Fresh Start Every Day: Creating a Compassionate Classroom Community
by Jennifer Christiansen
Since the beginning of my career as a special educator, I have clearly discerned the call to teach as a spiritual vocation. As an undergraduate at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York, I would trudge into the Porter Avenue Administration Building and come face to face with the portrait of Marguerite D’Youville, the foundress of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. “Mother D’Youville,” as she was affectionately called, was one of the original “social workers” of the 18th century. During those formative years I intuitively felt that her spirit was infused in me through daily viewing of her pensive brown eyes. Marguerite’s special call was to direct service to the poor. As a public-school teacher, my call has been to direct service to students with learning and emotional disabilities who inhabit poor rural villages in northern New York State along the Canadian and Vermont borders. The back roads of Clinton County are homes to working families and those whose lives are made more difficult by lack of success in the local school. Since 1986 I have learned some lessons that may infuse energy into every teacher’s journey toward a more compassionate practice.
I have asked myself: What qualities that I have brought to the classroom that have allowed me to teach without yelling, threatening, or coercing? The ethics of caring and value of the human being are first in mind. My faith in human potential and the belief in the capacity of the individual to break through internal barriers of disbelief and hopelessness are deeply internalized. I am convinced that the quality of life is a choice, and that each person can make choices to transform from darkness and ignorance to light and self-knowledge. Therefore, it has been my mission to create a classroom in which all are inspired to reach their highest potential. I consider reflection to be an essential practice for the teacher who takes this mission seriously.
When working with children with learning disabilities, it is critical to think about things in a broad way. My experience has been that some teachers still use a rigid, one size fits all, approach to content and process in the service of “higher standards.” “This is the way we’ve always done it.” The 20 year old Apple 2e file folder is pulled from the file, copied, and distributed. The opening of The File would be a prime opportunity for reflecting upon this simple question, “How can we use the art and science of teaching to create learning for this child?” In our building, our principal has adopted a motto, “All children can learn, but not on the same day in the same way.” Reflection is a critical activity, and one that may shake up the status quo.
Reflection as a practice means that I have the courage to ask myself, “How can this be made better for the child?” As a reflective practitioner, I have allowed myself to feel the flush of my own embarrassment when the best laid plans have flopped. I place the responsibility on myself, rather than blaming the child for a lack of success. The science behind a caring classroom requires our ethical obligation to read about Best Practices, to seek personal and professional development, and to consider variations on teaching, learning, and the responsive classroom. It has been helpful to keep a personal notebook in which I record extraordinary situations that I may be accountable for in the future. Over time I have learned to give myself the latitude to think on my feet so that decisions can be quickly tailored to an individual child. Reflection is the variable that can refine the art of teaching.
On Election Day, 2008, as our multi-age class gathered at the table, it was inevitable that one student would taunt another for some perceived interruption to the quiet of the morning groove. Sure enough, Travis’ compulsion to chew the skin off his fingertips was driving Guy wild. He blurted, “Why do you always have to do that?” Then, he mocked him by pretending to stuff his fingers into his mouth. This triggered a reaction from Josh. ”Yeah, Travis, you’re always chewing on your warps.” Ezra, classified as autistic, began to flail his arms. Katie, as oppositional-defiant as they come, and all the wiser for it, announced, “Here we go again!”
This is a typical example of a time when I take a deep breath and reflect. What words could save everybody’s dignity? Look to the day…to the teachable moment. I slowly walk to the board (yes, we still have one). I pick up the yellow chalk and say, “Hmm…Here’s an important word.” I write underdog in a bubble. “Does this mean there is a puppy under the table?” I sneakily peek. They giggle. “I wonder...what is an underdog? What’s our background knowledge?” No one responds.
I sit back down at the table with the students. “Everyone here is sometimes an underdog. For example, when Josh finishes his work last, he might feel like an underdog. When Ezra gets teased about his arm motions, he might feel like an underdog. When Guy misses the basket in gym, he probably feels like an underdog. Right now Travis is the underdog. Some of us are using our words to put him down. He is being picked on for chewing his fingers and now his concentration has been interrupted.”
The students are quiet. They like it when I speak calmly and directly to the magic moment. I continue, “Just because we are sometimes underdogs doesn’t mean we will always be underdogs. Today an underdog is changing history.” I stand near the front page photo of Barack Obama that is taped to the board. I ask, “Now how could Barack Obama be considered an underdog?”
The students chorus,”He’s African American.” “The Blacks couldn’t drink from the same fountain.” “In the olden days they were runaways.” “The slaves had to hide in the hay mount until the Marshals left.”
“And today this man will be our new leader!” I point to the agenda listed on the side. “You see, at 11:50 we’re all going to watch the Inauguration in Washington, DC.”
“Let’s see, Mrs. Rivers.” (I always refer to my most loving teacher’s aide to model respectful conversation). “What could each of us do to transform ourselves from underdog to winner? What’s your choice, Mrs. Rivers?”
“I’m going to be more patient with my daughter so we’ll get along better.”
Ezra offers, “When people tease me, I’m going to say, ‘Stop bullying me.’”
“Let’s practice,” I say. “Guy, pretend you’re teasing Ezra and let’s help him practice his words.” After a few coached rehearsals, there are positives for Ezra all around.
“How about you, Josh?”
Josh turns his bold brown eyes to the file cabinet where I have taped one of his famous quotations: “I may not be the best reader, but I’ll try.” He says, “Ms. Christiansen, I know I need to graduate from third grade so I’m going to keep practicin’ my readin.’”
Katie pipes up, “Aren’t you going to ask me?” She squints her eyes. “I know, I know….stay on task!”
Guy, the original perpetrator, spontaneously apologizes to Travis for teasing him about his chewing. He sounds sincere, and musters the courage to make eye contact for several seconds. He becomes calm and does not defend himself with excuse –making.
“I forgive you,” mumbles Travis. He then looks at me for coaching and winks. “I’m just nervous, Guy, I’m just really nervous.”
I give Travis a thumbs up and head for the paperclips. The paperclip chain is a system of positive reinforcement in which a clip is randomly added to honor specific target behaviors. “Class, Travis and Guy have earned a clip for our class this morning by practicing honesty and responsibility. Thanks for turning us around.”
I redirect our attention. “Let’s get back to work. It’s a new day.”
One way to build a practice of compassion and safety is to commit to the philosophy of “A Fresh Start Everyday.” This has been the foundation of my classroom for over two decades. This means that no matter what, I will not hold a grudge or give up on someone even though... In the beginning of my career, the work of William Glasser helped me overcome obstacles to creating a compassionate learning environment. In the beginning and the end, the ultimate question has been and always will be….”What is it that you want?” and “What do you value?” Recently Stephen R. Covey has given us The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Among these is the 5th Habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This guidance, mentioned also in the Prayer of Saint Francis, has strengthened my capacity to tune into the circuitous stories of children in need. My personal and spiritual commitment to transformational education makes me relentless in seeking unconditional regard for the child. Despite the “teaching styles” of veteran teachers and administrators, I have refused to espouse coercive and bureaucratic practices in the classroom. Rather, I have chosen to create connections through explicit words and acts of caring. According to Glasser, belonging is a need. A “Fresh Start Everyday” creates belonging that is religiously unconditional.
Throughout my teaching career I have witnessed various ecological or environmental factors can impede or encourage student performance. Something as seemingly mundane as the location of a teacher’s desk can convey beliefs about learning. A climate of high or low expectation is the invisible energy that affects achievement. When faced with the expectation to try something new or expand the academic or emotional container, some will experience chaos. A third-grade boy repeatedly put his head on the desk, saying, “I am stupid.” Others will thrive and scurry around the classroom rounding up resources. I have seen the damage that can occur when an external locus of control is exercised by the authoritarian teacher. The students’ sense of self-regulation is eroded and confidence wanes. “Is this what you want?” asks the insecure child. Creating positive relationships with “at-risk students” and enthusiastically seeking ways to lead them toward self-improvement strengthens their “inner locus of control.” My disposition for upholding the core values of integrity and respect have increased the likelihood that students will develop the power of positive choice-making. Only through this daily practice will learners be able to fulfill their potential
Over the years I have noticed that certain teachers have a special knack for making the first day of school memorable. The special event is called “going over the rules.” A teacher who relies on a set of pre-ordained rules as an introduction to the school year underestimates the value of relationship building in the classroom. The use of a packaged rule kit mirrors top-down Theory X management and its accompanying assumption that the average child is motivated by threat and punishment. Has anyone studied the efficacy of such a rule review? It seems that if it were found to be effective, it would not need to be repeated on the first day of every school year, and in the middle and high schools, at the beginning of each of eight classes.
Opening day can be a pivotal day in a child’s future. Children may feel scared, alone, and uncertain about when bathroom, lunch, and departure will occur. The students may hardly know each other, and certainly do not know the teacher. While rules are important, so are relationships. I would encourage teachers and administrators to reflect on this practice and how it relates to a school culture. It is the teacher’s role to accept responsibility for implementing optimal learning conditions for all students…creating a special place where all can feel valued and safe to be themselves. An alternative to posting pre-made rules is working collaboratively to create a vision of what we would want our classroom to be like. Then, working with the end in mind, the teacher could guide the class in self-determining the expectations for making this happen. The creativity and initiative demonstrated among the students is a first step in building a compassionate climate.
My dedication to a caring classroom community begins day one with relationship building. At some convenient point in the day, when needs for safety, belonging, and physical comfort have been met, we meet to check out our “contracts.” I have purchased character education posters that list attributes of the following qualities: Kindness, Honesty, Responsibility, Caring, and Self –Control. I tell the students that there is no list of rules anywhere in the room. Instead, we will use these posters as our guide to making a happier, safer classroom and world. The first day of school is like every other. “Let’s talk about kindness,” I say. “Let’s each tell a story about a time when we practiced kindness.” The students take turns giving an example or relating some good deed. For most children this act is critical to their therapeutic need for positive self talk. We read the examples on the Kindness and other posters and naturally talk about our feelings, our observations, and our expectations for ourselves and each other. At the end of the first week I send home a “contract” that tells the parents about our guidelines for a compassionate classroom. Parents are asked to review the qualities with their child. There is a place for the child and parent(s) to write a signature. Parents are asked to return the contract. This “formality” lets the parents know about our values and is an anchor for future conversations, for better or worse.
The posters are concrete guideposts that we refer to for reinforcement and reminders. Our attribute charts are referred to as needed throughout the day to reinforce positive choices and to offer guidance when choices are unwise. On Monday mornings and after extended weekends or vacations, we briefly review each chart. Despite the repetitions, the teacher must keep a tone of strong and positive expectation. The time invested is a matter of minutes and well the worth the investment. When a child spontaneously refers to a poster to comment on another student’s behavior, it is evident that the messages are being internalized.
When children’s behavior shows needs for intervention, we stop what we’re doing and refer to the posters. For example, “Right now Riley is having some difficulty showing self control. Let’s see what that would look like.” With patience and calmness I help guide the child through a gentle self examination, with the understanding that support for change will come through modeling, rehearsal, and prompts. I will often say things like, “It is very hard for Kate to take responsibility for her work, but we are confident she will do the right thing.” or “Self-control takes a lot of practice, Josh, and we know you can do it!” Transformational education must include teaching toward life-giving qualities, the compassionate and common sense alternative to yelling, threatening, and punishment via the “naughty table.
The most difficult conditions to address in the classroom stem from a lack of self-control. Not surprisingly, when the school career is dependent on external locus of control and obedience to authority, it becomes difficult to practice the self-regulation that is needed for life-long learning. Despite what is taught in behavior management classes about using tangibles for positive reinforcement, I would caution new teachers to approach this with discernment. The problems in children’s emotional lives today are rarely fixed with a piece of candy or a tattoo from the Treasure Chest. On the other hand, special food, especially that which is prepared together and eaten together, is a memorable reinforcement for any human being. Kindness, caring, responsibility, and togetherness are intrinsically celebratory and therefore, rewarding.
For example, during the first week of school our class set a goal of obtaining a certain length of paperclips for showing kindness, honesty, responsibility, and self-control. We used a piece of masking tape on the front board to mark our goal. Naturally, since the school year was just starting, our goal was to model how the Clips for Kindness system would work. Our collective achievement meant that we would bring our blanket outdoors, spread it under the oak tree, and share an ice cream cone “picnic.” Some of my students had never had a picnic before. We discovered that having a quality conversation was difficult in this unstructured setting. To focus our conversation we picked a “picnic topic.” As we licked our melting cones, we listened to one another in the open air. This event quickly became a class favorite.
Each day the class can earn one or more clips for authentically positive demonstrations of our valued behaviors. When a clip is attached to the chain by either the child or the teacher, the quality is cited on the corresponding poster. The length of the paperclip chain increases until the goal is reached. Meeting a goal requires successively longer chains as time goes by. Clips are never taken away once they are given. When our goal is met, the class has a “clip party.” Each child takes a turn expressing a preference. One time Kate wanted corndogs with individual ketchup and mustard cups. Once Dylan wanted breakfast pizzas on English muffins. The hidden bonus of celebrating with shared food is not only modeling the skills needed to make these tasty treats, but also modeling manners when eating at the table with others. We hope that this custom will one day be shared among their families. As new teachers will find out, more and more children in today’s world are eating alone in their bedrooms in front of a television. It is a grace to show them another way.
It is no surprise that colleagues have continued to see me as idealistic, a dreamer. I have no action research that proves the way of compassion works. I do know that our way is different.
“The inner paints the outer.” We know that the child’s inner life cannot be left to chance. It is worthwhile to decompartmentalize the curriculum and attend to a child’s soul. I think the recent trends toward Character Education are based on this discovery. Perhaps the teachers of the New Age will be outspoken witnesses to the fact that each child’s inner emotional and social needs are intrinsic to learning, rather than accessories. This time-honored truth, reflected in the sparkle of a child’s eyes, may be the light that makes a teacher choose understanding, modeling, and coaching over screaming and punishing when children are acting out.
Although I was once satisfied in making the classroom a closed microcosm of the world, I now know that understanding a community’s culture and renewing community spirit are critical for today’s vision of a caring classroom. The courage to commit to school and community improvement arises from a calling to transformational leadership. Without that intrinsic belief in being a steward on a mission, how could anyone cope?
It is understood that people generally prefer comfort rather than challenge. This is especially true for parents. Presence in the community is critical for all teachers who value compassion. Community presence can build bridges between the home and classroom.
I have heard some teachers say that they prefer to live outside of the school community for the sake of anonymity. Privacy is valuable, to be sure. But how valuable are conversations that happen in the produce aisle over a selection of tomatoes? Here a parent tells me that her autistic child has asked for more freedom, and wants to attend to his own needs without the teacher’s aide. Among the breads and muffins we learn that a middle schooler with Aspergers is being bullied and afraid to speak up to the principal. In the space of a local grocery, conversations about children take on more intimacy. Parents feel that a boundary can be crossed as we peruse the shelves for that common sustenance shared by all.
How much time in pre-service development is spent on this issue? Hopefully teacher education programs are emphasizing the teacher’s widening circle of influence. Compassion builds on taking time to contact the parents or guardians, encourage their supportive involvement, and slowly dissolve barriers between school and families. During the day a teacher can say with enthusiasm, “Daddy will be so happy to see this beautiful work!” Recognizing that families are under financial, relationship, and job stress, it is wise to initiate a connection with positives about the child. Sometimes school personnel foolishly wait until there is trouble. It is also possible that the caregiver has become so overwhelmed with survival that s/he has overlooked the daily details of the child’s growth. I have seen tears well up in a Mother’s eyes when I have taken the time to tell her something good about her son. The teacher – home connection can increase a family’s sense of belonging.
During school-based celebrations, a caring teacher can be available to build positive connections with family members and friends. For example, each child in Nancy Yelle’s third grade gets to invite a parent or relative to the monthly Super Kids Party. The cell phone is a remarkable tool for sharing good news on the spot. On many occasions I’ve said, “Your Mom would be so proud of your work! Let’s call her right now and tell her!” Some connections are more involved. Last winter Shawn came to school wearing the same clothes as the day before. He asked for a cup of hot cocoa and reported that he had not changed into pajamas because the trailer was too cold. Later, when his mother visited the room during Open House, I spoke about his dilemma, expressing concern for their newborn baby. Mother admitted that the trailer was falling apart. I said that I knew of some community menders who would help out for free. “No, we don’t need no help,” she said with a toothless smile. The very next day she called me at school. “You know those people you said could help? Could you give me their number?” A teacher’s acknowledgement bears unforeseen power.
My belief is that the quality of interaction among dedicated teachers, guardians, and students is a common-sense solution to increasing love at the front-line. I would encourage new and veteran teachers of all ages to reflect on their teaching as a spiritual practice. At last we may know that school is not just a “building.” It is a concept that embodies love of learning, love of teaching, and love of the child. Wherever we find ourselves on any given day, our commitment will stand. May my love of teaching and learning inspire others to create compassionate classroom communities.