockman and @EllenFeigGray there.