How Higher-Ed is influencing my classroom management plans

Nearing the end of the fall semester, our faculty met yesterday to consider a couple of important decisions related to next semester. The big one was out unified policies related to late assignments.

First, a little background: we are an early college high school in our third year. That means that we exist for students who are “at risk” of not attending college without some assistance and encouragement. It also means that out students — most of them first generation college students — are working on their high school diploma and associates degrees simultaneously. Their goal is successful completion of both in four years. It means that our ninth graders take at least one class each semester that is a full-on college class taught by the faculty from the community college on whose campus we are located. By 11th grade, our students will be completely immersed on the college campus and integrated into college classes for 100% of their course work.

My job, as a ninth grade technology applications teacher, is to facilitate their learning experiences and to help them get ready to perform at a high level and think like college students although they are barely 15 years old.

What does that really mean? Well, in part, it means that since “higher ed” does not accept late work, or allow “re-dos” on assignments that I have to factor that in when setting up my classroom procedures and policies. Since “higher ed” instructors have a much wider latitude in how they teach and even what they teach, I have to somehow prepare my students for that occasional teacher who wants to spend the entire class period chasing a rabbit down a hole instead of teaching my students how to understand the intricacies of world history or economics or anatomy and physiology — even though that is what the test next week will cover.

The “real world” of higher ed can be a harsh place. Consider the 11th grade former student who came to see me because she is getting a D in psychology because that is her average. Never mind the fact that every assignment in this professor’s class was a subjectively-graded assignment in which the margin for error was far more than the one point she needed to pass the course. Never mind that that that one point — actually, it was .6 of a point — means she will have to retake the course to get graduation credit for it. “You just should have scored one point higher on one of your assignments,” she was told.

Philosophically, I believe in teaching toward mastery which is messy and almost always demands re-dos and late assignments, yet I also have to help my students develop the stamina and mental toughness that will help them be successful in their college classes. By the way, you would need to recall that we are not preparing my ninth graders for a future reality that will hit them then they are 16 or even 17. Since they have a college speech class next period, this is their present reality.

Late assignments? Higher-ed will give them a zero and move on to the next assignment.  I do not give them a zero for late work and I do not reduce their score on that work when it does come in the next day. I try to separate the behavioral issues from the academic issues. I want my academic data to reflect learning, not behavior, so I hound them until they get the work done while working with them on their behavior and seeking to move them toward more responsible completion of assignments.

It is a much thinner line that I walk than the one that my peers in other, more traditional high schools walk. They have four years to walk the tightrope of college readiness. I have one foot on one rope and the other on a parallel strand. For my students, college readiness is “now”, not later.

As a faculty, we are unanimously committed to our students’ success as both high school and college students, so we will find a way and the dialogue will continue. Since I have no inclination that higher ed will be changing any time soon, we will adapt in order to find the methodology that takes into account that we teach students who would be foundering on any other campus. We teach students who believe in a big dream. We also dream big dreams for our students.


Whose empathy — theirs or mine?

One of the more important questions — especially in light of current social upheavals in our nation today — being asked about classroom management involves what one writer has called “The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.” In 2014, Edutopia carried a blog post by Homa Tavangar in which she wrote, “My most important back-to-school supply doesn’t fit in a backpack, and it can’t be ordered online. It’s as essential as a pencil, but unlike a pencil, no technology can replace it. In a sense, like a fresh box of crayons, it can come in many colors. Better than the latest gadget, it’s possible to equip every student with it, and even better, when we do, it can transform our world.”

Most of the time, when teachers speak of empathy, we are noting the lack of this important quality in the lives of our children and we are trying desperately to find a way to instill it in their minds as one of several “soft skills” that have the potential to make them much better human beings. Perhaps we should be equally — or even more — concerned about modeling it in front of them and allowing our students to see it lived out in the relationships that we build with them.

To make this happen, two things are vitally necessary. First of all, we have to understslide1and just how much most of our students need us to be empathetic.  Secondly, we must come to terms with the fact that our empathy may just have a dramatic effect on the very academic outcomes we are often under so much pressure to produce.

Allow me to speak to the latter necessity first. Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (2006) wrote about Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia (p. 52) developing an empathy index and a tool with which to measure physician effectiveness. The data produced by that tool reshaped how doctors are trained all over the world, and it pointed to a direct connection between empathy on the part of the physician as perceived by patients, and their overall well-being. It is not too far a leap (although I have not yet been able to find any clear data to back this up) to imagine a similar connection between the empathy experienced by out students and their overall success and well-being in the classroom.

Sugata Mitra, professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England, as early as 2010, coined the phrase “granny cloud” to describe how he enlisted more than 200 British grandmothers to serve as encouragers to struggling students. The result that he described was more than amazing as these women did little more than love on students — many times over the Internet via Skype — and praise their work and effort. He offers that there is a direct link between a student’s ability to self-learn and his emotional well-being.

Now, that being said, let me deal with the first necessity in our understanding of deploying empathy in the classroom.

One of the most rapidly growing subgroups that we as teachers deal with in our classrooms is the emotionally disturbed or ED students. The roots of this disorder might be found in a wide variety of sources ranging from domestic violence, bullying, physiological factors, sexual or other forms of physical abuse, but the students we deal with daily are coming to use in greater pain and more angry than ever before. They are building wider and wider learning gaps because their ED prevents them from learning at the same rate as non-ED students. Our students — and no age group is immune — are hurting and it is keeping them from learning. Perhaps more than  any other time in history our students need teachers who have the capacity to, as Pink puts it, “stand in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. ” If Mitra is correct — and the data would seem to support it — even our best, brightest and emotionally healthiest students will benefit as well.

It is simply imperative that we stop trying to teach empathy and start living it in front of and direct it fully at the students who walk through our doorways every morning. As much as we have to do every day — and God knows we get busier every day — it is more important to every outcome we say we hope to achieve that we get better at being instead of better at doing.  After all, we are created not as human doings — but human beings. When we really value our students they way they are and for whom they are and not so much for what they do in our classrooms, empathy becomes much more possible and more effective.