Stop Throwing Pasta at the Wall in Education

Is it done yet? Is it ready? Ah, that one didn’t stick- let’s throw another piece of pasta on the wall and see if this one is done and sticks. This is normal in cooking to see if the noodles are done, especially for my Italian-American self, but why do we do the same things with educational initiatives? It baffles me. It’s exhausting for educators to never know what initiative will stick around and is it going to really be beneficial to why we all are in education- the kids.

Sure, we’ve all heard of amusing initiatives that create a sense of wonder with possible correlations to potential success and ousting of certain practices. So many simply do not stick, and I have found two reasons why I believe they don’t stick and five ways to fix it.  

Structured Initiatives for the Adults instead of the Kids

We all talk a big game about “voice and choice,” but are we really putting our money where our mouth is? Education can view kids as empty vessels that we have to pour knowledge into, instead of individualizing processes with them to create excitement and highlight their dynamic knowledge. Systems are created to have kids work towards pleasing adults, instead of themselves, and this is holding back students from reaching their true potential.

Many initiatives focus on what adults think kids should know. They focus on what adults feel ‘comfortable’ talking about and teaching. We focus on how to be a good active listener, how to be kind to your classmates, and all these other adult-identified skills. When we identify the skills kids should know and the topics kids should learn, we are centering initiatives around adults.

I love collaborating with my friend and colleague, Dr. Luke Roberts, Cambridge researcher and conflict and systems change expert, around restorative practices. Something he said recently that has stuck with me, when we were discussing this article, was “Do we really want the voice of the child? We (educators) focus on what we are interested in- not what they (students) are interested in.” If we got the true (safe, no judgment or pressured) voice of our students in a conclusive report would they say they want to learn about how to be kind and be an active listener? Or, would they want to talk about authentic topics like sexuality, justice, relationships, and social media influences?

Not Enough Focus on Meeting Students Where They Are

We must focus on teaching values where students are in their development. The lived experience of children and educationalists needs to be central to the education of children. Our moments in the classroom can help to make knowledge sticky if we are willing to share relevant and relatable experiences. If we focus on static skill teaching that adults identify, over dynamically tapping into the rich tapestry of kids' connections and needs, who are we really focusing on?

I was in middle school when I first became affiliated with a gang in my city. It was such an effortless choice for me due to the need to feel belonging--they would defend me, protect me, and accept me. I was a kid that was experiencing incessantly traumatic events and felt little love. At school, I wasn’t connected and felt like an outsider. It was easy to co-exist with those feelings instead of fighting them to belong. This is why I can identify with so many students in similar situations and what inspired me into being a youth worker/educator for so many years a thought leader in restorative practices- I wanted to belong and now I want all kids (and us adults too) to feel like they belong.

As educators, we must focus on building safe relationships and increase our students belonging to our classroom and school. We can build connections with our students through many avenues, but the best way is simply getting to know them. We want to show interest in their lives outside of school and learn from them. When our students can teach us something, it shows we value them on a deeper level.

While creating a safe relationship, we want our students to feel comfortable with coming to us. When speaking to best-selling educational author of Middle School Matters, Phyllis Fagell stated, "Educators take it for granted that students know we're always happy to help with personal problems, but many kids wouldn't feel comfortable approaching without explicit permission. We have to self-identify as a helper -- as someone who is happy to support kids with non-academic problems."

We must also prioritize connection for all of us, as educators, to each other. This can be as simple as finding someone at the school to say “hey, how’s your week going?” or even finding a group of like-minded educators online to be a part of. If you already feel like you have a good group of educators you’re connected to, then expand and support someone new in a safe way. You never know how much a simple check in with a fellow educator can make a difference. We need to ensure that we are connecting with each other as educators and be a model if we expect to foster student-to-educator and student-to-student relationships.

5 Sticky Suggestions

Making our initiatives stick requires making them have authentic meaning to both staff and students. Here are some ways to make them sticky:

  1. Structure initiatives to be dynamic to the ever-evolving student, not a static perception of a kid years ago, by listening and empowering students to be a part of school initiatives.
  2. Intentionally develop relationships with students to learn with them and from them in a safe environment.
  3. Utilize restorative practices as a conduit for student and educator voice throughout initiatives, skills to develop dynamic processes, and skills to work through conflict resolution when the inevitable opportunity arises.
  4. Support initiatives that focus on supporting students' values and cultures by honoring them individually and respecting where students are in their development.
  5. Prioritize the social and emotional support for our fellow educators.

When we (Brad Weinstein and I) were writing Hacking School Discipline, we predominantly focused on relationships and about how to safely and respectfully seek to understand what is driving behaviors. Discipline should be used as a teaching tool, but in many cases, is punitive and reactive. We must be proactive with forming authentic and safe relationships with our students as our priority. If we don’t focus on building a rich tapestry of connections with our students, nothing is going to stick.

Students and educators have been living in a world of chronic unpredictability, which has made learning difficult or even impossible at points. It has also highlighted the need for connection like never before. We will be putting on a special summer professional development to help equip educators to start the year off in a way to mitigate the effects of the pandemic as much as possible.

ConnectionsintheClassroomgif

This guest blog is by Nathan Maynard--A youth advocate and passionate about stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. He is a co-founder of BehaviorFlip and co-author of the Washington Post bestseller Hacking School Discipline. You can follow him on Twitter at @NmaynardEdu.

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