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Closing the achievement gap by supporting teachers

Instead of pouring more resources into high-stakes standardized tests, those working to support low-performing students should focus their energies on supporting teachers, writes education professor Linda Darling-Hammond in a blog at the Huffington Post titled “To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap.”

As evidence, Darling-Hammond points to the findings of the Teaching and Learning International Surveyof 100,000 teachers worldwide, which were released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The survey, she said, revealed:

American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work.

Current education policies, writes Darling-Hammond, “ignore the facts that one in four American children lives below the poverty line and a growing number are homeless, without regular access to food or health care, and stressed by violence and drug abuse around them. Educators now spend a great deal of their time trying to help children and families in their care manage these issues, while they also seek to close skill gaps and promote learning.”

Darling-Hammond highlighted the survey finding that nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. That is triple the average rate reported in the survey, and by far the highest rate in the world, she said.

To address these inequalities, Darling-Hammond suggests some important policy changes that would support teachers rather than penalize them:

  • Address inequities that undermine learning
  • Value teaching and teacher learning
  • Redesign schools to create time for collaboration
  • Create meaningful teacher evaluations that foster improvement

“We cannot make major headway in raising student performance and closing the achievement gap until we make progress in closing the teaching gap,” Darling-Hammond concludes. “That means supporting children equitably outside as well as inside the classroom, creating a profession that is rewarding and well-supported, and designing schools that offer the conditions for both the student and teacher learning that will move American education forward.”

Read the full post here.

Summer is for…

School’s out. But we know that many UFT members have busy summers ahead.

Many will still be working, including the members of our Federation of Nurses/UFT. Some others who work in the schools will teach special-needs students or summer school during the summer. Many others will use this time away from the classroom preparing for the next school year.

We all know that some people who have never worked in schools don’t understand the intensity of the demands on educators. These same people may also fail to grasp the fulfillment and gratification that can come with the job. And they likely misunderstand how teachers and other educators spend their summer breaks.

We work, take professional development courses, care for our families, prepare for the coming year.

Just as importantly, we try to find time to recharge. In our devotion to our students, we can pour so much into our work that we become emotionally and physically drained.

The UFT recently asked our Facebook followers to share their tips on how to have a productive summer. Some of the answers are on page 55. Here is one:

“Spend time building yourself intellectually and spiritually,” said Jessica Leung Rivera, an ESL teacher at PS 101 in Brooklyn. “Spend time doing what you love. But also do something new. Learning a new skill will remind you what it’s like to be a student.”

Whether you are working this summer or getting a much-needed break, find some time to relax and recharge. You deserve it.

Do decorated classrooms distract young children?

Picture a kindergarten classroom. What do you see?

Chances are, your mental image doesn’t include blank walls. But a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that kindergarten students in a visually stimulating classroom tended to be more distracted than those in a comparatively sterile environment.

As reported in a New York Times article, “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom,” this study suggests that elaborately decorated classrooms might distract from, rather than encourage, learning.

In the austere classroom in the study, the kindergartners — age-appropriately wriggly and restless — were inclined to be distracted by others or even themselves. In the decorated one, the visuals competed with the teacher for their attention. The children spent far more time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the plain one, and their test scores were also lower.

Teachers who agree with the study recommend starting the year with relatively blank walls and adding student work to decorate the room as the year goes on.

Yet teachers of primary grades often start the year with decorated classrooms to help create a cheerful and welcoming environment. And many teachers have had administrators who expect them to cover every inch of wall space with some kind of chart or poster.

Tell us: What’s your reaction to this new research? What works for you when decorating your own classrooms?

Helping students cope with their emotions


nau_edwizePatrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the South Bronx, was trained in January by the Institute for Understanding Behavior (IUB), a consortium of the Department of Education and the UFT, in how to respond to challenging behavior more effectively by using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth. Staff from eight schools received training this school year. Patrick is blogging about his experience as he applies what he learned in his classroom. Read Patrick’s other posts »

We have a handful of students at my school who struggle with transitions and display aggressive behavior, fight, push, yell and curse. One of the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools strategies I have applied is to provide time away for the student who is acting out. After giving that student some time to calm down and get back to baseline, I talk with him in private about what happened and what he is feeling. The challenge is to let the student control the discussion and let him express his feelings and his interpretation of what happened, regardless of its accuracy or the appropriateness of his reaction.

What the IUB taught me is that it doesn’t matter if the student’s perception is inaccurate; he reacted according to how he perceived what took place. It is important not to get caught in a power struggle by disputing his version of events and saying things like “I heard you calling him names” or “I saw you pushing him, too.” It’s better to ask him “How did it make you feel?” and “What could you do differently next time?” instead of “Why did you hit him?”

The goal is to help the student cope with his emotions and think about a better way to resolve the situation next time — alternatives like walking away, speaking to a teacher, asking the person to leave him alone. I have to remember that I may have to repeat the process with him a dozen times before his behavior starts to change. We teachers must remember that students who struggle with their emotions are not going to suddenly figure out how to control themselves and not, in eyes of adults, overreact in a situation.

The IUB strategies have helped me deal with defiance, yelling, pushing and other disruptions. More importantly, they can be very effective in de-escalating situations. But I’m not convinced that the strategies pay off with students who have much more severe behaviors — students who fight without being provoked, emotionally disturbed children, children on the spectrum. I am not sure if these students can interpret and understand their emotions. The IUB approach may work to defuse a crisis for some of these students in the moment, but I don’t know how well it will work in the long term in changing their behavior.

Another challenge at my school is that the IUB model is premised on a critical mass of the staff buying into the new approach if a school’s culture is to change. Here at PS 369, almost half of the school’s staff, including most school aides, paras and security, have not yet attended the trainings. The IUB system cannot work until everyone uses the same strategies to deal with specific behaviors and specific children.

If I ignore a student for cursing and it stops but another teacher makes a bigger issue of it with the same student, then the student is receiving mixed messages. The response of adults in our school must be consistent. The challenge lies in everyone agreeing on what the appropriate response is to a particular behavior. The staff has to put their personal sentiments aside and support the system. This can happen only when everyone has a clear understanding of the IUB approach and how to implement it.

Why treating teachers like professionals terrifies the tabloids

The proposed new teachers’ contract takes landmark steps toward recognizing the expertise of teachers and giving them more of a voice in decision making in their schools and classrooms. For proof that the contract empowers educators, look no further than yesterday’s editorial in the Daily News, which stomps its feet over Mayor de Blasio’s “generosity to the UFT” and “collaboration with the teachers union.”

That editorial joins a chorus of criticism about our proposed contract in the tabloids, which reached its most absurd in the New York Post op-ed that described the agreement as “Satanic.”

Evidently, the idea of a mayor who works collaboratively with teachers, treating them like professionals, is terrifying to the tabloids. The Daily News editorial objects to the proposed contract on the grounds that it gives more job-placement opportunities to ATRs and enables teachers to spend time on training, parent engagement, and, heaven forbid, grading tests.

The Daily News is disappointed that the contract bases teacher evaluations on more than test scores: “As long as a principal likes the way teachers conduct their classes, they will be presumed to get an ‘effective’ rating.” The paper also complains that the contract makes teachers the peer “validators” who review the fairness of teacher ratings.

Read the full editorial here.

Teachers know what is best for their students. All they need is the respect, support and tools to act on that knowledge. That is what this proposed contract offers.

The wait is over!


The proposed new contract recognizes the hard work teachers do every day in the classroom and restores the dignity of the profession after years of abuse.

It is a contract for educators but, of equal importance, it is also a contract for education that will not only benefit teachers but also the students, schools and communities they serve.

To see the details, check out the UFT’s Contract for Education page.

An apology to public school teachers

At the Huffington Post, blogger Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg has a message for public school teachers: We apologize.

“We refuse to allow public education to be privatized, perverted by profits, and reduced to endless hours of test preparation,” writes Weill-Greenberg in a post titled “An Open Letter to Public School Teachers: We Apologize.” “We refuse to allow our schools to be judged, opened, closed, and funded on the basis of test scores. We refuse to allow the teaching profession to be scripted and threatened.”

Weill-Greenberg, who lives in New Jersey, highlights an outrageous irony in Highland Park: Almost a dozen positions (including literacy coaches and a substance abuse counselor) were eliminated, only to be replaced by a data analyst and administrators earning a six-figure salary. Administrators went on to issue guidelines to teachers on exactly how to craft their bulletin boards and based their evaluations of teachers partly on bulletin board displays.

“And so, to those educators who value play, critical thinking and creativity, we apologize,” Weill-Greenberg concludes. “We are angry, fed up, and inspired to opt out, speak out and stand with you.”

Read the full post here.

A teacher who loves tests — but not the ELA

“I love tests,” declares Leah Brunski, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 29 in Brooklyn. “They help me do a better job teaching. They show me what’s going well and what’s not, which kids are learning concepts and mastering skills and which ones aren’t. They even show me whether or not I’m being effective as a teacher.”

But even Brunski — who’s in her 10th year of teaching — couldn’t stomach the state’s English language arts exam, which she calls “developmentally inappropriate.”

Jean Piaget, one of the godfathers of cognitive development, is likely rolling in his grave knowing that New York is asking kids equipped with 45-minute attention spans to focus for almost twice that amount of time. It felt cruel to ask students to go back and check their work after the 60+ minutes many had already spent reading and then re-reading passages, writing and revising their responses.

In an op-ed in the Daily News titled “Why state exams fail my test,” Brunski highlights the length (240 minutes over three days) and complexity of this year’s ELA. The veteran teacher, who frequently uses her own assessments to shape her lessons, also notes that teachers and students don’t receive the results of the exams until students have already moved on to the next grade — too late to inform instruction.

“[The test] may as well have disappeared into thin air the day my students were done with it,” Brunski concludes.

Read the full op-ed here.

Is the ELA turning children into “test-taking drones”? This teacher thinks so

Teachers, parents and students at more than 35 schools in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn mounted early-morning protests on April 11,  incensed by what they said were confusing, developmentally inappropriate or needlessly long questions on this year’s English language arts exams.

In a blog post at Slate that originally appeared on Testing Talk — a forum for sharing observations about standardized tests — an anonymous New York State public school teacher who worked hard to develop her students’ love of reading writes about how the tests “are sucking the life and love out of students’ literary lives.”

“During the test, my readers, who months ago couldn’t get their noses out of books, complained of stomachaches as they persevered and tried to read texts that were over their heads and had no relevance to their lives, age, or backgrounds,” writes the 3rd-grade teacher.

The teacher, who supports the Common Core Learning Standards, observes that the ELA’s “complex and nonsensical” questions bore little resemblance to the kind that should encourage critical thinking.

Instead of a question like: “What caused the character to (insert action here) in the middle of the story?” (which, mind you, is hard enough for an 8-year-old to identify as it is), there were questions like: “In Line 8 of Paragraph 4, the character says … and in Line 17 of Paragraph 5, the character does … Which of the following lines from Paragraph 7 best supports the character’s actions?” This, followed by four choices of lines from Paragraph 7 that could all, arguably, show motivation for the character’s actions in the preceding paragraphs.

Many across the city agreed. Twenty-five principals in Manhattan’s District 2 wrote a letter to families saying they were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests.

The anonymous teacher concludes, “It is not my job to take children who are developing, who are trying to make sense of the world and the books around them, and turn them into test-taking drones who read and write with the intention of dissection and choosing the best answer out of four complex answer choices that all say little to nothing about what the text actually meant.”

Read the full post here.

Think you understand teachers? You’re wrong

You may think you know who teachers are and what they do, but you’re wrong, argues Sarah Blaine in this blog post at Parenting the Core.

Blaine, a former teacher who now practices law, notes that ” people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.”

Yet because nearly everyone has had the opportunity to observe teachers at work, everyone thinks they understand the teaching profession — and everyone feels qualified to criticize teachers.

“The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do,” Blaine writes. “We need to stop thinking that we know anything about teaching merely by virtue of having once been students.”

Read the full post here.

New York’s badly segregated schools

A new Civil Rights Project report on segregation in New York schools, by UCLA researchers John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, demonstrates that New York State has the most racially segregated schools in the country. New York’s schools are more segregated than schools in the Deep South, even after the civil rights movement and desegregation efforts made around the state since the 1970s.

New York City contributes mightily to the state’s overall lack of diversity in schools, Orfield writes in the report’s preface, with the city’s recent school-choice policies tending to perpetuate segregation. The authors flag city charter schools as exceptionally segregated. Almost three-quarters are termed “apartheid schools” with less than 1 percent white enrollment.

By contrast, the city’s magnet schools had the highest proportion of multiracial learning environments and the lowest proportion of segregation, the authors find.

Orfield, in a preface to the report, makes the case that integrated schools offer an advantage to all students across the board by preparing them for an increasingly diverse college and job market. Integration benefits academic achievement and health outcomes for minority students and social skills for whites and all other students.

School-choice plans without “civil rights standards,” he writes, increase the stratification of schools and leave children of color attending segregated and poorer schools. “Such ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘open enrollment’ plans were tried in many hundreds of districts,” he says. “The record, as the Supreme Court recognized in l968, was a failure.”

When districts implement choice, whether through magnets, charters or other types of assignments, the planning must be linked to measures that will uphold civil rights standards, such as extensive outreach, free transportation, “authentic educational options worth choosing,” and no admissions screening.

For students who speak languages other than English, the authors urge expansion of dual language immersion programs.

New York City’s notoriously segregated housing markets are a factor in school segregation, but not an excuse to do nothing, Orfield says.

Committees upon committees upon…

“Kelly” is the pseudonym of a 3rd-year high school social studies teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

High school teachers spend the entire year focusing on Regents preparation — especially this year, when Regents scores hold so much weight in our teacher evaluations. This year, like every other year, we are committed to improving student test scores. As part of our commitment, we’ve formed two committees focusing on how we can get our students to pass the Regents. So in effect, these two different committees are doing the same thing.

It sounds great in theory to have a literacy team and an instructional team, in addition to the school’s inquiry team. All of our teams are making progress: We’ve identified that low reading levels account for difficulty in test-taking for special education and ELL students.

But at a recent faculty meeting, the inquiry team presented essentially the same data that had been discussed at the literacy team meeting. Neither team has collaborated to discuss its findings or how its data can help us meet our students’ needs. Instead, each team has come up with its own approach on how to tackle the issue, with the result that not as much is getting done.

We struggle in education about how to make progress, but our multiple committees seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re so caught up in data and the other pressures of being a teacher that we think we exist in a vacuum, as if no one else in the entire school could possibly share the same concerns or have solutions.

Being on a committee is an honor, to be recognized for my skills and what I do. And it’s great to work with colleagues toward solving a problem.

But why is it that the same few teachers get picked for committees over and over again? Shouldn’t we all work together on everything, instead of relying on a few people? After all, we’re all accountable for results. Not to mention that committees create extra work for teachers who are already overextended: If I’m expected to prepare dynamite lesson plans that are Common Core- and Danielson-aligned, how can I do that in addition to serving on a committee?

Committees should be cohesive in terms of membership and focused on a specific issue, rather than overlapping with the same broad intentions. We should be encouraged to collaborate as a whole rather than attempt to tackle the same issue in small units without communicating. After all, the school’s mission applies to all of us, not just those on a committee.

Steve Jobs got it right; he ran a company that had only a few products, but they were high-quality. We as teachers should go for a similar approach; each committee should have a single, focused mission. As each committee begins to intensively address its assigned topic, other problems at the school might start to disappear.

Inequality and you

[This editorial originally appeared in the Feb. 6 edition of the New York Teacher.]

You know how college costs today seem nearly out of reach for all but the most affluent families?

How so many families now are under financial stress and struggling to pay their bills, despite holding down jobs and working hard?

How housing prices in New York City keep climbing faster than wages, forcing more families to move farther out or to the suburbs?

That is income inequality at work.

Bill de Blasio made it the touchstone issue of his mayoral campaign. President Obama focused on it in his State of the Union address. Occupy Wall Street helped us all start talking about it.

The statistics are alarming. Since 1979, the share of total income going to the top-earning U.S. households nearly doubled. In 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income. An international study in 2013 found that the widest gaps between rich and poor are found in four countries: Chile, Mexico, Turkey and the United States.

The issue really hits home, though, when we consider how growing inequality hurts ordinary people and narrows the future possibilities for our children.

There are ways to close the income gap, and the president is right that government has a big role to play. Solutions include increasing the minimum wage, closing corporate tax loopholes and strengthening labor laws so that workers who want to unionize can do so.

As a union, our fight for fair contracts acts as a counterweight to the rising tide of inequality. So does our support for other labor campaigns, such as the fight by fast-food workers for decent wages.

Inequality affects us all every day. It is, as President Obama said, the defining issue of our time.

Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report

As charter school proponents go to Albany this week to plead their case, let’s examine the realities behind their claims of stretched resources, unique student demand and stellar academic results.

How poor are charter schools?

While charters maintain they have very thin budgets, and some smaller charters in fact operate close to the margin, others are extremely well-funded.

A review of the most recently available public documents showed that as of 2011-12, the schools in six of the city’s most prominent charter chains had a total of more than $65 million in net assets, including nearly $16 million for the charters which are part of the Uncommon Schools Network and more than $13 million for the Success Academy Network.

What’s more, this supposed poverty doesn’t prevent some charters from paying very large salaries to their executives, as the Daily News recently reported.  The two Harlem Village Academies run by Deborah Kenny pay her a total of half a million dollars a year;  Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies reported a salary only a few thousand less, while David Levin of KIPP got just under $400,000.  All these salaries are dramatically more than those of the city’s mayor and chancellor, who supervise roughly 1,700 schools.

Charters’ opaque bookkeeping methods make it difficult to figure out how much many schools spend on their vendors, but tax filings by the Success Academy schools suggest that management fees charged by that network totaled $3.5 million of their schools’ per-pupil funds in 2011-12. In 2013, the Success Network requested and received a raise in management fees to 15 percent of the per-pupil funding it receives from the state and city.

The total amount of management fees charged by just four of the city’s charter chains in 2011-12 — Success, Uncommon, Achievement First, and KIPP — was over $12 million.  (see table below)

Charter Chain Financial Data, 2011-12


Network Name Number of NYC Schools with Audits Total Net Assets of Schools Total Management Fees Top Executive Compensation 2010-11
Achievement First





Success Charter Network





Uncommon Schools










Village Academies Network



Not Listed on Audit


Icahn Charters










All of these figures are based on the schools’ own filings; the lack of publicly available audits for many other chains limits information about what other networks are charging.  Meanwhile, charter proponents led by Success Academy have launched a court fight to prevent an independent expert — the State Comptroller — from auditing charters’ and charter management companies’ books.

A study based on 2010-11 by the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that as of 2009-10, co-locating a charter school in a public school building in effect gave the charter about $650 per student more in public funding than district schools spend. Their calculations were based on earlier, lower levels of charter per-pupil funding, however; at current rates, that disparity may now be over $2,000 per student.

Charters also get foundation grants — including from right-wing organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, which has given more than $1 million to Achievement First in recent years. In addition, a look at official filings by many charters — in particular the Success Academy network — show that the schools or chains have boards dominated by hedge funders and other financial interests whose contributions could theoretically absorb any reasonable rent charged for public school space; at a gala in 2013, for example, the Success Network raised more than $7 million in one evening.

How unique are charter waiting lists?

Charters make much of the length of their student waiting lists.  But the reality of New York City schools is that tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.

More than half of the city’s nearly 64,000 eighth graders did not get into their first choice for high school last year and 7,200 — more than 10 percent of the total — did not get into a single school they applied to.  Approximately 20,000 students who take the test each year for the specialized high schools do not get into one of these schools.

The same is true for thousands of elementary school students who apply for slots in competitive middle schools, and for thousands more families who cannot find space in gifted programs or whose kids end up waitlisted for kindergarten in their neighborhood schools.

Students can and do get off waiting lists in district schools, which generally backfill empty spaces in higher grades if and when students transfer out; most charters, in contrast, almost never accept transfer students off their “waitlists” beyond their early grades.

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Student scores plummeted across the city last year when the state introduced new tests based on the Common Core standards. But in reading, charters schools as a whole scored under the citywide average (26.4 citywide average, charters 25.1).

Even highly touted charters had classes with significant problems.  Democracy Prep’s Harlem charter had fewer than 4 percent of 6th-graders proficient in reading and fewer than 12 percent passing math.  Fewer than 12 percent of 5th-graders at KIPP Star College Prep were proficient in math and just 16 percent passed the reading test, while 11 percent of their 7th-graders scored proficient in language arts and 14 percent in math.

These results come despite the fact that, as a group, charter schools serve a smaller proportion of the city’s neediest students, including special ed and English language learners.  A 2012 report by the charters’ own association —  the New York City Charter School Center — showed that on average, charter schools had only 6 percent English language learners, compared with 15 percent in district schools.

A recent IBO study showed that an astonishing 80 percent of special education students who start in charter schools in kindergarten are gone by the third grade.

Student attrition is a particular issue for the Success network, whose schools tend to have far higher student suspension rates than their neighborhood schools; they also see their class cohorts shrink as many poor-performing students leave or are counseled out and not replaced.

How can we level the playing field?

If charter schools are serious about playing an important role in New York City education, they should take four immediate steps to level the playing field between them and district schools, as outlined by UFT President Michael Mulgrew below in an article reprinted from the New York Daily News:

For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has singled out charter schools for special treatment, a strategy that embittered many ordinary New York City public school parents and children. Here are four steps charter schools should take now to end that divisive relationship:

Serve the neediest kids

State law requires that charters serve the same percentage of poor and special-needs children, along with English-language learners, as their local district schools do. Unfortunately, many charter schools ignore this requirement. Meanwhile, parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been “counseled out” of charters, most of them ending up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores. A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that a shocking 80% of special-needs kids who enroll in city charter schools as kindergartners leave their schools by the third grade.

Be good neighbors

The Bloomberg administration often shoehorned charters into public schools. Because some charters didn’t want their children interacting with public school kids, gymnasiums and cafeterias would be limited to charter students at certain hours. Worst of all, students in dilapidated classrooms with outmoded equipment and few supplies watched with envy as the incoming charters spent small fortunes on renovations, paint jobs, new desks and equipment, books and supplies. If they want to be good neighbors, charters should share the wealth — and make sure all students sharing one school building have the same opportunities and environment.

Open their books

If charter operators truly want a new start, they need to abandon the lawsuit they have filed against the state controller seeking to block his ability to audit their books. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going.

Stop treating children as profit centers

Charters receive taxpayer dollars. In addition, many get donations from major hedge funders, have millions of dollars in bank accounts and pay their chief executives — who typically oversee a small group of schools — as much as half a million dollars a year, along with lavish benefits. Charters with such resources need to pay rent, as Mayor de Blasio has suggested. And charters should set realistic salary caps for their executives and appropriate limits on payments to consultants.

Data Sources

Other sources:

 How poor are charter schools?

 How unique are charter waiting lists?

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Learning how to support children in crisis: A collective awareness of classroom stressors

nau_edwizePatrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the Bronx, has completed his training with the Institute for Understanding Behavior, a consortium of the New York City Department of Education and the UFT. The institute trains entire school staffs in using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth in students. Eight schools have signed up for the training. Patrick is writing a series of blog posts about his experience and the lessons he hopes to bring into the classroom. Read Patrick’s first post »

The four-day training of the Institute for Understanding Behavior asks you to take stock of yourself and your school community. Each day, for six hours, we were asked to think with sincerity about our school’s successes and where our school needs to make changes. We rehearsed how we would deal with stressful situations. And we shared with the other participants what behaviors really irk us and what we do to help ourselves remain calm.

My co-workers and I realized a few things: mainly that our staff — as do most educators — knows what we are supposed to do. We know that in stressful situations we need to support student needs and understand the correlation between their needs and behaviors, use positive language, avoid power struggles. We know what environmental conditions cause children to struggle with behavior.

The trainers suggested that teachers ask themselves four key questions before responding to a child’s behavior: What am I feeling? What does the student feel, need or want? How can I change the environment? What is the best response?

In the heat of the moment, I sometimes struggle to pause before reacting. I need to not panic during a stressful situation — even if there is fighting — take a deep breath and quickly assess the situation before trying to address it.

My colleagues and I also found the Life Space Interview to be a helpful tool. In a nutshell, the Life Space Interview is a way to engage a struggling student, one-on-one, to understand what is frustrating him or her, to understand the behavior correlated to how the child feels, discuss and practice alternatives, and ultimately reintroduce the child into the class.

But ultimately all of this led to more questions. How do we find time to use these strategies when you have a full class of other students? What do you do when multiple students are having difficulty at the same time?

During the training, my colleagues and I found ourselves frequently in discussions about applying what we were learning to our particular school and staff. We kept returning to one key question: Will everyone buy into the program and implement it in earnest? How do we implement the components and strategies of the IUB training with consistency across the entire school community?

For the IUB strategies to be implemented effectively, all staff needs to develop a collective awareness of how to handle stressful situations.