Dear WeAreTeachers:
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? —Let’s Use First Names

Dear L.U.F.N.,

Names are such an important part of our identity. They connect to our culture and family and often have historical significance. It’s important to pause and consider how we address people and how we prefer to be addressed. It sounds like for you, it feels abrasive and depersonalized when others use last names only. Many people feel this way, I suspect. Of course, language does change based on context, and in the military and in many sports situations, last names are used.

You are not a prude to bring up your discomfort about calling others by last names. Yet, in your current reality, if it feels “off” to be using first names because most people are using last names only, consider speaking up and inquiring with your colleagues about their preferences. Just like we ask for clarification about name pronunciation or pronoun preference, you can ask other teachers what they prefer. Say something like, “I’ve been meaning to ask, would you prefer me to call you by your first name or last name?” Just by asking a few of your colleagues, you may discover that they feel they feel the last name thing is depersonalized and uncomfortable, too.

Another option might be for you to add a title in front of the last name with Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. If you go this route, be aware of the gender binary bias and assumptions about marital status. There is an alternative title, Mx., that was added to the dictionary in 2016. According to Merriam-Webster, Mx. “is often used by individuals who identify outside of the gender binary. But, like the other honorifics described here, it’s not a one-size-fits-all title—some people may dislike it or prefer no title at all, while others fully embrace it—so it’s best to ask, just as you would ask for a person personal pronouns.” You can also try these alternatives to honorifics.

Psychological safety at work needs to be intentionally developed. When we foster psychological safety at work, we accept that mistakes will be made, are open to opinions that differ from ours, encourage questions, share feedback, and engage in active listening. By speaking up, you are helping to shape a healthy work culture where educators feel safe to share their ideas and be themselves.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
We celebrated World Kindness Day at our TK-8 school and organized cross-age buddies to create a kindness art project together. As a staff, we were feeling a sense of hope to unify around something positive. I’m a middle school teacher, and I was horrified at how some of my students treated the younger kids. They had complete disregard for the kindness art project. Many were acting rude, making fun of people, and suggesting that fighting was a way to be kind. Way too many older kids were disengaged and apathetic and not even socializing with the younger kids. We were hoping our middle schoolers would rise up as role models. When I asked my co-workers how the kindness project went, they shared similar observations. As a staff, we felt so discouraged. How should we move forward to inspire kindness in our classrooms and beyond? —Kill Them With Kindness

Dear K.T.W.K.,

Major ugh. This is flabbergasting and frustrating to hear, and I imagine it feels even worse having witnessed these unkind, discouraging behaviors firsthand. So, it’s time to gather the troops together and focus on cultivating empathy and compassion with the students and relentlessly hopeful teachers.

Ask your leadership team for some time as a grade level, department, or staff to debrief how teachers felt about the behaviors on World Kindness Day. If you want to shape behaviors, then your staff needs to reflect, listen to each other’s perspectives, and head in the same direction with compassion and kindness as a school-wide priority and not just an activity on World Kindness Day. In addition to problem-solving and generating ways to improve, ask teachers for examples where the art project and interactions for World Kindness Day went well. Replicate that.

Hopefully, each middle school teacher will commit to talking to their classes about what happened with the younger students and how the rude behaviors made the little ones feel. Use this setback as a meaningful and relevant way to build a deeper understanding of compassion and kindness, so there is unity and cohesion. Ask administrators if they are willing to send out a Google survey to gather ideas from students about their perspective on how World Kindness Day went and ideas for future cross-age experiences. Get the student council involved too. The more student voice, the more ownership, the better!

The restorative practice approach can help the leadership team address the disturbing things like bullying, fighting, and inappropriate language that happened that day. Setting up restorative circles in one class each day shows a commitment to kindness and creates more lasting change. Hopefully, a cadre of teachers is willing to learn some strategies for setting up circles to get at deeper issues to repair the harm. Yes, academic time is limited, but social-emotional life skills are foundational for everything!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I found out there was a teacher get-together to which I was not invited. I’m not the only one who isn’t in the “in-crowd” and feels marginalized and isolated, but it still stings. There’s a huge difference between work friends (people with whom you make pleasant conversations at work) and real friends (people you actually do stuff with), and I’m pretty good at making the former, but not the latter. Can you walk me through how to think about this differently where I’m not invisible and unappreciated? —Left Out and Lonely

Dear L.O.A.L.,

Ouch! I think we all can relate to those feelings of isolation, loneliness, and rejection. Nurturing authentic relationships is no easy feat! And even when there is a kismet feeling, it still takes intentional effort to connect and evolve together. Hang in there; you aren’t alone in your desire to feel a sense of belonging.

Sometimes our setbacks and heavy-heartedness can motivate us to make changes and envision other possibilities. Naomi Shihab Nye begins her poem “Kindness” with this reminder:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Making friends as an adult can feel extra hard. But there are several things you can do! Clinical psychologist Dr. Kirmayer researches the science of connection and friendship and encourages taking the leap to grow workplace relationships. Start by finding common interests you share, like what you like to do in your free time. Kirmayer says, “Making an effort to gradually open up about different parts of your life can help to deepen that sense of connection.” Remember—you don’t always have to talk about work.

Consider being the person to set up a gathering or social activity. If you are more on the active side, you can organize a morning walk/hike. I find that talking and walking make me and others feel more at ease. Or maybe you enjoy reading, and you’d like to set up a lending library in the teacher’s lounge. This can serve as a great conversation starter during lunch!

Sally Boardman, a psychologist and TEDx speaker, suggests that “ a sense of belonging is crucial to our life satisfaction, happiness, mental and physical health, and even longevity. It gives us a sense of purpose and meaning … Humans have an instinctive need to belong. Evolutionarily, cooperation and group relationships led to an increased level of survival.”

As you seek to build a sense of belonging, be gentle to yourself, because the process takes time, intention, and risk-taking. It’s also worth it. Notice the way you talk to yourself during the in-between times and begin again and again and again.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m 22, and this is my first year teaching first grade at a public charter school in the city. I love the littles. I worked at a preschool for three years in college, I’ve subbed, and I have 1.5 years of student teaching. Yet, the past three months have been so draining. It’s not the work or the lesson planning. I am mainly struggling with my students’ negative behaviors and attitudes. Many of them don’t really care about school and act much older than I anticipated. They cuss, fight, and bully. I feel less like a teacher and more like a babysitter every day, reacting to the disruptive behaviors ALL DAY LONG. I was so excited when I was student teaching, but now I feel like I’m headed into battle every time I come to work. How can I get back on track? —How Low Can I Go?

Dear H.L.C.I.G.,

The WeAreTeachers community feels the angst you capture in your writing. It’s heavy and hard to rally each day and feel hijacked by disruptive behavior. If you have been reading the column, you know by now that challenging student behavior issues are brought up each week. There are a multitude of variables that affect classroom culture, including life situations, personalities, outside factors like a global pandemic, teacher confidence, and more. Yes, there is no quick fix, no silver bullet, no easy way out. But, as Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.”

You ask how to get back on track. Let’s start by reflecting on your own teacher presence. When behavior dynamics start escalating in class, how do you respond? Does your voice raise, jaw clench, hands grasp, body feel tight? Have you found a way to stay calm through the storms? It took me a lot of intention and persistence to learn to stand firm like a mountain with my feet solid on the ground, posture confident, back straight, coupled with full, deep breaths. Here are some tips to help.

Try moving slowly and speaking calmly with a serious tone. Whisper instead of raising your voice when you are on the verge of yelling. After a quiet signal, make sure that you hold space for the silence. I prefer to use non-verbal quiet signals, and I also stay silent when the quiet signal is in use. Circulating around the room, giving eye contact, proximity with your body, and thumbs-up gestures to students who are being responsible decision-makers help. And it’s not so taxing on you as the teacher.

Even if we can only hold the quiet for just a few seconds, it’s a relief, and little by little shapes students’ social and self-awareness. Providing wait time can feel long and awkward. But it’s a powerful tool as you deliberately create a sense of space. That itty-bitty moment of quiet spaciousness helps to promote students’ self-control, which is necessary when replacing disruptive behaviors with prosocial ones.

In our UCSD Teacher Education Program, we emphasize the importance of teaching routines. These responsive classroom videos can help us communicate clear expectations with precise teacher language and visualize predictable structures that foster a classroom culture where students gain a sense of control and make choices that ooze with empathy and compassion.

As far as cussing, fighting, and bullying, these issues will need to be addressed one-on-one with students and families. Additionally, implementing a hearty social-emotional learning focus in daily classroom meetings is crucial. Ask your leadership team for support, too. They can come in and observe students, provide feedback based on the complex dynamic in the class, support you with family meetings, and help to design a behavior contract for accountability and follow-through. We don’t need individual teachers to try and act like superheroes. We are humans, and our superpower is community. Margaret Wheatly’s advice embodies this best: “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.”

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
One of the sixth graders in my small class of 26 students has a huge impact on the vibe of the class. She is disruptive and argues with me and with other students. She complains about every project and assignment that we do. On days she is absent, my students get along better, and the day just generally goes better. My other students have commented that it’s so nice when Lexie (not her real name) isn’t here. I want my class to be positive and accepting of each other, but I also understand how they feel. How do I handle this?

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson