I’m not one for a tattoo. But… if I could have a tattoo to wear at school, it may just say this:
Connection over Compliance
As a teacher, I began each class finding out about my students. We formed a community and developed a class contract based on our values and shared upon agreement. I remember one class that really didn’t want homework on weekends. They suggested I have marking free weekends and they have homework free weekends. It spoke to us as a group so it became part of our class contract. We worked on connections, and finding out what we could agree to – rather than beginning with rules that I expected them to comply to.
As an administrator, it’s a philosophy of connection over compliance that keeps me asking questions. It’s those who we fail to connect with that challenge my thinking and motivate me to wonder how we can do better. There are many things I love about education. I love watching children thrive and learning come to life. I love seeing staff take risks, collaborate and grow as professionals. I love it when things go well. But it’s not our successes that keep me up at night or motivate me to keep learning – it’s our struggles. It’s my belief that school is for EVERY child and it is our job as educators to help students get hooked on school. What can we do to build these connections? Some children let us in right away – others are harder to reach.
When things go wrong in education, the natural tendency is to focus on compliance. Children who break rules are sent to the office, and we react by assigning consequences for actions. Certainly, compliance helps schools or homes run in an orderly fashion. As a parent I expect my children to follow our family rules and as an educator I want students to abide by our school code of conduct. Consequences are meaningful when they address the harm that was done and hold the person accountable for repairing relationships. However, I would argue that expecting compliance from students doesn’t change behaviour, unless we connect first. As Ross Greene often reminds us, children do the best they know how to do. No child wakes up and hopes to have a horrible day at school. All children hope to do well. Behaviour is the expression of emotion. When children misbehave at school, we need to ask what’s behind their behaviour. How we act reflects how we feel on the inside – and if we feel like we do not have a connection (to peers, to adults or to a school) then we are more likely to disrespect rules that are in place. When we feel connected we are more likely to respect those around us and find joy in learning.
In 2014 I moved from secondary to elementary. As a secondary educator I was used to working with some teens who had checked out and who struggled with our education system. I didn’t expect to see this in elementary. In my naive sense, I assumed all little kids would love school. And yes, most do. Most of our children come to school well fed, happy and ready to learn. The elementary school I worked at is an amazing place with wonderful educators who are flexible, caring, creative and committed to their work.
However, there is something that kept me up at night about elementary schools. You see… those grade 12’s who we talk about at secondary who are on the verge of not walking the stage at graduation… well, their struggles often begin long before their final year of school. They emerge years earlier – sometimes as early as kindergarten or grade one. By the spring of grade one, it’s easy to identify children who struggle to self regulate and struggle to learn, and I’m willing to bet, it’s easy to predict by grade one who will struggle to graduate. Knowing this weighs on me. Educators try their best with the resources they have and yet there are some kids who struggle year after year. How can we become a system that supports rather than reacts? How can we learn from students and honour their voice of what is not working at an early age? How can we work with our community to gain supports needed an early age to help a child thrive? What can we do to connect early in life so kids get hooked on school? What interventions can we offer?
Once a child meets that one caring adult that they feel connected to, or finds that subject that ignites their passion, their chance of success rises. How can we see each child for their strengths and find out what motivates them? Ideas such as identity day, inquiry projects and genius hour allow children to get hooked on topics they love.
Sometimes, despite best efforts, children continue to fail forward year after year. Other times, magic happens. When we find that nugget (whether it be the adult who breaks through and connects or the subject that ignites passion), we see students come alive. One grade six boy I worked with at my last school used to run from our building. As relationships grew, he shared his dream of carving. Luckily our local high school supported this dream and we customized his schedule to allow for a weekly visit to the high school wood shop. He still has tough days but school has become his safe and positive place rather than his source of frustration. How can we do more of this? How can we connect our elementary and secondary schools in a mutually beneficial way to find purpose for kids of all ages to work together?
This Monday, I begin a new job as Principal of Westview Secondary. As I meet kids and staff, I hope to learn about what makes them feel alive. One of my first tasks will be to meet with grade 12’s students at risk of not graduating. As I meet these students, I won’t just see the teen. I will also see the child inside and wonder about their journey since kindergarten.
Those who can comply naturally succeed in school. In fact, in a recent study of valedictorians, they found that those chosen to represent their class are no more successful than their peers later in life. It’s their ability to comply that makes them stand out in high school. Yet, some of the most successful adults in life after school ends are those who took risks and were willing to think outside the box.
Students who comply are easy to work with but it’s those who challenge us and keep us wondering that help us improve our systems and search for ways to increase graduation rates. It’s often those that don’t comply that need connection the most.