Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Are My Students Weeds or Flowers?

In Weeds Are People Too from Tinkerings, the author states,

“In the world of classroom gardening, I can change that weed into a flower. How do we do that as teachers? By doing exactly the opposite of what I did for the first few days. Concentrate on the good behavior. Look at the flowers. Don’t ignore the weed, but don’t make him or her the focal point of your room either.

Here is a maxim I believe, but find it hard to practice: You get more of whatever you concentrate on. What will happen if I focus my attention on one bad student? I’ll get a room full of them. But if I focus my attention on the good behaviors I will get a room full of them instead.

After all, weeds are people too.”

This actually reminded me of the time that I started a new flower bed at home. I went to the flower nursery and spent tons of money on new plants. I took pictures of them to show my parents when we visited them in Florida. Imagine the look on their faces when they saw I spent money on Lantana which is considered an invasive weed where they live. So I guess one person’s weed is another person’s flower.

I began to think about the students who got so much negative attention but was happy to get any attention at all and were considered weeds. Many of my special education students were used to this attention and I believe in fact, that it was actually a habit. Over the years, they realized with their problems they were never going to get the “best student award” or win the spelling bee so why not be the “class clown” or the “most misbehaved?” It was better than nothing for them. Over time, they began to feel proud of these titles because if they didn’t feel proud, they would feel the hurt and the isolation inside.

I decided early on in my career that I needed a mission to carry me though the next 30 years of my career. I wanted to break this negative cycle and it might actually take the rest of my life to do this. In order to do this, I began to wonder when this negative cycle begins. Does it start in kindergarten or junior high? I know it is earlier than high school because by the time they reach high school, they have their act perfected to an art. Is knowing where it begins important? How can I go about interrupting this cycle? Where do I begin?

Then I realized that I can’t undo the past. I can only change the future. How can I help these students know that they were not weeds but were indeed flowers? I know they behaved in ways that made me and other teachers want to scream but I had to look past those actions. How could I help them see that they were valued and had a purpose in life?

I decided to start in small ways. I tried to praise a lot for good behaviors and ignore the bad behaviors. Even this was not enough. I began to call parents every two weeks and only brag about the good things their child had done. Since I knew that I would be calling, I began to look for the good things which helped change my perspective. I continually asked the parents to let their children know that I called saying positive things. When they came to class, I asked students if their parents had told them that I called. Sometimes the parents did not share the phone call with their child so I began to call the parents at work with the student in front of me. At first the parents thought their child was in trouble but was so relieved to find out they weren’t, that they didn’t mind that I called them at work. Then I explained that the reason I was calling was because the student didn’t seem to believe that I bragged about them and wanted them to hear it firsthand.

As the parents bragged to the children, I think it actually improved their relationship at home. Finally parents could brag to others about the good things their child had done. This in turn, made the student work harder in my class. Eventually many of the really bad behaviors disappeared. If I didn’t call home, the student would ask why and we would talk about his behavior. This usually had the student straighten up and then I would make the call with the student. Sometimes if the parents hadn’t heard from me, they knew their child was having problems and would call me. (Of course if there were major problems, I never hesitated in calling the parents because now we had a great rapport also.)

Once the students started to do well in my class, it actually began to spill over in other classes. I checked with teachers and they would tell me that they could see a change. When asked how I did it, I would share my strategy and others would try it too. It was so refreshing to see my “weed” start to bloom into a “flower.”

This did not happen overnight. It took a lot of patience, and even use of personal time for this to be successful. But at the end of the year, as I look back at the progress my students made, I know it was well worth all the energy I put into it. I never regretted trying to change my “weeds” into “flowers.”

Original image: 'Another Dandy' http://www.flickr.com/photos/38633611@N00/151861297 by: Photos by Micky


GingerLewman said...

I've seen this work before. I'm SO glad you've reminded me...it usually takes me a while to remember to do these things!

Will be sharing your post with my staff.

Paul Bogush said...

Great analogy. A classroom is a lot like a garden. I was spoken to years back by an administrator for not making my kids bloom early in the year. I couldn't explain that this was a class of weeds who needed time and nourishment, a little more sun, and a lot more water than the other classes before they could bloom.

Sometimes I think we treat kids, especially spec ed kids like tomato seedlings in the spring. Some people keep them warm, then bring them out during the day and in at night, and finally out all the time when properly hardened.
Other folks get the seedlings and throw them outside and then when they whither they blame the store for giving them rejects.

There is another analogy about the effect of throwing to much manure on the seedlings and how we do that to kids but I'll skip that one ;)

Mrs. Johnson said...

I enjoyed this post. It is amazing what taking a little time on the front end will do for a student. It will save you time later and make your teaching more effective because it cuts down on interruptions in your classroom. More importantly it can change the life of a student. Thank you!

mindelei said...

Pat, you always find a way to make my heart smile. I hope to follow in your footsteps.

:) Mindelei

Unknown said...

This was an amazing story, I hope more teachers read this and implement your method into their teaching and classroom. Really insightful and usefull thank you so much!

TGrant said...

I only hope that I have the patience to make this work. I too try very hard to look past the weed and see the flower. Right now, I'm at the point where some of my more difficult students are very good for me and still "the weed" for other teachers, who then can't believe when I say positive things about "my students."

Jonathan Wylie said...

That is an inspiring post with a lot of truth to it. You are right that it can be hard to ignore the bad behavior, (it is often instinctive to correct it), but this positive attitude is one that we should all share in the classroom, because, in my experience in Elementary schools, it really does work!

BookChook said...

This is such a tribute to you as a teacher and wonderful human being, Pat. I've always tried to practise this philosophy, but I've never had to test it on kids with such challenging behaviours. This post is inspirational!

Ali Hall said...

what a wonderful approach - thank you so much for sharing it with us. I love the positive steps you took and how personalised your approach was. Often I think we can forget what an important role parents play in the relationship and it sounds like your perseverance paid off.

Tech Blog said...

I was inspired by this post, I would definitely share your post with my colleague, I think this is one of best strategy.

Unknown said...

Paul... I agree with you. We need to treat every child equal weather they have special needs or not. Because in the real world everyone gets treated the same with no special circumstances

loonyhiker said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to comment. I've been on the road and the internet connections have been awful. I'm glad y'all enjoyed this post!