6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers

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We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.

 

Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”

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Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.

The Risks of Guesstimating Homework Time

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Studies show that homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night.

It is often said that a sign of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results each time. This sums up how most American schools are dealing with the homework issue.

Not only does homework impact students but it also impacts their families. It is common for students and families to feel that they don’t have the time it takes to maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives. Family time that could be spent getting outdoors, visiting friends and relatives, and relaxing is being unnecessarily burdened by the large amount of homework kids have to do.

One student’s homework has the power to reshape how the entire family spends its time and sets its schedules. I don’t think most teachers appreciate this fact when they assign work.

Guesstimating Pitfalls

Despite studies — such as this one from Stanford — that show homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night, teachers and administrators continue to assign too much homework.

Teachers promise to assign a manageable amount of homework, but they don’t gather data on how long it takes their students to complete their homework. And exactly how do teachers estimate how long an assignment will take? Do they do it themselves first — not factoring in that they already understand the content? How on earth do you measure the length of time it takes for a student to think through a problem or a question, and not just write the answer down on a piece of paper?

One negative result of guesstimating time allotment is that students who take more time than is allotted for the assignment can feel that they are somehow inadequate, when the truth is that the allotted time is arbitrarily set. Students might also grow cynical and believe that the teachers are gaming the system by not being honest in stating the allotment, knowing that the homework will probably take more time than promised.

Valuing Free Time

I’ve heard some teachers argue that if students stop multitasking and stay off social media, they could then get the work done in the time allotted. Perhaps, but in addition to this argument also lacking data, it is built upon the dangerous idea that young people are experts at wasting their own time.

Too many adults seem to vastly undervalue the benefits and necessity of free, unstructured time. They undervalue the impact of relaxation and social time on forming well-rounded, healthy adults. So, when students get home from band practice, a game, or their extracurricular activity at six (if they have a short commute), are eating dinner by seven, and doing their homework by eight, at what point do they have time for decompressing, connecting with friends, pets, and family?

This is a plea to teachers and administrators: Take these studies and the testimonies of students and families seriously. Gather data, and if the assignment can be done in class, determine whether making it a homework assignment is truly warranted.

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students – the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these “low performers” saw my class. What’s most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day – the first day of school.

I’m first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher’s perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Now, let’s consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

“I’m so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher’s going to hate me because I’m so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me.”

“But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won’t be so bad!”

Walking in on the first day:

“There’s a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we’re all in the front. I’m stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

“I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past, because in this class, it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I’m so excited to start this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll move together.”

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn’t let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids… and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my “low performer” group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis… I’m not.

The Teenage Brain: Stress, Coping, and Natural Highs

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During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”

It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

What the Heck Is Service Learning?

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Here’s a simple definition for service learning with details and resources for planning a unit.

According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”

Wikipedia explains service learning as: “An educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.”

That second definition is easier to comprehend, but it still feels more complicated than it needs to be. How about this: In service learning, students learn educational standards through tackling real-life problems in their community.

What Does Service Learning Look Like?

Community service, as many of us know, has been a part of educational systems for years. But what takes service learning to the next level is that it combines serving the community with the rich academic frontloading, assessment, and reflection typically seen in project-based learning.

In a service-learning unit, goals are clearly defined, and according to The Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, there are many kinds of projects that classrooms can adopt. Classes can be involved in direct issues that are more personal and face-to-face, like working with the homeless. Involvement can be indirect where the students are working on broader issues, perhaps an environmental problem that is local. The unit can also include advocacy that centers on educating others about the issues. Additionally, the unit can be research-based where the students act to curate and present on information based on public needs.

Here are several ideas for service-learning units:

  • Work on a Habitat for Humanity building site.
  • Pack up food bags for the homeless.
  • Adopt-a-Highway.
  • Set up a tutoring system or reading buddies with younger students.
  • Clean up a local park or beach.
  • Launch a drought and water awareness campaign.
  • Create a “pen pal” video conferencing group with a senior citizens home.

The Breakdown of a Service-Learning Unit

It’s not enough to help others. Deep service learning isn’t afraid to tackle the rigorous standards along with the service. You might find it helpful to split your unit into four parts:

1. Pre-Reflection: Have your students brainstorm in writing the ways in which they can help their world or their local community. Check out Newsela, CNN Student News, or their local papers for articles on current events and issues of interest to get in informational reading, as well.

2. Research: Guide your students in techniques to help them search wisely and efficiently. They should conduct online polls (crowdsourcing) and create graphs to chart their findings. Students should summarize their findings using embedded images, graphs, and other multimedia elements. (Try an infographic tool likePiktochart.)

3. Presentation: Have your students present their findings to the school, each other, and outside stakeholders. They can develop posters to promote their call to action, write a letter campaign, or develop a simple website using Weebly. Students can “go on the road” with their findings to local schools and organizations or produce screencasts for the school website.

4. Reflection: Ask your students to think back on what they gained from journeying through this project. Have them reflect on the following:

  • What did you learn about the topic?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you now think differently?

Assessing Service Learning

Another element that tends to make service learning unique is that multiple stakeholders assess students:

Community assessment: The community partners can get their say as well by assessing the students. They may even get voice in developing the rubric or criteria for evaluating the students.

Teacher assessment: Along with evaluating students on the content, you might additionally assess them on how well they accomplished the writing, graphing, researching, or speaking.

Student assessment: Your students might conduct self-assessment as a form of reflection. They also may assist in developing the rubric that other stakeholders use to assess them.

What we’re talking about here is a form of engagement. It’s about leveraging the need to do something good in the world as a means to help kids hit their learning objectives. It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.

How To Become and Remain a Transformational Teacher

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However talented, no one is a natural-born teacher. Honing the craft takes significant care and effort, not just by the individual, but also by the school at large. Though experience does matter, it matters only to the extent that a teacher — regardless of how long he or she has been in the classroom — commits to continued professional development to refresh his or her status as a transformational teacher. Along those lines, even after a decade in the classroom, I don’t claim to be beyond criticism — not in the least. Still, I wish to offer some advice on constantly striving toward perfection, however elusive that goal will always remain.

Constantly Share Best Practices

As a first step, work toward recognizing that, no matter how long you’ve been in the classroom, there will always be someone else who’s more effective at a certain facet of teaching. When I was a first-year teacher, a veteran colleague inquired how I’d engaged such strong student interest in the American Revolution, something that he’d struggled with achieving. I shared my lesson plan, which culminated in a formal debate about whether the colonists had acted justly in rebelling against British rule. Moving forward, I felt more confident and comfortable about asking that colleague for help with providing quality written feedback, which he excelled at doing.

Find a Trusted Mentor

No matter how much experience you have, it’s crucial to find and rely on a trusted confidant. As a new teacher, I spent countless hours chatting with colleagues about best practices and where I feared that I might have fallen short. Not once did they pass judgment on me, or suggest that whatever I had done (or failed to do, in certain cases) was beyond repair. Instead, they offered thoughtful advice on how I might do things differently. No matter the subject, I value hearing fresh perspectives from new and veteran teachers about becoming even better at my job. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.

Commit to Classroom Observations

I do my best to observe other teachers in action. This year, I benefited from watching a colleague inject humor into his English classroom to cultivate a more relaxed but effective learning environment. In turn, I tried to strike a similar balance in my history classroom, which helped students feel less afraid of sharing ideas and learning from mistakes. I’m equally grateful for observing a colleague teach French to students whom I also instruct. She possesses a gentle firmness that learners respond to, but more importantly, students know that she cares about them — and they don’t want to let their teacher or themselves down.

Change Things Up

I also observe other teachers to see how they change things up, especially when I get too comfortable in a routine. It’s certainly easier to teach the same books and content each year, but it’s also incredibly boring, which can lead to burnout. This summer, I’m working to revamp some of my American history curriculum to fall more in step with what students are learning and doing in their American literature class. For example, when juniors are studying the Cold War in my class, they’ll be reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen in their English class — an award-winning graphic novel highlighting many Cold War-era fears and tensions. For both classes, students will complete a yet-to-be-determined project to showcase their understanding.

Model the Usefulness of What You Teach

In line with changing things up, I’m always looking for new ways to model the usefulness of what I teach. More than ever, I find that students want to know how they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. In American history, I continue to de-emphasize rote memorization in favor of activities requiring clear, analytical thinking — an essential tool for whatever students end up pursuing in college or as a career. On most assessments, I allow students to bring a notecard. It seems less important in the age of Google to assess how much students know. Instead, I’m significantly more concerned with how much sense they can make of all this information so readily available to them. In all of my classes, I also make it clear that knowing how to write well will play a significant role in their future success.

Caring Beyond What You Teach

To motivate my students toward success, I strive to show that I care about them beyond the classroom. I do my best to chaperone trips, watch sporting events, and attend plays and other student-run productions. I advise the Model United Nations Club, which allows me to share my passion for diplomacy and fostering change. I also coach cross-country to help students see that I value maintaining a healthy body just as much as developing an inquisitive mind. The most transformational teachers that I know have a deep understanding of how their role transcends far beyond any subject that they’re teaching. Such teachers have the most lasting impact on their students long after graduation.

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

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spiegler-teachyoungchildsocialjust-notstock

When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.