Monday, July 4, 2011

Alfie and Me

     As our Twitter (#kohnbc) book review of Alfie Kohn's "Beyond Discipline" winds up this Thursday, I am left thinking where his thoughts and mine intersect and where they diverge. I am comforted by the knowledge that they do both and here's why. It is imperative that educators read lots, talk lots, and grow lots. I am fortunate to be asked to come work with a variety of educators and my opening comments always address the notion that my experiences are just that - mine. They are neither better nor worse, more compelling or more inspirational, absolutely foolproof or considerably flawed. They work for me and continue to evolve despite my career having stretched for twenty-eight years (and counting). The important piece for anyone in the audience is the need to contextualize what you hear and read. This is where I stand with Alfie.

     I can fully endorse the notion that we are not looking for mere compliance achieved through bribery or positional authority. That creating a sense of community is the ultimate objective to enhance learning for all. And that "management" in its coldest definition does little to change the view that the problems always rest with the students. However, I also know that many of our students (and I fear the number is increasing) come from structures where there is little to model their behavior after and even less to gain in an intrinsic sense, from demonstrating it. A colleague shared a recent event at graduation that helps to illustrate this:
"Fred and Damian were two of the biggest behavior problems in middle school. As their principal I had to deal with them on many occassions for minor and major offenses, including several suspensions. School was not a high priority for them. When I moved to the high school this year, Fred and Damian were in Grade 12. Once again, I had to be on them to pro-actively prevent them from getting into situations that would jeopardize their graduation. Both needed some personal attention (hounding) to get the credits required to pass Grade 12.  At our Valediction Ceremony, in cap and gown, and in front of 300 grads and 2000 on-lookers, Fred and Damian got to walk across the stage and shake my hand. As I reached out my hand, spontaneously, these two tough boys rejected the hand-shake and gave me a big hug."
Ultimately, where Alfie and I come together is on our fervent belief that it all starts with a relationship. In order to move away from some of the rigid structure he chillingly portrays, educators need to invest time and energy in creating and cultivating positive relationships with their students (and with each other!). This is initially very time intensive but the benefits far outweigh the cost. My view is that some of our students need to be led out of some dark corners that may not have been made by us but heavily impact our attempts to create a community of learners. The mere act of saying "Good Morning" may not be enough to alter a morning that was headed downhill long before the student arrived but if it is delivered sincerely and because it reveals something about you (rather than being a "device" designed to get compliance as Alfie would be concerned about), the change may happen over time.

     A number of posts in recent days have looked at the notion of relationship building. I love Sean Grainger's (@graingered) sharing of "Norm" schools. He talks about a colleague who suggests we need “Norm schools”… the kind where “everybody knows your name,” and not just during regular school hours. This is the powerful impact that building a relationship can have for those students who need a place to feel safe. George Couros (@gcouros) also talks about this impact when he says "the relationships that we build with our staff, our community, and especially our students are the foundation of a successful school." I firmly believe that this approach will render obsolete the need to create new consequences or engage in the never ending "late debate".

     As I continue my learning journey I know that Alfie and I will intersect again. I appreciate that he pushes my thinking and equally appreciate the contributions my colleagues in education continue to make that enhance my knowledge base.

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