Friday, May 10, 2019

Negotiating with the Rebellious Soul

Image result for reflections
I have not been involved with the bigger picture of education.  It's not that I have given up, a way...I give up.  I have been focused on the perfection of my craft.  It's the best I can do in this insane and idiotic industry.

This week, being Jewish has helped me tremendously as a teacher.  As I've written before, this year has been incredibly difficult for me.  I have been challenged by the students like I've never been challenged before: the entitlement, the disrespect, the lack of effort.

Now that the year is wrapping up, I am doing my usual reflection on the year and what I could have done better.  In Judaism, one of the areas of study this particular week is a concept of "tochecha", which gets translated as "rebuke".  The Torah outlines 4 consecutive rules in this week's section of study:
  1.  You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart
  2.  You shall rebuke your kinsfolk, but incur no guilt 
  3.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge because of your kinsfolk
  4.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself
Seemingly, these four consecutive sentences are not related, but when I studied them I was able to apply it to my reflection for the year, and preparation for next year.  Basically, there was A LOT I could have done better.

The first rule does not ban "hate" on its own.  It bans hate "in my heart", meaning that I cannot carry it with me. I am allowed to feel it, but I cannot carry it.  I am allowed to feel negatively about a student or a student's behavior, but I am not allowed to let it enter "into" my heart.

This leads to the second rule, where I have to "rebuke" a negative behavior without creating "sin" or "ill".  This rule forces me to confront a student, but I cannot do it in such a way where I create sin for myself.  I cannot insult, I cannot embarrass, I cannot make false claims, etc.  There is so much commentary out there about this part.  How can someone possibly "rebuke" someone else within these parameters?  There are also many commentaries about accepting "rebuke" within these parameters as well...but that's for another time.

This third rule is what may seem out of place, but it is this very rule that makes me reflect on my teaching this year.  This third rule is the consequence of the first rule.  If you allow hate to stay in your heart, it will impact your behavior.  Hate will always show itself: the best thing to do is follow the second rule and confront or "rebuke" it.  If not, this third rule comes into play.  If you don't control your negative feeling, it will come across as vengeance.  If you simply smile and repress your hate, it will come across as resentment or a grudge.  As I reflect on this year, I allowed my negative feelings to embody as resentment.  I didn't confront well, I didn't "rebuke" properly, and it came across as a grudge.  I was not neighborly.  I violated this rule.

The fourth rule is quite famous, but I never knew it in the context of following the previous three.  Now that I have studied the three previous rules, I can read "love your neighbor as yourself" as a process of "self improvement" more than "self love". The 3 previous rules are designed to repair something that is broken, especially if the 2nd rule is to be followed correctly.  You know the repair process has worked if you follow the 3rd rule and see no vengeance or resentment.  The process of repair with your neighbor is supposed to be the same process you use on yourself.  It is what I'm doing right now: reflection, which moves through rebuke without sin, that should result in improvement.

The Rebellious Soul and Negotiation
Now enters the 2nd piece of learning I encountered this week: the rebellious soul.  There is a lot to the concept of this soul, sometimes called a "soul of chaos" and I can relate to this soul because I feel I encountered quite a few of them this year.  I may be wrong in that determination, but let's say I'm right.  Let's say that my profession and the choices I make in my profession place me in direct contact with many "souls of chaos".  How do I react?  How can I teach a rebellious soul?  How can I have a productive relationship with students set on destruction?

The answer to that question is found through the 3rd piece of learning I encountered this week: negotiation.  The course for negotiation I encountered was within the context of Jewish learning and "tochecha".  You can find the source sheet for that course here.  Working with a rebellious soul inside a classroom can be related to a negotiation situation where rules for engagement must be employed and followed in order to communicate effectively.  If I am to follow the 4 consecutive rules, I must have rules of engagement when working with rebellious souls.  The teacher of the course I encountered, Michael Tsur, gave some insight in the context of hostage situations for rules of engagement.

Solutions to Ponder
When dealing with a rebellious soul, the first step is to make your request: "Would you please ______"?   This is similar to the first step of "rebuke" in tochecha.  Using the confrontation sentence frame:  "I feel ____ when you ____.  Is there a reason you are doing _______?"  These first steps can begin a communication.  In the case of tochecha, the ultimate goal of this question is make sure you are not making assumptions and have a grasp on the entire picture, not just your own perspective.

With this request or question, you are now able to begin a communication.  In the context of negotiation, it is important to not insult the rebellious soul or make the soul defensive.  The goal of negotiation, as Michael Tsur puts it, is to protect your assets.  In education, I would argue that the assets worth protecting are "student learning".  I want students to learn.  I want them to seek learning.  In the communication with the rebellious soul, I want to protect student learning.  So, I do not want to insult the student or make the student defensive.  I want to engage with the student to ensure learning.  This ties back to tochecha in that the result from the 4 consecutive rules should be a change in behavior and attitude.  Somewhere.  It may be your neighbor's behavior and attitude that could change, but it also may be your own behavior and attitude that could change!!!  In order to achieve this end, open channels of communication must remain.

What if the rebellious soul says "no" to your request?  In order to prevent defensiveness, it is important to not ask "why not?" or press the motive for the behavior if it's not offered at the onset.  Do not seek their justification for the behavior.  This will create defensiveness.

In order to prevent insult, it is important to stay focused on the behavior and not offer something separate in exchange for compliance.  That is what creates the insult.  So, if we cannot ask why and cannot offer something in exchange, what do we do with the rebellious soul who says "no" to our request?

We begin to ask: "what is it that could be said or done to allow you to ____ ?" When they ponder the response to this question, we can now get into a conversation.  We can begin to address the attitudes and behaviors, even our own, that must change according the 4 consecutive rules without creating "sin" or "guilt".  We can get an accurate picture of the entire situation and not just our own perspective. We can build a relationship.  We can come to a peace or an understanding.  We can address the situation and prevent ourselves from "vengeance" and "resentment".  We can repair the broken situation.

But what if the rebellious soul still says "no"?  What if we have done everything and there is still rebellion?  We have to have peace with the process.  We can remember:
- We cannot control other people.  We can only do our best with the process and hope that we can repair the situation.  The whole leading a horse to water thing...
- We must take care of ourselves.  Working with rebellious souls usually takes up a lot of mental and emotional space for us.  Through the process of the struggle, our only method of survival is to take good care of ourselves.  We have to focus on mental health, physical health, spiritual health.  We have to employ breathing techniques or meditation or medication or walking or running (I'm a runner).  Rebellious souls force us to look inward during our journey together.
- We must seek to improve.  If nothing else, we should reflect on our efforts with rebellious souls and find ways to be better on our end moving forward.  Were there things we could have done better to prevent the negative situations?  Were there obstacles within our control that could have mitigated on behalf of the rebellious souls?

As much as I would like to say "it wasn't me" about my struggles this year, there is much I can take away.  There are methods of communication I can improve, there are mechanisms in my class I can put into place, and there are processes that I can change.  Many of my students this year were giant pains in my rear end, but I hope my experience with them will make me a better teacher and a better husband and a better father.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Too Far Gone?

Image result for no u turn

I recently had the worst professional day of my career.

I teach high school math, and I discovered that puts me in a bubble of convenient ignorance.  I have encountered lack of academic skill.  I have encountered lack of willingness to try.  I have encountered all the successes and failures that students can exhibit within a high school math class.  I am used to all of it.

This year I have been trying to incorporate more and more reading in what I'm doing for math.  Recently I dove into full on word problems for basic pre-algebra and algebra concepts of straight lines.  It is a concept that is introduced to students between 5th and 7th grade.  As usual, my seniors in high school struggled with it.  As I began to dig into why they were struggling, I found out that it was not the math.  It was the reading comprehension.  Here was an example:

"The Gaming Club adds 5 new members per week.  After week 6, they had 25 members."  I asked "What is the slope?" and "What is the ordered pair?"

If you don’t know the answer to those questions, hang on.  All year, I have been consistently teaching the vocabulary for Slope as "a rate of change" and an Ordered Pair (x, y) as "IF x, THEN y".  Not only have these seniors experienced these concepts since at least 8th grade, I have been consistently enforcing this vocabulary throughout the year.  With the consistent vocabulary, I argue this question is NOT a math question, but more of a reading comprehension question.  The trouble is, only very few students were able to correctly understand the slope of 5 or the ordered pair of (6, 25).

I was dumbfounded. I had no idea the reading comprehension was at that low of a level.  So, I did an online training and I consulted one of our Reading teachers about how to incorporate comprehension skills for a question like this.  I restructured my notes, and I went back to re-teach the class reading comprehension through these math examples.  I began each class stressing something I have stressed before:

Reading Comprehension is more important than Math.  And remember who is saying this.  Your inability to factor a polynomial does not threaten our Democracy.

I poured my soul out to my seniors in high school the importance of understanding basic reading comprehension.  I did everything I could to encourage them to struggle through in order to improve, to stop at any word they did not understand, to deconstruct clauses, to continue trying the word problem examples so they could understand the questions more than the math involved to answer them.  When I still faced resistance to even try, from 17 and 18 year olds who will vote (or worse, who will NOT vote), I was crushed.  My bubble of ignorance provided by my math class collapsed.  Here are 17 and 18 year old young adults, finishing high school, ready to vote, no longer in the safety of a public high school, aware they struggle with reading comprehension... and not even willing to address that deficiency.

Are we too far gone?

No matter how difficult it may be, I try not to blame the students.  They don't know basic math, even though they have seen it for the last 4 years?  It's not their fault.  I'm used to that.  But they don't know basic reading comprehension?  That one hurts me.  That one is hard.  But maybe it's still not their fault.

Alfie Kohn teaches that students are rational beings.  If they find out they can get by without doing work, they may not do work.  That's not being lazy, that's rational.  Why would they do a thing they don't want to do if they either see no value in it or know they will suffer minimum to zero consequences?  If they have learned that whatever consequence they do receive is better than the discomfort of doing a thing, why not choose the consequence? That's a rational decision.  When that rational decision-making snowballs over the years, it ends with high school seniors who are content with not understanding basic reading comprehension.  It's still not their fault. They are a product of the institution of "School".

This has me thinking about Learning Lessons.  Which lessons do students truly Learn?  Where do they Learn them?  When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?

Which lessons do students truly Learn?
Just like the rest of us, the most powerful lessons we see are the lessons that are demonstrated by action.  When a parent has to say "do as I say, not as I do", we know that parent has lost.  The child has learned a behavior based on a parent's model.  The learned behavior is deemed acceptable by the child regardless of scolding, grounding, or other consequences.  What the child sees from the parent is what the child knows to be acceptable, regardless of what the parent says.  The lesson taught by action and experience is learned more than the lesson taught by words.  The child knows it deeply, understands it thoroughly, and creates a world view based on the acceptance of that behavior.

This type of learning not only happens from a parent, it happens from a community or society or culture.  What children see as acceptable behavior in a community know it deeply to be acceptable for themselves. Where a behavior learned from a community contradicts a behavior learned by a parent, conflict ensues that places immense pressure on the parent to teach what is acceptable or tolerated. An individual is tasked with teaching a lesson that contradicts a lesson taught by a community. Any parent can share how incredibly difficult this teaching is.  Usually the parent refers to the following scenario: "well, if they all jumped off of a bridge, would you?" Regardless of whether or not the child actually finds the behavior acceptable, we can appreciate how powerful the community lesson is. Imagine further if the child did not encounter any parental intervention for a behavior learned by a community!

We expand this environment of acceptability outward: from parent, to community, to society, etc. We can see how powerful the lessons learned from larger environments can be, regardless of what individuals within those environments try to impart.  In the case of schools and education, the lessons that students truly Learn are the lessons taught by the institution of "School", not necessarily the lessons taught by the individuals within the school.

Where do students Learn these lessons?
Students learn "School" lessons very early on.  From the first days in a classroom, lessons not even spoken are being taught.  These lessons include, but are not limited to: you must obey the adult, the adult has the power to score you and rank you, you are competing with other children around you, compliance is more important than questioning, results are more important than processes, etc.  These are the lessons learned within a Classroom without being spoken.

Outside of the classroom, students can Learn lessons: being late will not be tolerated, misbehavior in public for any reason will not be tolerated, any disruptive behavior will not be tolerated, individual circumstances probably do not matter, your excuses do not matter, test scores are to be celebrated, results and awards are to be celebrated, you only matter if you can produce scores or awards, etc.  Students quite easily learn lessons that are not spoken.

When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?
Well, we are now getting to the "kids these days" question.  What sense of accountability or responsibility do "kids these days" have?  What sense of entitlement do they possess?  These questions and questions like them are answered by the Lessons Learned in School.  By the way, School is forced to teach these lessons, but that's a topic for another time.

These questions are answered by the Lessons learned from school discipline and consequences.  These are the Lessons that shows Alfie Kohn's accuracy in defining student decision-making as "rational" and not "lazy".  I will begin with School discipline lessons.

Students who make poor choices in school will Learn fairly early on that the consequences of their behavioral choices were either disproportionately harsh (zero tolerance policies) or disproportionately irrelevant (suspensions for skipping class).  Students figure out that their individual situation or circumstance has little to no bearing on the type of consequences for their decision-making.  They are not asked why they engaged in their behaviors, or worse, if they were asked, their answers or feedback were irrelevant.  This will Teach students that discipline, or consequences for behavioral choices, are laughable.

When it comes to "kids these days" and what is perceived as their sense of entitlement or lack of respect can be traced to what they Learn in school.  For reasons that are beyond the scope of this writing, schools are bound by district policies implemented to meet statewide statutes or directives.  These create massive pressures for classroom teachers to take on nearly every ounce of accountability when it comes to student academic performance and behavior.  If a student has trouble with an academic concept, it's the teacher's responsibility.  If a student has trouble with behaviors, it's the teacher's responsibility.  The question of whether or not this is right is irrelevant.  What IS relevant is the Lesson being Taught.  Students are not stupid.  Again, they are rational.  And they see this level of accountability and responsibility that rests on their teachers. 

What they Learn is that responsibility is not only on them.  In many cases, the responsibility is not on them at all.  Students are fully aware that the teacher faces blame for almost anything they do.  It is a School Lesson that is learned.  If a student doesn't complete assignments on time, the teacher is forced to accept it late.  If a student has put forth zero effort to understand material, the teacher is blamed for not differentiating to meet that student or not creating a more engaging lesson.  Students can talk back at teachers, curse at teachers, yell at teachers, disrupt classes, keep their heads down, and all sorts of other irresponsible or disrespectful behaviors, and they can do it because they have Learned from School that the teacher is responsible for their behaviors.  Students have Learned this lesson so well that there are instructional videos on YouTube for students to learn how to get their teachers fired with false accusations.  Students have Learned that they can easily blame other people for the things they do or do not do.  "Kids these days" have simply learned the lessons taught to them by School, not by any individuals in school, but by the institution of School.

So, how can I not blame my Seniors in high school for not having basic reading comprehension?  They have developed a deeply rooted and ingrained Lesson from early in school.  They learned that reading comprehension has little impact on what matters the most (unfortunately): their grades and scores.  They learned that learning for the sake of gaining knowledge was not as important as scores and data.   If they struggled early on in reading comprehension, they found out that they were still doing the same things as the students who did not struggle.  When they struggled and an "intervention" occurred, they found out that they could "show" they knew better by clicking the right answers on intervention software and the teacher may not even find out how hard it was for them.  They learned that gaining knowledge was not the point, data was the point.  Fast forward to when there were grades.  Students Learned that when they struggled with reading comprehension, several things may have occurred that allowed them to not worry that they struggled:  they knew knowledge was not a concern, the teacher bent over backward to help them no matter what, the grade in class was based on effort and not performance (I'm not debating the merits of grading here), a school policy may not have allowed failure, a school structure may not have been set up for true intervention, etc.  All these different possibilities created the perfect Lesson Plan for students that Taught them: I don't need to worry about what I don't know, because knowledge is not important and I keep moving forward.  They Learned that it is perfectly okay to not know something.  The consequences of a failure are much easier to handle than working to prevent that same failure in the future.  It's not lazy, it's rational.

Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that learning, actual learning, is not important. Scores and grades are important.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that your ability to learn is irrelevant.  Your ability to earn a score is relevant.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that personal reflection and accountability has no impact on your progress.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that facing the consequence for not learning something is much easier than attempting to learn it.  Schools and teachers can take all the responsibility for you.

Are we too far gone?  Perhaps.  But I'll keep trying not to blame the students.  They are just being rational.