Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Epiphany About Backtalk - Continued

So after I realized that all teachers in my building, regardless of strictness level, get what I would call “backtalk,” it changed my perspective on my students, and I decided to stop being upset at their communication style and instead focus on how best to teach these students as they are.

I learned a life-changing concept a few years ago while attending the ASCD conference in New Orleans. A speaker named Jerry Patterson did a session on Resilient School Leadership (he’s got an excellent book out on this topic.)

The basic concept he taught us was this: To be a resilient school leader, you’ve got to be a realistic optimist (as opposed to an unrealistic optimist, or a realistic or unrealistic pessimist.) A realistic optimist understands the reality, but still believes we can work within that reality to make progress.

A realistic optimist might frame a classroom “backtalk” situation this way:

We’ve got what some would consider entitled, self-important and self-advocating students in this school. That’s not the problem; that’s the reality. Given the REALITY that I’m teaching high-socio-economic kids who have an abrupt, challenging communication style, how can I still make progress (i.e. teach them Spanish and enjoy doing it?)

I’ve watched some teachers in my building go head-to-head with our kids and try to break them down. It doesn’t work. You’re not going to change their basic makeup, the way they were raised. (And, you’ll probably just anger their parents. In my district, the parents rule.) These kids have been trained from birth to stand up to adults, to consider themselves equals. A lot of Generation X and Y parents, no matter the economic status, allow their kids to participate in/dominate/interrupt adult conversation, to make demands on the adults.

What does this reinforce to the kid? “I’m equal to the adults, and I have the right to insist on my needs and get my way.” I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing—low-socio-economic kids raised in poor communities can feel scared and intimidated when they need to advocate for themselves with authorities and institutions because they haven’t been raised to interact with adults on equal footing.

(Malcolm Gladwell has a great discussion on this topic in Outliers, by the way. His observation is that high-socio-economic kids are in many ways better prepared to deal with society and succeed in life because of their skill in self-advocating.)

So after years of this kind of training (being allowed to interrupt/challenge the adults)—what makes us think we’re going to change the kid’s basic psychological makeup in 90 minutes every other day of Spanish class?

Furthermore, is that even my goal? To “make” all the kids act more respectfully, defer meekly to adults?

Do I have time or energy to attempt serious behavior modification as well as teach Spanish? My personal answer to that is no, for three reasons:

a) I don’t think it’s possible to modify their deeply ingrained beliefs and ways of being.

b) If it is possible, it’s going to take a lot more work and time than I can dedicate.

And c) I actually don’t think it’s necessary.

What I need to focus on is teaching them as they are. I just need to understand the reality and work with the kid’s psychology enough to teach them Spanish and enjoy doing it, because that is my real goal here.

The biggest step in the right direction for me was realizing that my students aren’t actually trying to be disrespectful in the way they communicate with me. Then I could feel better about my relationship with them, and truly begin to enjoy teaching them for who they are. That has made all the difference in the world in my classroom.