When I began teaching in a 5th grade self-contained classroom in East Tremont, I found myself constantly confounded, on a moment-by-moment basis, by the behaviors of my students. The raw emotions, aggression, anger, and frustration that my students expressed, and that I also experienced, was like I can only imagine as comparable to the experience of warfare. I dragged myself home each night feeling like I’d been turned inside out.

I found some solace in reading a copy of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), a book about a therapeutic system of strategies for supporting children experiencing crisis developed in a residential care setting. But I did not have any formal training in the method.

Fortunately, in my 2nd year of teaching, it just so happened that I was able to attend a workshop from two educators from D75 on a method called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention—a modified and simplified version of LSCI created by Cornell University specifically for classroom use. This was and continues to be the most influential and useful professional development I have ever attended. It helped me begin to shift my mentality and how I approached student behavior.

So it was with delight that I saw one of the educators who provided me that training, Dana Ashley, featured in American Educator. I urge you to read her piece, “It’s About Relationships,” in full.

“When teachers wonder “What should I do?” in response to challenging student behaviors, the answers are not as simple as they might seem. Although an individual teacher asks the question, the response must be nuanced enough to take into account the specific school and community. As in any field—not just in education—context is key.” (Bold added)

Don’t Quit on Me: The importance of relationships in graduation

We talk a lot about the importance of relationships in education on this blog.

Here’s a great report from the Center for Promise on the importance of relationships in graduation outcomes, based on the perspectives of the youth themselves. Concrete resources and advice for educators is provided:


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Adults need social-emotional learning too

“In some ways, it’s really our teachers and administration who are doing some serious social and emotional learning. When teachers get to know students’ lives, it’s easier to understand where a student’s bad mood or overreaction to a social slight might come from. When a teacher finds out a child is homeless and sleeps on a different couch each week, that teacher is more likely to take a problem-solving approach to student tardiness than a punitive one.”

–Phillip Cantor, “When Kids Connect, They Learn” in the Chicago Sun Times

Hurricane Sandy and Resilience

I teach at a high school in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, a narrow peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of Sheepshead Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Dozens of my colleagues live in and around South Brooklyn, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the South Shore of Long Island. Hundreds of our students and their families live in these areas. Hurricane Sandy devastated our school community.

You’ve read about the houses lost, the families displaced, and the hundreds of thousands still living without heat or electricity, without beds of their own. Maybe you’ve heard about Governor Cuomo ordering students to return to unheated schools, even as we watched this winter’s first snowfall turn to frozen slush. This hurricane has given us enough horror stories to last a lifetime.

I want to talk about resilience. In ecological terms, resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb trauma and disturbance, and then recover. Since the hurricane, I’ve learned that the school ecosystem I inhabit every day has tremendous resilience. Teachers whose homes were destroyed by the storm have taught lessons on the science of hurricanes. Others have worked tirelessly to collect and deliver supplies for people in Far Rockaway, Gerritsen Beach, and other ravaged communities. Guidance counselors have helped shell-shocked students process this catastrophe. Parents have organized carpools and opened their homes to students who now have none. Students have arrived early and left late, helping staff fill and distribute care packages for affected families. Administrators worked day and night to ensure that staff were informed both about Sandy’s impact on our community and what we could do to help. We are far from recovery, but all of this work has helped us absorb the trauma of the hurricane and maintain our sense of community.

To my knowledge, all of this work was organized by school staff, students, and families at the local level. We received no support from the Department of Education and, to be fair, should have expected none. Our schools chancellor, after all, has prioritized giving schools “the power to punish” teachers accused of wrongdoing over renovating toxic school environments. Our mayor has reveled in the wholesale destruction of swaths of our city school system and taken every possible opportunity to attack city teachers. Just last week, his administration channeled massive amounts of resources into restoring the New York Stock Exchange while children in the Rockaways wandered dark streets, looking for a place to sleep.

Despite their negligence, our school is resilient. Students who hadn’t bathed in a week showed up to read Julius Caesar with their classmates. Teachers whose supplies were lost in the flood created new lessons by candlelight. Parents whose cars were swept out to sea rode the bus with their children to make sure they got to school safely. Resilience is a remarkable thing, but we need to make sure we see things clearly.

During Tuesday’s elections, voters in the embattled Rockaways received another slap in the face as they arrived to find their polling place without heat or power. Thousands of voters lined up in the cold and endured the harsh conditions so that they could take some small part in the political process. Many pundits described these lines of freezing voters as a testament to our democracy, perhaps even as a symbol of that democracy’s resilience. Writing on facebook, an acquaintance responded to this type of thinking:

“People waiting in line is not a tribute to our great democratic system. It’s a tribute to the people waiting in line. It also says that our system sucks.”

I’ve seen remarkable resilience at my school this week, but I’ve also seen tremendous anger and frustration. We are proud of our ability to persevere, but we’d rather not have to. Hundreds of our students and staff remain without heat, power, or hot water. Others are displaced, traveling longer distances to school, sleeping on floors at friends’ or relatives’ houses. We are overwhelmed and exhausted. We are sick and tired of negligent city officials claiming to care for our schools when their actions show us, again and again, that they’d hardly notice if the storm swept us all away.

Symbiosis: Teachers and Students

Most people talk about students like they’re empty vessels: passive, open, and receptive. From this perspective, the teacher’s job is simply to pop the lids off their student’s brains and pour the knowledge in. If the student’s aren’t learning, the teacher must be terrible, since nothing’s easier than filling an empty container.

Anyone who’s worked in a classroom knows that this perspective doesn’t hold water. Students are anything but passive. Most days, they bring tons of energy to the classroom; a teacher’s job is to channel that energy towards learning.

This can be extremely difficult because students are often anything but open and receptive. I teach high schoolers, and learning is often the last thing on those kids’ minds. I don’t blame them; they’re hormonal and social and very confused.

My point is, students are hardly passive, empty vessels. Teaching is far more complicated than simply delivering content, and learning is far more complicated than simply receiving it. Viewed through using an ecological lens, the teacher-student relationship is symbiotic. Like the bird and the buffalo pictured above, teachers and students have a mutually beneficial relationship; each supports the other’s existence.

When students play their part– get to class on time, do their work, participate in discussions–the teacher thrives. When teachers play their part, the student has access to all sorts of support– academic, emotional, and social. Neither can thrive on their own, and both are deeply affected by other environmental factors.

For example, when external forces– ranging from malnutrition, poor air quality, or neighborhood violence– interfere with a student’s ability to function, both the teacher and student suffer. And despite the fact that the interfering factors exist outside the teacher-student relationship, teachers are held responsible for their consequences.

Appreciating not only that external factors play a tremendous role in the classroom, but that the teacher-student relationship is symbiotic, might lead us towards a more productive conversation about how to construct healthier school environments. Such a conversation would be less focused on increased measures of accountability than on constructing healthy, supportive environments for both teachers and students.