West Texas is comprised of long stretches of desert broken only by oil or cotton fields. The land is harsh and unforgiving. The temperatures are extreme and the heat can be almost unimaginable. And even though there is a lot of oil in West Texas, most of us lived in families that worked in the oil fields for nominal wages. It was a hard life in many respects, because the work was hard and the financial rewards were minimal. But West Texas had and continues to have something very special. In fact, it has something that I wish would spread across the rest of Texas and then onto the rest of the country.
What is it that West Texas has, besides rattle snakes and armadillos? It has nice people.
Now this might sound simple, and every community in every state across the nation will boast nice people. But there is something special about a place that has nice people who make a point to be nice to strangers. You see, it is easy to be nice to a friend. It is easy to be nice to a co-worker. It is even easy to be nice to the person sitting next to you on a plane that you do not know. But this isn’t what I am talking about.
Growing up in West Texas I learned that if you saw someone with a flat tire on the side of the road, the proper thing to do was to pull over and volunteer to help. If you saw someone walking towards a door that you were near, you opened it and held it for them. If someone of a similar or older age asked a question you responded with a “sir” or a “ma’am”. You didn’t do it out of subservience. You did it to be nice.
I had the real privilege of spending time with quite a few educators and administrators in Miami this past week. These educators are a part of one of the largest school district in the country. The Miami-Dade School District boasts more schools and a larger budget than many of our smaller states. This behemoth of a district has opportunities and issues very unique to a large urban district that is in one of the true melting pot areas of our country.
I was in Miami because I was speaking to folks and training them on behavioral techniques, and specifically on Leaps. Through multiple sessions I would ask what the common issues are that they all deal with, and I heard the same responses that I hear across the country. My students don’t listen… Parents don’t support us… I don’t have enough time… I don’t have enough resources. These are the same laments I hear in the biggest districts in the large cities and in the small districts in the small towns. These problems transcend size and resources and are common for all educators.
But as I was listening to the educators telling me about their daily trials, one said something that really struck me.
She simply said: We just need our kids and our teachers to remember what it meant to be nice.
Nice is a simple sounding concept and in fact it’s a pejorative in some athletic circles that deride niceness as term of weakness. But that wasn’t the nice she was speaking of.
I asked her to expound and she thought for a minute and said something so simple that it became profound. She said, “If we can convince our kids, and ourselves, to just be nice today, then tomorrow would be so much easier.” At first I thought that this was a little too simple to pay too much attention to, so I moved on. But something gnawed on me and I kept hearing what she said to me, and I couldn’t figure out why it was still ringing in my ears… “If we can convince our kids, and ourselves, to just be nice today then tomorrow would be so much easier.”
This is simply too simple to mean anything. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how this simple little thought of hers was not only profound but was also prophetic. If you notice, she wasn’t lamenting the fact that kids today don’t have manners and don’t talk respectfully and don’t pay attention. Instead, she said that our kids, and ourselves, need to be nice.
I really thought about what she said, and the next day I had another full day of trainings and speaking engagements with educators– so I decided to try something. I stood at the door and opened it for everyone that was walking into the room. I made a point of smiling and saying hello to every single individual that walked into the room. I made a point of walking to several people throughout the room and complimenting them on simple things.
Before I go any further, let me give a little honest disclosure. I am a very courteous person. I respond with a sir or a ma’am. I hold the door open. I make sure that the ladies walk through the door before me or my son. I put effort into being mannerly and courteous. But nice is a little outside my comfort zone. I am nice to people I know, but I am not an extrovert. I am not a “people person”. I do not want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and I think because of this I have not put effort into being nice. Just simply being nice.
I watched the group that came in that I opened the door for and personally greeted. I watched them closely as they took their seats and I complimented them. I watched them as I smiled and put effort into making them feel welcomed. I watched them as I made eye contact when speaking to them and made them feel like there was no one on the earth more important to me in that minute than them.
And do you know what happened?
I did not have to call their group to order.
I did not have to ask them to be quiet so we could begin.
I did not have to ask them to turn their phones off so that it wouldn’t interrupt our session. Something rather remarkable happened in that group. I was intentionally nice to them, and they in return were unintentionally nice in response. I heard people answering questions with more “sirs” and “thank yous” than in all the previous sessions combined. I had people being more attentive and showing appreciation for what was being said than in any other session. I had more thank yous and handshakes at the end than in any other session.
Something profoundly simple yet simply profound occurred. A little effort spent being nice was repaid with lots of niceness in return.
I know that being nice will not cure the ills of the classroom or make all our kids act like little angels. I know that purposeful niceness will not always be repaid with niceness. But I did find that as I put effort into being nice I not only received niceness in return, I was more attentive to and more invested in the people I was being nice to. In other words, me being nice to other people made those other people more important to me.
Let me challenge you to try something: As simple as it sounds, put real effort into being nice to your students, your family, your friends, and your coworkers. Give it a try. Intentionally let someone else walk through the door first. Intentionally hold the door open. Intentionally smile and make someone else feel welcomed and important. See what this small investment buys you.
One of the truths about behaviors is that they have to be learned, practiced, enforced, and imprinted actively. They have to be seen and tried.
He is a big guy yet it seems like his
shoulder width expands even more as he walks near guys smaller than him.
His surly disposition is the only warning for people to get out of his
way or else get bumped, pushed, or just plain shoved out of the way.
Randy loves seeing people have to turn sideways or duck out of the way.
Everyone knows when Randy is in the room.
Jessie talks and she talks.
She talks in the hallways and she talks
in the cafeteria and she really talks in class. Jessie can’t stop
talking. Ever. She isn’t saying anything inappropriate but she just
doesn’t turn it off. In a morning assembly she was removed because she
couldn’t be quiet. She has been in the office way too many times for the
ridiculous offense of talking…and talking…and talking.
Becca makes good grades.
She turns her homework in on time, takes
notes when the teachers are talking, never interrupts the teacher, or
anyone else for that matter. Becca seems to disappear quickly into the
crowd and reappear in her seat in the classroom where she quickly buries
herself in her homework, avoiding eye contact with anyone near her.
Becca is pretty sure that no one in her classes even knows her name.
Randy is the school bully. Jessie is the school motor-mouth. Becca is a teacher’s dream student.
These kids seem to be at opposite ends
of the spectrum. One is anti-social. One is hyper-social. And one is
non-social. So which kid needs help?
Randy obviously needs help. I don’t need to quote the stats to you, but about 77% of all kids feeling bullied and less than 15% get help.
I don’t need to remind you of your personal experiences with the school
bully in the hallway of your school so many years ago. Everyone knows
the bully needs help, and now there are regulatory initiatives demanding
social, emotional and behavioral help for that bully.
Jessie also obviously needs help.
Her constant interruptions warrant a Behavior Improvement Plan and a
placement in a Tier 2 small group for behavior change. Jessie, like so
many other teenagers, needs to learn when and where to talk. Jessie also
has a very frustrated teacher who will make sure Jessie gets some help
if for no other reason than to get her out of her hair for a little bit.
Do you know how hard it is to teach 22 kids when one of them will not
What about Becca?
She makes good grades so she is good, right? She doesn’t talk or
interrupt or act up in class so she is good, right? She does her
homework and is compliant and doesn’t start any trouble so she is good,
Becca is the one on the list that worries me the most.
Randy will get help. His behaviors coupled with a well-deserved
emphasis on bullying will make sure Randy’s behaviors are addressed.
Jessie is also going to get help in the form of behavior training
because her teachers need her to learn how to be in the class without
disrupting. Again, this is well-deserved attention, and Jessie needs it
and will get it.
But what about Becca?
Becca seemingly floats through the day never stepping on the toes of
her fellow students or her teachers or leaving an imprint of any kind.
What about Becca?
Becca needs help.
Randy and Jessie are going to get help – their behaviors demand it.
Becca’s behaviors actually make her a model student in many ways. But Becca isn’t a model of emotional stability. Do you know how much it hurts to walk a hallway crowded with peers and no one notices you? Do you know the fear
that grips your insides when the teacher asks for a volunteer to answer
a question and you strain to avoid eye contact while not be so
suspicious as to draw attention? Do you know the longing for a conversation when you hear them all around but the anxiety that comes when someone actually speaks?
are a lot of Randy’s and Jessie’s and they will get help. There are
also far too many Becca’s who are going through life unnoticed. A lack of bad behaviors does not mean that a student is not behaviorally involved.
Becca is just as behaviorally symptomatic as Randy and Jessie, but she
won’t get help. She isn’t doing anything to be noticed. Kids tearing the
school apart and disrupting classes and bullying get noticed. Shy
doesn’t get noticed. Quiet isn’t a criteria for help.
But do you know how much happier Becca would be if she could learn how to make a friend? Do you know how much more she could learn if she were taught the courage to raise her hand and ask for help? Do you know what a more fulfilled
life she would lead if someone invested the time to teach her self
esteem? Becca is very behaviorally involved. Becca’s problem is that her
behaviors aren’t hurting anyone but her, so Becca doesn’t get noticed.
Over the last couple of posts, I have
shared with you stories and challenges about being nice and listening.
Last week the challenge was to find an elderly person and listen to
their stories and hear of their life. What a blessing to give someone
the gift of a listening ear for a few minutes!
Today let me challenge you to now look
the other direction. Who are the students in your class that need to be
heard? Who are the Beccas in your world that are trying not to be
noticed but wished with every fiber of their being they were worthy of
being noteworthy. What child or adolescent or teen is in your life but
if they weren’t you wouldn’t really notice? Take a few moments now to notice them. Notice if they are ok.
Notice if they are too shy to be heard. Notice if they need someone to
see them and hear them and know they exist. Then notice how noticing can
lift the eyes of a child who tends to stare down at his desk. Lift
those eyes by giving them the healing of attention and the balm of
Art Linkletter once said, “Kids say the darndest things.” But first he had to talk to them and ask.
As I smiled and said, “Great!” to my little girl, the voice inside my head responded with a resounding, “Ugh!!”
It is November, and that means it is
Science Fair time for my 10-year-old daughter. She came bounding in with
the list of requirements, do’s and don’ts. “Isn’t it exciting Daddy?!”
she said as we read through the never ending list of requirements. That
voice inside my head was running a sound track that was balancing the
enthusiasm of my daughter with an ongoing diatribe of negativity. “This
will take forever!” “Not again!” and, “Didn’t we almost blow up the back
porch with that volcano last year?”
I smiled and told my daughter, “Great!”
while fighting those voices that were going in quite the opposite
direction. “What can we do Daddy?”
I must admit that in the years past we
have had some Science Fair doozies. We have built a full scale catapult
that launched a watermelon nearly 50 yards (the teacher didn’t believe
that my then 10-year-old son did most of the work for some reason). We
have built a hydroponic garden. We have done some cool things. But they
were all a LOT of work.
“What can we do Daddy?” Again, that question. Are Daddies really supposed to have that answer readily on file for everything?
Even Science Fair projects? Well, today Daddy didn’t have an answer, so
Daddy gave the answer that all Daddies that don’t have an answer give –
“Let’s go look on YouTube”.
I typed in “Science Project Ideas for 4th Graders”…
Abbie, my 10-year-old, and I ended up
watching YouTube videos for nearly an hour. We laughed at some of the
silly things people did. We ooh-ed and aahh-ed over some of the really
cool things people did. We found this guy who calls himself the “Crazy
Russian Scientist” and watched nearly 20 things that he did with dry
ice. We had a blast. In fact, I
think my enthusiasm for playing with dry ice or building a homemade lava
lamp or maybe building a catapult that could launch a watermelon the
length of a football field was surpassing even my daughter’s enthusiasm.
After my wife wisely said “NO” to the catapult (we are still working
through issues that the last one created), my daughter and I decided on
the homemade lava lamp. It is so cool with incandescent colors and it is
powered by the chemical reactions of different liquids and their
varying viscosities. In other words, Daddy is starting to have fun with the Science Fair idea.
For almost a week my daughter comes in wanting to work on the Science
Fair project and I have already beat her to it. It is set up and ready
for work to commence. This lava lamp is going to be awesome and won’t my
wife be surprised with her Christmas present this year!
As I watched my daughter jump out of the car and skip to the school building this morning I had to ask myself, “What changed?” Why was I excited about this science fair project when my initial reaction was a resounding “UGH!!?”
I thought about this for a while. I always had fun with the kids when
we build things together and we discover together. I love spending the
time with them and goodness knows it is a better way to spend time than
staring at the television each evening. As I pondered this, it really
bothered me that my first reaction was negative. My first reaction was
all about the aggravation of the time commitment and the dreading of
another item on the schedule and the process of reading the rules and
the seeming drudgery of one more thing to do.
But I know what changed.
It wasn’t my daughter. It wasn’t the rules of the science project. It
wasn’t my attitude towards my kids. We spend our evenings together
playing games and watching shows and reading. No, what changed was my
attitude and my priorities. But what was so interesting is that these
things changed because I rediscovered something inside myself. Watching
those videos and seeing my daughter’s enthusiasm and then getting
excited myself about creating and exploring changed my attitude from
“one more thing” to “this could be really cool!” In other words, the excitement of learning and exploring and asking and trying reignited inside me.
I have heard many teachers say that they
struggle with some students because the students just don’t care
whether they learn or not. They don’t care whether then pass or not. In fact, “I don’t care” seems to be the mantra for many of our students.
They walk the hall with their eyes pointed towards the floor. They
don’t turn in their homework. They doodle instead of taking notes. They
just don’t seem interested in learning. Do you know these kids?
Think about these kids. Now think about Kindergarten.
Whether taking your own child or observing a class or just some random
experience of seeing a group of kindergartners, think about these little
5- and 6-year-olds. These kids come into school scared and excited and
worried and fearful and exhilarated and stressed. They start their first
day of school with an anticipation that is only matched by the
excitement of exploring this newfound responsibility and independence.
They are excited about everything from their new lunchbox to their first
recess. They light up like a candle when they read and write their
first words. They think the songs they sing as a choir are the most
compelling musical pieces ever written, and they prove it by singing
those songs over and over and over to their parents. In other words, I
have never seen a kindergartener show up on the first day of school and
say, “I don’t care!” I have never heard of a kindergartener starting the
countdown until he or she is old enough to drop out of school.
So when does it happen? When does that
excitement turn to dread? When does that anticipation turn to malaise?
When does learning become drudgery rather than a joy? We often ask the
when question but I think the one we should be asking is the why
question. Why does learning lose its luster?
If truth be told, learning never truly loses its luster.
However, measurement does.
The reason kindergarteners do not say “I don’t care if I pass or fail”
is because they have no experience doing either one. The reason they get
so excited when they read their first word is because it is a discovery
and an accomplishment. The reason that 7 years later they dread reading
that book and writing a report is because it is now a measurement; and
when you are measured and you constantly come up short it becomes much
safer to say “I don’t care” than it is to care and continually fail.
Not caring is a defense mechanism, and
when it is applied to school it has nothing to do with learning. It has
everything to do with the purpose of learning. If
the sole purpose of learning is measurement, there will be lots of kids
who end up in the “I don’t care” space, because they aren’t going to
measure up. If the purpose of the learning is to spark curiosity
and explore new and exciting things and encourage the question rather
than calling for complete silence, then you will probably be bringing
most of the students along for this journey.
I am a huge believer in accountability, and grades are essential for education. But teaching to a test and preparing for a grade is not the same as teaching to learn and teaching to question and loving the process of questioning and exploring and discovering.
I have heard many teachers say they have reached the point of not caring themselves.
When I ask them why what I usually hear is that their students just
don’t care and it has drained their enthusiasm. It has squelched that
desire to teach. It has turned teaching into a routine rather than a
journey. It has made them tired.
When I ask them why they became a
teacher to begin with I hear very similar answers. Those answers never
revolve around having the summers off or having a steady job or any of
the other reasons those outside of education think teachers choose to
teach. What I hear is, “I love to teach” and “I love to see a kid get it
for the first time” and “It is all I have ever wanted to do”.
I fear that between testing and
standards and core competencies and all the other mechanisms we use to
measure proficiency, we may have deterred the most important. In order
for learning to thrive there must be enthusiasm. In order for enthusiasm
to exist there must be ideas. Ideas need questions in order to foment
into hypotheses. Questions need questioners who are thinking critically
and are given the ability to question. Then those questions need
guidance and structure so that answers can be found through exploration
and discovery. In other words, learning needs to be our daily science project. Learning needs excited learners and enthusiastic teachers. Neither of those can be accomplished when learning is unevenly yoked to measuring.
Why did I get so enthusiastic about those YouTube videos and my daughter’s 4th
grade science fair? Because I saw things I did not know before and I
wanted to try them. I heard things I had not heard before and I wanted
to test them. I wanted to explore and question and discover. More
importantly, I wanted my daughter to explore and question and discover.
And isn’t that what our classrooms are supposed to be about? Why do we
learn to read? Because when we can read it opens our world up far beyond
our physical boundaries. Why do we learn to write? Because when we can
write we can communicate in ways that speaking will never afford. Why do
we learn mathematics? Because everyday life is built on the equations
of survival and opportunities to thrive.
Why do we lose our enthusiasm for these subjects?
Because somewhere along the way we forget about the journey.
We forget to explore and ask questions and discover. Somewhere along the way, the process overtakes the purpose and it becomes an assignment rather than an enthusiasm. Watching my daughter’s eyes light up as we built that silly little lava lamp gave me the happiest moments I have had in a while. Watching her explore and learn sparked my enthusiasm for helping her. I can only imagine what it would do for the classroom teacher if they had the opportunity to help their kids explore and question and discover, not just teach them to simply remember. Learning isn’t simply recalling; learning is knowing what to do with it. And more often than not, the best thing to do with recalled knowledge is to question it and begin the journey of discovery all over again.
of the real issues facing schools today is the readiness of kids to
begin. Are little ones ready for Kindergarten? If not, is Pre-K the
answer? What should the focus of Pre-K be? Is it academic readiness or is it social preparation? Can you mix the two? How do you know which is the more pressing need?
There are lots of questions about
readiness and not a lot of canned, ready to implement answers. In
February 2015, Mark Howard published a very interesting article titled, “Kids and Catch-Up”.
In this article he gives the statistics in Florida involving the impact
of poor reading in the 1st grade and how 88% of these kids are still
poor readers in the 5th grade. He then follows the trend lines of kids
who entered school unprepared to learn and continued learning behind the
curve and many who ended up dropping out and an alarming number that
ended up incarcerated.
What makes all of this so difficult is
that it isn’t as simple as dropping in good reading program and
everything will be fine. These are little kids. Even
if you have the best reading program in the world, how are you going to
teach it to them when you can’t get them to sit down and pay attention. Again, the question is about preparedness.
Many schools are wrestling with testing and assessments for Pre-K-aged kids to determine their learning readiness.
Some are even going so far as to try and
put together behavior scales and assessments to determine social and
emotional preparedness. This is a very difficult task, because little
ones can assimilate knowledge very quickly and can learn at an
accelerated level well beyond an adult– but they do often do not
possess the ability of discernment, decision making, and social and
emotional maturity for educational and social integration.
Jean Piaget’s cognitive stages of
development posit that kids in the age range of 4-7 typically have a
similar cognitive functionality. This stage of development is known as
the “Intuitive Phase” and during this phase, kids tend to be myopic in
both learning and problem solving. Everything is seen and experienced
and therefore dealt with through the prism of “Me”. This makes the integration into a structured social platform, ie classroom, a very difficult transition for many kids.
It also means that we have Pre-K, Kindergarten, and 1st graders who
will struggle with this, and that is actually normal. It is not
abnormal, aberrant, nor unusual for a Pre-K student to fit right in and
and grasp the structure of a school day with no problem. It is also not
abnormal, aberrant, nor unusual for a 1st grader to struggle with the
structure of a school day and the social and emotional expectations and
So what do you do?
To answer these questions you have to look at the platform itself. Even though kids develop in phases, they are placed academically on age.
There is not an acceleration or deceleration platform for kids based on
maturity. I wish we could keep kids at their maturity level until they
are socially and emotionally ready to progress, but we don’t. The main
reason we don’t is because that process is expensive and it is counter
to our linear educational systems that moves kids to higher level of
accountability based upon their age, not their maturity.
This means we have to work within the
platform. How do you do this? You define the expectations of the
platformed ages and then you teach to those social and emotional
expectations just like you would to the reading and writing level. We
expect our kids to be able to read and write and add and subtract at
advancing levels for each year of school.
What are your social and emotional expectations for Kindergarteners vs 3rd graders vs their Freshman year?
These aren’t usually defined. And the
problem with little ones, those in that intuitive phase, is that it
isn’t something you can simply assess and address. Instead, you have to
make the maturing of your students’ social and emotional aptitude part
of your instructional and teaching day. You have to teach them how to sit down and pay attention. You have to teach them how to stand in a line. You have to teach them how to get along with the kid sitting next to them. You have to teach them how to talk appropriately. You have to teach
them how to be a member of the class, and then you must have a strategy
that both reinforces and provides consequences based upon this
In other words, if you want kids that are mature enough to read and write and add and subtract, you have to teach them how to be a student. You have to teach them how to work and think and develop within the structured day of a classroom. You can’t simply assess and address. You have to make the development of your students’ social capacity an equal to their ability to read and write. If you don’t, a lot of our kids will continue to be poor readers and writers and learners. They can’t afford that, and neither can we as a society.
was walking through the supermarket this past weekend when the old
familiar Christmas songs began blaring through the speakers. Really? I
could not believe they were already starting and then I looked at the
calendar and realized it is December. This is the holiday month.
This is the time of gifts and family and time off and laughter and food
and happiness. This is the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”.
But what happens when the holiday season is not the “most wonderful time of the year”? “Depression
strikes about 17 million American adults each year, according to the
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The holidays can trigger
feelings of dread, anxiety or depression in some people.”
This isn’t a new concept. We have all heard that the holidays can be difficult for many people. But what about the kids?
There are many issues besides depression
that teachers need to be aware of as the holidays approach. Did you
know that besides depression – eating disorders, shoplifting, fatigue,
overt aggression, sexual acting out, and other extreme behaviors
increase amongst many kids during the holidays? We have to ask two questions: why and what do we do about it?
The why is straightforward but not at all simple.
Many kids have a poor home life and due to a broken or a disadvantaged
home they do not experience the joy of the holidays. They long for the
happiness others have and will place themselves in harms way to try and
obtain personal validation. Girls will open themselves to exploitation
in the attempts to feel special. Boys will try to assert themselves
physically and emotionally to make up for the emotional and even
material support they do not get at home. Others will shoplift because
they know the present won’t be under the tree, but they don’t want to be
the only kids with out the latest games or shoes or cell phones. The
reason inappropriate and often dangerous behaviors increase during the
holidays is that it is a special time of the year, and a lot of kids do not feel special.
So what should an educator do?
The most important thing is to pay attention. Look for the kids that are hurting.
If you know of a child from a broken or disadvantaged home, take time
to call for help and secure a holiday for that child and family. If you
know of kids suffering from low self-esteem, spend some extra time
building them up so that they are not so vulnerable during these hard
times. If you know of kids with eating disorders remind their parents to
be overly cautious during the holidays. Vigilance is an absolute
necessity as an educator, but it is even more important during the
The song says that this is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and that’s true for a lot of us. But for the kids who are hurting, this time of year can be a stark reminder of whatthey do not have and who they are not.
Teachers, don’t rush to the holidays without noticing the kids who are
hurting. Remind your students that they are special to you. And we all
need to remember that a world exists outside of our home and our friends
and we need to make that world a better place. Giving attention, time,
and care to your students is a great place to start, and starting a few
weeks early is much better than starting too late.
If you want to know more about how to help your students during the holiday season please watch our free video.