Three Steps to Transform Our Classrooms and Schools


In my last post on the conference I attended on What Works in Urban Education, I discussed the insights on positive psychology and teaching well-being that I gained from Martin Seligman and how a focus on character strengths and positive thinking is fundamental to nurturing a sustainable community in schools. But in KIPP’s Dave Levin’s words, the question remains, how do we “operationalize” these things?

The steps I’ve outlined below are not direct lessons I obtained from the conference, but grew out of pieces of insights I began to put together on further reflection. In more posts to follow, I’ll continue to bring forth some of the direct lessons and insights I gained from that conference.

1) Knowledge of self through self-reflection

This probably sounds circuitous, but the fact remains that unless a teacher is able to authentically model and communicate what she is to teach, her teaching will remain ineffective. One of the great crimes of the teaching profession in the United States is that space and time for professional planning, collaboration, and reflection is nearly completely neglected, and a general afterthought when it is implemented.

Through reflection, one gains an awareness of one’s strengths and values. The most direct way to get started is to take a survey that will spit out your character strengths, like the one I mentioned in my last post on authentichappiness.com. Surveys like this are also used in the business world. When I was a manager at Trader Joe’s, part of our leadership training was to take a survey that identified our particular styles of leadership. It’s no doubt superficial to gain knowledge of self in such a manner, but even these measures have value in promoting reflection and building self-awareness. Other methods are journaling, blogging, supping on a good whiskey, or just good ol’ conversatin’ and meditatin’. Whatever floats your boat–suffice it to say, however, that it needs be done. And it needs to be done continuously.

2) Knowledge of others through active listening

It is the primary role of a leader and a teacher to listen, and to listen well. As a special education teacher who deals with children in crisis frequently, I can tell you that how you listen and speak to a child can often be far more important than what you actually say. Teachers have some notion that they have to tell a kid what to do at every step of the way. Most of the time, kids just need someone to hear them out and nudge them towards their own insight.

But it’s not only kids who need this. After moving to NYC from California and without a job, I volunteered at the GMHC downtown and underwent training as a crisis hotline counselor. I was just about to enter the stage of taking live calls with support from an experienced counselor, when I suddenly got the job at TJ’s. This took away every last scrap of free time I had, so I was unable to continue. But the leadership training I received at Trader Joe’s eerily–and wonderfully–paralleled the crisis counseling training I had just been undergoing. Adults, whether customers or employees, need leaders who can listen and empathize.

And the training I subsequently underwent as a NYC Teaching Fellow in a self-contained classroom in the South Bronx eerily–and terribly–and wonderfully–paralleled all the training I had had up to that point.

Ever worked in a high needs public school? Everyone–adults and children, leaders and staff–desperately requires a warm listening ear.

Being an effective teacher, leader, and counselor are all rooted in the same fundamental necessity for active listening. Body language, reflective statements (repeating back what the speaker said), summarizing what the speaker has said, and guiding the speaker through their own problem-solving process are all critically important components in achieving positive communication, building productive relationships, and establishing motivation.

3) Finally, the transformative leap is to render content and contexts personally meaningful to all involved

In order for the content and contexts of schools to be personally meaningful, they must build upon the personal strengths and interests of those who inhabit them. Finding out about these strengths and interests, of course, must first be achieved through the steps outlined above.

When the community and ecosystem of a school is personally meaningful, and the content is personally meaningful, then there is nothing left to hold back the achievement of the students nor the adults.

Operationalizing positive and meaningful thinking, communication, and relationships is the real work of education.

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