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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Between Two Worlds

One of the funniest skits of SNL was when Chris Farley played a motivational speaker hired by parents to get their teenage kids to behave.    There is such an inherent absurdity to the idea that these teenagers will turn around their behavior based upon the exhortations of this outrageous motivational speaker.  Even the actors playing the teenagers in the skit have trouble containing their laughter.  We all laugh at this motivational speaker but isn't it pretty much the same as what many school districts do to combat bullying.

Somehow many adults still think that saying the right things in the right way will somehow change or motivate kids to see the light and act differently.  In addition, just like the SNL skit, schools like the parents in the skit are pretty much signaling that they are at a loss for what to do when it comes to their kids.  They need some outside person to come in and inspire their own children to act differently.  To be fair to schools, bringing in motivational speakers does show that they want to do something about the problem, but it doesn't do much more than only that.  Are there other ways to connect to students, other ways to change how they act or what they say?

The answer is a definite YES but it will mean that adults need to accept the responsibility of becoming trustworthy.  The adults much change what they do and say before there can be any possibility of reasonably expecting kids to change.  (This is perhaps the hardest part of change.  Most people especially people in positions of authority have to function in the world assuming they are right about most things and if that is true why should they change.) 

 Motivational speakers are not going to make much difference.  (They could even make the situation worse by even lowering adult creditability in the eyes of students.)  They are two essential things that adults can do that can start to make the necessary connection with students: acknowledge certain realities and change the language we use to reflect those realities.

Acknowledge the social world:  Adults must acknowledge the fact the social world of school is important and not just incidental to the academic world.  What we don't say and do communicates who we are and what we value, so when we don't acknowledge the social world and its importance in our lives, we give the mistaken impression that kids are in school primarily for adults to pour academic knowledge into them and then test them to see if they got it.  The best teachers ironically are the ones who acknowledge the social world and integrate it with the academic. 

Acknowledge the differences between the adult world and the student world:  Adults need to remember what it was like when they were young and try to empathize with students.  This empathy should help adults see and understand how kids as they grow need to separate and have their own world.  The more conversation we can have about the differences the better.  I remember my wife once having a conversation with my then teenage son about how kids need to separate from their adults.  His response was "That helps me understand why I am do some of the things I do."

Acknowledge the limits of the adult world in controlling the student world.  This is where adults have to be humble.  We have to overcome our fear of being vulnerable or weak in the eyes of others especially students.  The irony of this is that when people in perceived positions of authority are humble and acknowledge their limitations and their needs, they gain respect and trust for those they lead. When leading a Peaceful School Bus group as principal I make a point of saying to the kids that I couldn't really control what they did on the bus and that they could and should  take collective  responsibility for the type of school they wanted to have-it was up to them to decide if they wanted everyone on the bus to be safe.  When I followed up this message with practical strategies for them to use, they were ready to see how and why they should use them.  We can't just say "it's up to you"we need to follow up with support, resources and reassurance of "back up" when they needed it.

Acknowledge how the student world is needed in not just stopping something negative, but in meeting a common aspiration goal.  When a leader acknowledges the need for the whole team to work together toward a common goal where everyone benefits, people are more likely to help than when they are told just to stopping doing a negative behavior. I would say to the bus route group, "I need your help in doing my job and my job is to keep everyone safe and able to learn."  I would then humbly ask them, "Will you help me?'  Kids want to say Yes.  When we humbly ask we are also showing our trust and our belief that they are trustworthy and capable.  When we do that they are more likely to trust us and come to us when they need help.

These acknowledgements are so necessary for connecting to students.   We need to have a different set of words to use with kids.  Words do matter for they shape how we think and then act.  Here are some the "replacements' we need to make:

Replace the mindset of "doing to kids" to "doing with kids"

Replace telling kids with asking kids

Replace saying NO and Don't with Do and dare (take a risk for doing good)

Replace seeing kids as the source of the problem with seeing them as the solution to the problem

Replace YOU with WE

If we start to make these shifts based on our trust in kids, we become trustworthy.  When we become trustworthy the lines of communication open and kids will be open to the wisdom we do have to offer them.   When we recognize the limits of our control and stop trying to manipulate kids into doing what we want them to do, a strange thing actually happens: we end  up actually having a influence on how they think and act.  Kids start to see us as people who want to help them not just as people who want to control them.  We have opened up the "life lines" between our two worlds.

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