I recently went out for a business lunch with a potential client, and we ended up talking, as one is apt to do, about our own lives. He told me that he and his wife are raising two adopted children, and we discussed the problems that sometimes arise in such family situations. Thankfully, he and his wife already had the answer for any potential conflicts: “We’ve found that if you’re clear and consistent and caring at all times, there really aren’t any problems.” His children are very lucky to have those two for parents.
The same approach—clear, consistent, and caring—is also the best solution for our sometimes beleaguered public schools. Anyone who pays the least attention to the news cannot help but hear story after story about problems ranging from disrespect to acts of unspeakable violence. Educators and commentators rightly point out that the problems our schools face are symptomatic of problems faced by our whole society, from divorce to drug use to dysfunctional families. Speaking as someone who has stood in front of a classroom and taught, I can say for a fact it’s true. It is all so very true.
But so what?
In this case identifying the cause doesn’t really lead to a solution because it is unreasonable to insist that families be happy and nurturing before their children can be enrolled in our public schools. Students will continue to walk through the doors of our schools who are hurting in ways we can only begin to understand, and we have neither the time nor the funds to send every student to intensive therapy. Therefore, we need to find some system to manage troubled children when they enter our classrooms that both helps those young people and allows the educational mission of our schools to proceed.
Because most anyone who goes into public education is almost by definition a person who is born with a commendable surplus of empathy, it is often easy to make the choice to overlook all sorts of mildly disruptive behavior by a particular boy or girl in the hope it will help build a bond between teacher and student by adjusting behavioral expectations to the “needs” of that child. However, we have to ask the obvious question: Does it help or hurt to continually move the boundary between what is right and what is wrong?
Indeed, it might be true, to slightly alter my business acquaintance’s formula, that we communicate caring by being clear and consistent. A classroom where the rules are uniform in substance and application will be less confusing for children and make it easier for those who have not been taught appropriate behavior at home to learn it at school. Moreover, clear and consistent rules ensure that no child is punished for exactly the same behavior that is tolerated in the child sitting next to them. Why is this important? Simply because schoolchildren deal with injustice the way they always have: by tuning out the teacher. Although it may seem pointless to carefully follow the rules and punish a “good” student for talking in class or acting disruptive, this may be the key to helping the “bad” student slouching in the back of the room, waiting to be disappointed by yet another adult. By smiling away Susie’s misbehavior and coming down on Johnny for his, we may be laying the foundation for that child’s failure, regardless of whatever else is done in the classroom for Johnny the remainder of the school day.
If we communicate caring by being clear and consistent, it might do more than all the educational innovations we throw at the problems of our public schools today.
Also published in The News Gazette, 20 May 2007.