Feb 11

Skills not Traits

[This post has its roots in a wonderful professional development sessions led by Matt Kay, SLA founding teacher and author of the upcoming book Loaded Conversations. Buy it when it comes out.]

Think of the kid that frustrates you the most in your classroom or in your school. Maybe it’s the kid who can’t stop calling out or the kid who never lets an opportunity for a snide comment go or the kid who seems to slide into class two minutes after class starts every day. Pick your frustration – there are a lot to go around in our profession.

Now, be honest with yourself.

When you think of that student, do you think of that behavior as a fixed part of that student’s personality? Do you think of them as “lazy” or “mean” or “impulsive” in a way that fixes that trait in your head as something immutable in that student?

If you do, can you change the way you see that?

What if you saw the behavior as a skill the student needs to develop? To wit – let’s look at the three examples:

  • “This student hasn’t learned how participate in a class discussion yet.”
  • “This student hasn’t learned how or why to be kind in school yet.”
  • “This student hasn’t learned the benefits of being in class at the start of the class yet.”

How does that change our lens as teachers? We’ve progressed as a profession such that teachers know that the statement, “This student will never learn X” is no longer something that can be tolerated in our schools. But in many places, we haven’t translated that to the way we think about the soft skills students may need to be successful in academic settings or the kinds dispositions that will help them be the active, vibrant citizens our world needs.

What if we changed our lens so we asked the next questions:

  • “What does this student need to be a responsible member of a class discussion?”
  • “What does this student need to learn how and why to be more kind?”
  • “What do I have to do as a teacher to help this student learn why s/he needs to be in class on time?”

What we teach kids about how they can walk through the world as a full-realized person is as important as the facts and figures they learn in our classes. When we see our students as still very much learning how to walk through the world wisely, we can change our lens on student behavior as something that is not fixed or immutable, but rather as a skill to be learned, and therefore, deeply in our wheelhouse to teach.

And as importantly, when we remember that students are still in process – still learning – it makes it that much easier to forgive and understand those moments that drive us crazy. And, maybe, it allows us to remember that we, too, are in process and that the kids might need to forgive us from time to time too.


Dec 06

The Caring School: Kind but Not Always Nice

[I want to expand on some of the ideas of yesterday’s post, The Ethic of Care is Hard, because I think it’s important to think about many of the ways it plays out in practice.]

Sometimes, when I am talking to educational traditionalists about SLA and our ethic of care, I get comments something to the effect of “Well, you can’t be nice all the time…” (seriously… I’ve also gotten comments about “participation trophies” from more than a few folks) and I think that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what caring is. It makes the mistake that caring is just some sort of stereotype for sweetness and light. It makes the mistake of conflating caring and nice. And oftentimes, caring is anything but.

A caring school doesn’t lack for critique – it works under the assumption that we all work to find the best versions of ourselves, and as such, we push each other to strive toward that vision of ourselves.

A caring school hold people accountable for their own behaviors, but it does so in ways that doesn’t assume “behavior” as some fixed characteristic, but rather, recognizing sometimes the things we label as “behavior” are really skills that we haven’t mastered yet.

A caring school understands that we’re all growing, and we’re all flawed, and we’re all human.

A caring school recognizes that there’s not one ideal outcome we hope for all our students — all of us — but rather that our goal is to help one another become – and sometimes discover – the best version of ourselves.

A caring school understands the difference between authoritative and authoritarian. It recognizes that teachers are teachers and students are students, but more importantly, teachers and students are both on the continuum of human behavior and strives to understand each other’s behavior, not explain it away.

A caring school recognizes and values the identities – racial, sexual, religious, gender, ethnic, and more – of all its members, working to ensure that everyone feels valued, understanding that all of us have lives outside our halls that must be valued – that who we are inside school and outside school must be integrated for us to be healthy.

A caring school has to walk the very fine line of taking care of the individual and taking care of the community. This requires a lot of dialogue – and even more listening. And it requires imperfect solutions where, often, the explanation of “why” is just as important as the “what” of the consequences of actions.

A caring school understands that sometimes you have to say and do the really hard things – and that’s meant everything from telling parents things about their children they didn’t want to hear to telling a student that they weren’t going to make it to a June graduation and more – but it means that, even in the hardest moments, it means acting with humility and grace and with the understanding that those are the moments, hard as it can be, that we have to make sure students feel cared for.

A caring school understands that all our needs are in constant tension and we have to be honest with each other about what we all need to thrive, and that when we are honest about that, we stand the best chance of coming to a place where everyone feels valued, valuable and able to have their needs met.

A caring school is still one where people get angry with one another. We even yell and scream from time to time, but we apologize – students, teachers, principals, when we lose our temper.

A caring school is never one where we shy away from the hard conversation because it’s not nice or polite or might make someone uncomfortable. We have those conversations, because those conversations are in each other’s best interests as we work toward that best vision of ourselves.

A caring school isn’t always nice. But those who inhabit it always try to be kind. And sometimes that means, when we have to say hard things to one another, that we do so in ways that give us the best chance to hear one another and learn from one another and still feel cared for.

A caring school is one where we argue to learn, not just argue to win. But we still argue.

A caring school is one where there is time in the schedule set aside for people to see each other as people, not just students and teachers of subjects. And it’s one where we work on the skill of treating each other with care in the same way as we would work on our writing or our mastery of mathematics or our ability to create a great unit plan, because caring is not just a mindset, but a skill.

And all of it takes work.

To close, the other thing I always hear, even after I explain all of this to people, is that the “real world” isn’t like this — that, in the real world, people don’t always take care of each other this way. I have two responses to that.

First, SLA kids have the rest of their lives to learn that the world can be a cruel, horrible place, they don’t need to learn it from us.

And second, maybe if the kids experience communities of care, where people really do aspire to help each other find the best versions of themselves, maybe their create those communities once they leave our halls where ever they go next.

And wouldn’t that be something.

Dec 05

The Ethic of Care Is Hard

Whenever any of us at SLA talk about our school, the ethic of care quickly comes to the forefront of what we talk about. At its root, the ethic of care is the idea that we care for our students, not just about them. It is grounded in the work of Nel Noddings, and it’s probably one of those ideas that sound really awesome in theory and can actually be really difficult in practice. It is also one of those ideas that you are never done cultivating. You have to constantly work at it, and there are times when, as a community, you really have to put time in to unpack it and think through it.

And in the eleven years we’ve been around, we have seen a growing movement in education around the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice, at its root, is the idea that when we do wrong, we engage in rehabilitation by connecting with the community and with those we have harmed. There is a fair amount of overlap between the ideas of the ethic of care and the ideas of restorative practices / restorative justice. They are not a perfect fit – and where they do and don’t align might be a blog post in and of itself – but, when done thoughtfully, the two ideas can create a powerful sense of responsibility and community in a school. But to do so, you always have to do the work.

And a few weeks ago, we noticed that we were in a place where stuff didn’t feel quite right. We had a few issues that pushed people to think about what it means to have to face your community after you’ve made a mistake. We faced a few moments where the transactional sense of caring for one another wasn’t going quite right. And out of that, came a need to step back and reflect on who we are and what we believe as a whole community – and for us, that meant talking about these ideas in Advisory.

What follows is a whole-school Advisory activity that we did. For 9th graders, it was probably the first really big deep dive they’ve done into what we mean when we use these terms. For older students, it was a tuning activity – a chance to dig deeper into language and ideas that we talk about — and try to embody — all the time. The slides were meant to get us talking, to get some common terms down. The deck was created as a collaboration of teachers and administrators, so that it was a truly co-created document (and full disclosure – I saw it before we did it, but this was at a time when the district work was rather all-encompassing, so I had little to do with its creation other than agreeing that we were at a moment where it was needed.)



The conversations went well. Students and teachers discussed the ideas themselves, and then grappled with how to deal with the scenarios presented. The scenarios are ones we see all the time in schools, not just SLA. At the root of all the conversations was the thought that healthy communities have to be active communities. We cannot simply just say “we care for one another” without putting in the hard work of thinking about what that means. And we cannot forget that until the rest of the world operates under these principles, then we have to work to hold on to our values as a community, because the rest of the world sends very different messages to all of us.

And that’s the overarching message, I think. If we want schools where we truly care for one another — and where we understand that there is a responsibility to the whole community when we create that — we have to understand how hard that is, and we have to work at it every day – even when it’s hard.