Sunday, November 9, 2014

#187 November 9, 2014- Behavior, Climate and Learning

Behavior and Learning. . .
The past few weeks have seen an outpouring of commentary about behavior, school climate and the new MMSD Behavior Education Plan.  The discussion and comments have been passionate and have shown the wide range of feelings and beliefs about the current state of MMSD.  The issues around behavior, discipline, school climate and student learning are ones that touch on very complex, challenging and highly emotional topics.  They are present in every school across America and have roots that go deep into our society's history.  While it is possible to be analytical with many topics, issues around student behavior push challenge us beyond an intellectual level and strike at our core attitudes and beliefs. 

Keeping that in mind, it is important to remember that the views expressed here are my own.  While I have talked to many people, and have been a part of discussions at many levels, I can only speak for myself and articulate what I believe and what I hope happens as we continue the discussion about this topic.  The discussions that we have around behavior, discipline and learning are at the very center of our conversations about public education.  If we are to move ahead and realize the potential that public education has for our society, we need to have real dialog about these issues. 

Having a real conversation about emotional topics like these are made even more difficult by a number of factors.  We are not talking about some ambiguous product or philosophy, we are dealing with issues that impact our most important resource, our nation's children.  Discussions about our children are filled with powerful emotions and strong feelings. 

We also have a climate around education that is filled with controversy, and with individuals/groups that have ulterior motivation in their words and actions.  While we would hope that everyone enters the discussion with the best interests of all parties, the reality is that everyone involved has an agenda or interest to advance.  Whether it is simply to get what is best for an individual's own child, to advocate for others,  to push for a specific issue, or to improve one's political or economic standing, the result is a competing mix of agendas and interests.  There is also significant misinformation that exists about our schools and our students.  Assumptions are made, and they are often based on incomplete or inaccurate information.       

The media has a role in all of this as well.  Whether the mainstream press, or social media, the tone of the discussion, and the message that the general public gets is set by how issues are presented.  Anyone who has attended an event, or participated in any action know that there are always multiple points made, and subsequently multiple perspectives of what was said.  What is emphasized in the reporting and discussion can often become the story and overshadow the original message presented.  The media will spin their coverage on an issue to stir up conflict and controversy, often in ways that aren't productive.  We also see the effect that a small number of people can have on the conversations that occur in the social media, and these comments are rarely positive or productive. 

As if these challenges weren't enough, we also must remember that our conversation occurs in a broader social context.  There are historical factors that play into our opinions and feelings about our public schools.  There are also current events that have an impact.  Our public schools are a microcosm of our society as a whole, and our struggles to provide equity and opportunity in them are a symptom of the challenges that we face as an entire society.  We must factor in the emotional toll that the bitter struggles occurring in Wisconsin in recent years have taken.  We can clearly see the effect that stress and trauma have had on our schools and on those who support the efforts to educate all students.  The toxic political climate and the historical conflicts combine to hamper our efforts to move forward.  This climate undermines the trust that is necessary to move ahead in a positive, productive way.   
 In my opinion this is clearly what has happened in our discussions about our public schools in general and more specifically issues around behavior and discipline.  While we can't ever completely separate the issues from their social, political and economic contexts, and we certainly can't ignore the impact that race, gender and social class have on our opinions, it is important that we do our best to look towards the future and begin to look at what our schools can do for all students.  We must do this while recognizing that we have a lot to overcome, but the importance of our work has never been greater. 

While it is one thing to talk about the current social, political and economic climate or the historical context that our public schools fit into, it is a very different thing to talk about specific issues in our schools.  We know that we face some very serious issues, and we know that our responses to these issues do not occur in a vacuum.  We need to find ways to have debate and discussion that incorporates the concerns of all involved, and that moves our systems and policies forward so that all students, staff, family and community members feel safe and connected to a school that provides equitable opportunities.

I should start this discussion by emphasizing a few points.  I am a firm believer in the power of our public schools.  I am committed to the success of the school district that I work in and am extremely proud of the efforts of all the parties involved in our schools.  My family has deep roots in my community's schools and have been involved in them for about 50 years either as an employee or as a student.  I also recognize that there are some serious challenges that my community's schools face and some very difficult work that needs to be done.  We need to begin to engage in dialog around issues of behavior and school climate in some very real and immediate ways. 

To that end, I, along with many other educators went to speak to our school board about concerns that exist.  There is a broader context here that revolves around efforts to change our discipline policies from a more punitive system to one based on restorative practices.  This change is important to many members of our community, and is one that most educators embrace as well.  Yet, at the same time we know that there are situations that arise that are difficult to navigate, and that impact the safety of staff and students.  Unfortunately, the media chose to present our comments in the context of protesting the policy changes instead of looking at the real issues that were raised.  We can't move forward when we are looking to blame individuals, groups or policies.  Instead, we need to realistically assess what is happening on a case by case basis and provide the supports necessary to address concerns that arise.   

Monday night's school board meeting in Madison turned emotional when teachers voiced their opinions on the district's new discipline policy. The new...|By Gordon Severson

Teachers support the district's new behavior plan, but say implementation is a challenge.|By Molly Beck | Wisconsin State Journal

The controversy that has emerged from this can only serve to distract us from the real message that was delivered to the board, and to the specific work that needs to be done in our schools.  We know that safety and stress are two of the most important factors involved in achievement.  Anyone, no matter what the learning or working environment, must have their basic needs met, and no one works or learns well when anxious, apprehensive or afraid. 

Raising concerns about safety and climate are difficult because the impression emerges that our schools are unsafe and dangerous places.  Nothing could be further from the reality that most of our staff and students experience.  The simple fact is that most students and staff work and learn in a climate that is conducive to learning.  However, at the same time there are issues and situations that arise that disrupt our classrooms and put stresses on those working and learning in our schools.  Policies and data are important to help guide our efforts to maximize safety, but they are only one part of the process.  The important work around school climate and learning has always happened in classrooms at the school level.      

The number of behavior incidents, however, remained virtually unchanged.|By Molly Beck | Wisconsin State Journal

According to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) website, the Behavior Education Plan (BEP) that was approved in March of 2014 "moves our district away from a code of conduct based on a...

It is at the building level where the frustrations exist.  Once again, few educators are speaking against the policy changes.  In fact, a vast majority of us want to see these changes made, and want to work with our administrators and families to see a shift in how we discipline our students.  We recognize the fact that change needs to happen so that all of our students can achieve at their highest possible level.  We deeply care about all our students and this is why the outpouring of pain and anguish is so intense.  If we didn't care so much about making positive change happen, then we wouldn't see the high levels of stress and anxiety that currently exist in our profession. 

This also makes the public responses about our concerns more painful to hear.  The message from educators is that we need support to make sure that changes in discipline practices are implemented effectively.  We know that we need to make changes and want to move forward, not focus on past injustices (while still recognizing the impact that they have on our current situation). 

One in a series of occasional essays on race in Madison by a local leader and former Urban League president.|By KALEEM CAIRE | local columnist

So, if the message isn't against the new BEP, or against restorative practices, what is the message that the administration and community should hear from educators?

Restorative Practices and Building Relationships Take Time-  It seems like common sense, but is often ignored.  Everything that we do in the effort to educate our students involves time.  We need to have time to address student needs as they arise, and give students time to process and learn as they grow and mature as learners and people.    

It is difficult to forge strong relationships in an environment where one adult is working with a large number of students.  The needs that our students have for personal connections can't be addressed in a busy classroom where competition for attention is "fierce" and some issues need a more individualized approach.  All of our students deserve our full attention.  Simple math shows that in a classroom of 25 students with one educator, there are only about 15 minutes available per student over a 7 hour day (assuming no breaks, recess, lunch, art/music/PE).  We also know that some students simply need more attention.  Often these are our students who are struggling emotionally, behaviorally and not surprisingly, academically.

Education is Labor Intensive- We may want to pawn off our responsibilities to technological fixes, or to programs that are supposed to increase achievement, but in the end, it is the work that trained professionals do in classrooms that make the difference.  To that end, we need to make sure that we have adequate numbers of well trained staff in our buildings.  We also need to make sure that they are in situations that allow them to use their expertise.  Too many of our specialists are being forced, by staffing shortages, to do tasks that don't allow them to use their professional training, or to be directly involved in supporting our students in real, meaningful ways. 

They never tell you in teacher school, and it's rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate....

Education done well is not cheap- We need to put our money where it is needed in order to insure the future successes of our society.

Misbehave, get punished. That pretty much sums up the approach to “disciplining” students that educators through the decades have taken in schools and classrooms. The most extreme form of this law-and-order strategy is zero...

Connections with Families and the Community is Vital- As a whole, the public schools need to do a better job of communicating and connecting with the communities they are embedded in.  This is challenging in some ways, and any relationship building is also a two-way street, but the payoffs are huge.  Once again, these connections can only be successful if people to people contact is made.  This takes time and peoplepower.  We can't rely on electronic, or paper communications to build our connections.    

New research finds that parental involvement is a more significant factor in a child's academic...

We are asking too much, and often the wrong things, from our schools.  Public education can't singlehandedly fix our society's problems.  There are too many initiatives and directives aimed at "improving" our schools that actually do more harm than good.  The laundry list of "reforms" has raised the stress level, damaged relationships between administration, staff, students and the community, and in general set public education back instead of moving us forward.  These continued attacks have undermined public trust in our schools and made forging positive relationships more difficult.    

Increased "accountability" through standards and assessments is often misguided and harmful. 

One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn. Nowhere is this misplaced emphasis mor...

'It is time to end the advancement of policies and ideas that largely omit the critical supports and services necessary for children and families to access equal...

With more voices saying tests have become disruptive to learning, a widespread discussion has ensued about the number, type and usefulness of tests...|By Erin Richards

Attacks on educators through misleading evaluations, elimination of collective bargaining, or other means have decimated staff morale.  Educators are traumatized by the assaults on their profession and this has an inevitable impact on their ability to support their students and families.  

New teacher evaluation data show that Minneapolis schools with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of...

Madison ranked third among Dane County's 16 districts for average teacher salary in 2013-14.|By Todd D. Milewski | The Capital Times

The lawsuit could affect New York State's entire teacher evaluation system.

The answer isn't privatization of education, but that's where Wisconsin is headed under its current leadership. 

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says he could see enrollment in Wisconsin's statewide private school voucher...

We know that there are students who have needs that go beyond "simple" education. We need to provide for their needs, and respectfully support these students and their families.  Our schools can't provide all the supports that are needed and we must partner with existing resources to work with our students and their families.    

Claire, as a fellow soccer mom, I'm officially asking for an apology. Your Insane Asylum of Horror, had you let it stand, would truly have been the most frightening...

We must own our history and the reality that currently exists in Madison. We know that there is a huge disparity in all aspects of the lives of residents in Dane County and that race has a huge impact on the quality of life that is experienced.  There are many reasons for this, but in the end the simple truth is that we must do better for everyone in our district. 

Surprisingly, most of the places on our list are not in the racially regressive South.|By Danielle C. Belton

At the same time, the issues that we are talking about have an impact on everyone and are not restricted to any specific demographic.  While we must pay extra attention to different groups in our schools, we also must acknowledge the challenges that everyone faces and work together to improve our schools.    

In the end, the conversations won't get any easier.  We will still have students with significant needs in our classrooms, and their needs will influence the environment that all students and staff learn and work in.  Safety and climate will cause us stress, frustration and challenge us to become better as a profession and as a society.  What matters is that we engage in dialog that is respectful, yet direct.  That we have discussions that move us forward and build relationships between individuals and groups and that break down barriers instead of strengthening them.  We all need to be a part of this dialog. 

As we participate in these conversations we must aggressively respond to the challenges that we face, and to the outside forces that seek to manipulate our schools to further their own agendas.  Everyone involved in our public education system wants to have schools that are safe, positive, caring environments for all who work and learn in our schools.  It is up to us to make that happen, no matter what the challenges may be.

Dear Editor: When I read Kaleem Caire's recent Cap Times post, I was inspired. As the racial justice director at the YWCA, I am often asked: "What can I do?"

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . Even in these challenging times we can celebrate some hard won victories. 

Teachers persuade the district to return valuable time and professional judgment back to its rightful owners.

Sportsmanship, courage and compassion on display in our high-school athletics. 

Despite missing two runners injured in car crash, Madison Memorial rides a wave of emotion and support to a strong finish|By Dennis Semrau | Wisconsin State Journal

The Bad . . . The news from around the nation wasn't good for Progressives.  We need to rebuild, reorganize and re-energize as we prepare for the future.  This will be made more difficult as Conservatives work to implement more restrictions on voting and further deregulate campaign financing. 

The fight between money and ideas in this year’s midterm elections, Daily Show host Jon Stewart said on Tuesday night, turned into something out of Game of...

Exit polls conducted across the country on Election Day indicate a nation suffering from severe memory loss.

In Florida, North Carolina, Kansas, and Virginia, "the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement."

The Ugly . . . The idea of a "more aggressive" Scott Walker is simply terrifying.  The disappointment of losing a hard fought election is compounded by the fact that so many voters failed to show up at the polls yet again. 

Gov. Scott Walker met Wednesday afternoon with members of his cabinet to outline a vision for his...|By Jessie Opoien | The Capital Times

See the margin of victory for Republican Gov. Scott Walker or Democratic challenger Mary Burke in each Wisconsin county.|By Laura Sparks | Wisconsin State Journal

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