One of my 9th graders’ parents emailed all the other parents in the class to complain about my class and the next novel we’re reading. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Note, the parents didn’t say anything to me. So now several are riled up. And I need to figure out how to handle this. I do get their perspective. The book is intense and deals with a lot of heavy issues. I also stand by my choice to do it—to increase awareness and to put resources in the hands of kids. I also think that good literature can and should make you feel uncomfortable at times. What should I do? I don’t know if my principal knows yet. Do I keep the book and offer an alternative? How does that work practically? —Blindsided and Bummed
Thank you for reminding us of the power of literature to build empathy and raise awareness about real-deal issues your students are facing. Ann Kowel Smith, director of Reflection Point, emphasizes how “literature is a powerful storytelling technology that unites us across space and time. Literature chronicles and preserves the ever-evolving human story. It invites us to reflect on our lives and, in discussion with others, to add our voices to the exploration of timeless human themes. Literature makes us think.”
The power of telling a story is as old as humanity. Stories help us explore the full range of being alive. And part of being alive is being uncomfortable. Cognitive dissonance means we are leaning into learning something new. Our classroom texts are great vehicles for promoting self-reflection, appreciation for multiple perspectives, and understanding. These core ideas are foundational to connection, transformation, unity, peace, and so much more.
We can all agree that parent complaints can be tricky to manage. It’s important to get your leadership involved so that they can provide insight, guidance, and hopefully help talk with the families. Your district will most likely have a department and policy that supports equity, inclusion, and diversity. So it’s worth looking closely at your district policies. This will help you connect your classroom content to the larger goals of building historical knowledge, identity, cultural competence, and empathy.
Consider inviting parents to talk about their concerns regarding the text selection. Empathic listening is a way to nurture trust with families. Imagine yourself like a mirror holding space for the caregivers’ feelings and ideas. You might repeat back what they say with, “So, what I’m hearing is…” This helps them feel heard, valued, and increases understanding. A simple act can help to deescalate a situation and bridge differences. Frustration skyrockets when we don’t feel like someone is making the effort to listen and understand our point of view.
Help caregivers see that the classroom is a safe place to explore difficult and controversial issues. Explain that it’s not about indoctrination but rather critical thinking. Show families that constructing meaning together and developing opinions based on multiple sources of information is important. Strive to shed light on how literature prepares our students to feel more equipped to handle the complexities of being human. The American Library Association is dedicated to providing “leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services … in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”
You wondered about providing another book selection. If you choose to add another title, you can still keep the relevant book title selection even if it’s causing controversy. One approach is to set up literature circles or book clubs to promote more choice and expand book topic options. I say, keep the book and keep open communication with the families and your school administrator. It’ll take courage, patience, and effort to foster understanding, but it’s worth it.
I know the past couple of years have been hard on everyone. But lately, I feel like I’m surrounded by teachers who complain a lot. I mean A LOT, and I’m supposed to be collaborating with them. We get very little accomplished because they are recounting “how it used to be” and complaining that what we are trying to do with targeting instruction won’t work. How do I do what’s best for my students while also working productively and respectfully with my grade level team? —Can’t Stand The Complaining
Most of us agree that the past couple of years have been trying beyond measure. When things feel hard, we often default to familiar patterns and ways of being. Often this stuckness sounds like a quagmire of complaining, deficit thinking, and unhelpful thought patterns. Working with grade level teams brings up a slew of issues that are sometimes bumpy. So doing what’s best for your students AND building a positive, collaborative rapport with your grade level team is crucial and challenging to manage.
It’s fascinating that chronic complaining changes the brain and makes it harder to be a solution-oriented person. A Harvard Review article titled Managing the Chronic Complainer describes the brain’s process: “Through the repetition of bad, sad, mad, and powerless feelings, the neurotransmitters in the brain can go through a neural ‘rewiring,’ which reinforces negative thought patterns, making it easier for unhappy thoughts to repeat themselves and leaving little room for the more positive feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and well-being.”
When you are exposed to chronic complaining over and over, it’s important to hold some boundaries. One way is with communication. For example, you might say, “I see that you are upset and frustrated with our current reality. Also, your prior experiences and historical knowledge are important and can help us move forward. I’m going to give targeted instruction a try. Are you willing to choose a strategy with me to try out with your students? We are being asked to target our instruction based on our students’ needs. I was thinking we might try…”
It’s also important to remember that not all “complaining” is bad. It can be uncomfortable and draining at times, for sure. But complaining can sometimes be constructive by helping to get ideas out in the open. Once we learn where other people stand, we can lessen some of the stressful interactions and move forward together.
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman created a model to help teams get in sync and evolve to a higher level of performance together. Tuckman posits that groups follow a sequence from storming, norming, forming, performing, and adjourning. I wonder where you think your grade level team falls on this development sequence of group dynamics?
When groups are in the “forming” stage, individuals often don’t know what their role is in the group, and the group’s purpose may feel murky. Some may feel anxious, while others are excited about the prospect of working together. The team looks to leadership for guidance. Groups can linger in this stage for a long time as they get to know and trust one another.
In the “storming” phase, people challenge boundaries and authority and stick with their own way of doing things. Often this leads to conflict and tension. The “norming” stage consists of teams beginning to acknowledge and even appreciate each member’s strengths. Members start asking for feedback and offer constructive feedback, too. This stage shows efforts toward shared team goals. As teams wrestle through the bumpiness, they shift to the “performing” stage, where there is evidence of a “flow” and teams are achieving progress together. Individuals take on different roles, and multiple perspectives are valued. The final “adjournment” stage comes when the project or team changes.
Where do you see your grade level team? Hopefully, this model will help you recognize where your team is, and then you can envision some just right next steps. Stick with your relentless hopefulness, and don’t let others dim your light. Author Anne Lamott writes, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island and looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
I know that using students’ names correctly is super important. Recently, I addressed a high school Asian student by name. As I walked by, I overheard the student say, “He does that all the time.” I had the worst sinking feeling when I realized I keep mixing up my Asian students’ names. How can I mend my relationships? —Heavy Hearted
Thank you for having the courage to be vulnerable with our WeAreTeachers community. Your story is a springboard to promote affirming spaces in our schools and beyond. First, take a deep breath, and know that your own personal growth can only occur with self-awareness. Self-awareness is described as “the quality or trait that involves conscious awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attitudes.” Here you are in this reflective moment. Sit with it. What feelings are coming up for you? Stay with those feelings for a bit. Notice and name them, but don’t beat yourself up. You may feel heavy right now, AND you are ready to mend your relationships and propel forward as an ally to ALL of your students.
Here are a few things you can do. Educate yourself on the complexity of uprooting racism and inequalities in yourself and your larger context. Learning for Justice helps us to become informed, inspired, and skilled at disrupting inequities and creating positive learning conditions for all of our students. It’s helpful to take the time to learn more about the history of Asian Americans in our country. This will help you build your understanding and, in turn, confidence to interact in more responsive ways with your students.
Historically, people of Asian descent have endured discrimination in the United States. Although confusion related to the names of your Asian American students may seem small, this is a part of the complex issues of identity, diversity, and justice in our schools. Those of us who do the work to become more self-aware and have the desire to promote classroom spaces where all students are valued and appreciated can have a major impact on creating a sense of belonging in schools.
Another important step to take is to communicate with your students. Take personal responsibility. When you know better, you do better. Let the students know that you realize what you have been doing with their name mix-ups. Own it. Apologize. Ask them how this made them feel. Listen and then listen some more. Let the students know you are actively listening by repeating back some of the ideas they are sharing with you. This may feel a bit uncomfortable, and it also has the power to build the trusting relationships you desire. Brené Brown suggests that “everyone deserves brave and safe spaces to be vulnerable; therefore, we work to both create brave and safe spaces for individuals and we work to promote social justice.”
I’m confident you will create a sense of belonging with your students. You’ve got this!
I teach a high school film elective, and it was great in prior years. My class demographics have changed, and I’m struggling with meeting the wide range of student needs. I’ve tried to make the content more accessible while also being somewhat challenging to keep their interest. I’ve made many changes to support a growth mindset. I even made projects 100% upon completion. Despite all that, I still have about 30% of students who do nothing. It really feels like nothing I have done has made a difference to this group of students. How can I get students to engage? —Getting Them To Care
It’s mind-boggling to imagine the wide range of student needs in any single classroom. Even more challenging is being responsive to those needs in a proactive, strategic way. I’m certain if we asked our WeAreTeachers community, most educators would be able to relate to feeling like their efforts are falling short for some students.
Even though we may feel discouraged, we stick with it and show up day in and day out doing the hard work. Jaime Escalante, the real-life teacher portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, proclaims, “We are all concerned about the future of education. But as I tell my students, you do not enter the future—you create the future. The future is created through hard work.”
Teachers who strive to maintain high expectations, accountability, and support coupled with an unwavering conviction that every student has strengths have the best chance of creating learning conditions that motivate and inspire. Here are a few prompts to ignite reflection and strength-based perspectives in our learners:
- How are we awakening the genius in each of our students?
- What has been buried and untapped in our learners?
- What strengths can you name as you imagine your students?
- Imagine a lesson that went well.
- How do you know it was effective and meaningful? And what made your lesson so successful?
Let’s focus on motivation, which is at the core of student engagement. Vanderbilt University’s education program outlines four factors that greatly influence student motivation: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction.
Attention is crucial to get and sustain in order for learning to happen. Students learn what they pay attention to. Our students should be leaning in and authentically engaged. Some ways to spark attention include humor, inquiry, and planned interactions that promote active engagement. Intentionally planned interactions set up a structure to enable the interaction between students.
Relevance unfolds when classroom learning is applicable to the students’ present lives and future opportunities. When learning meets students’ needs, the content and strategies become more meaningful. Therefore, take the time to get to know your students and survey their interests so you can find ways to hook them. Also, providing student choice in their learning is a HUGE motivator for any age learner. Your modeling helps students make connections from prior learning to new learning.
Confidence deepens when students realize and attribute success to their own efforts. This sense of self-efficacy strengthens with opportunities for students to reflect on how their choices affect their learning. Additionally, providing challenging learning experiences also positively impacts confidence.
Satisfaction develops when we encourage students to recognize their progress and feel good about their learning and accomplishments. Allowing learners to exert some level of control over the learning experience greatly increases feelings of satisfaction. Your strength-based feedback is instrumental in raising up levels of satisfaction.
Hopefully, these ideas will help you will stay committed to your desire to promote engagement and learning for EACH and EVERY student EVERDAY.
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A few years ago, a new principal was hired for our building from another district. For whatever reason, she went by her last name only. I asked her about it and told her it made me uncomfortable. She laughed and said it didn’t bother her at all. I just couldn’t do it. I always referred to her by her first name, whether addressing her directly or referring to her with other colleagues. She was only with us one year, but it started a new culture in our school to call all staff by their last names! Now, three years later, we are still doing it. I, however, still address everyone by their first name and feel weird doing it! I would feel like such a prude to bring it up and express my discomfort and advocate for change. How should I address this?
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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson