An alternative to “tough love”

“Tough love,” as I understand it, doesn’t serve our students. However, there are valuable aspects to the concept of tough love, and I want to offer an alternative way to talk and think about these concepts.

The concept of “tough love” doesn’t have a single definition, but its connotations are common enough that Rusul’s comments really struck a chord with me:

“Tough love,” to me, connotes a combination of caring and accountability, but that accountability has a tinge of “no excuses.” “Tough” implies that accountability needs to be absolute, and that accountability must necessarily be harsh, forced or adversarial. I find that “tough love” also comes with a built-in power dynamic – people rarely describe a relationship with an equal as “tough love.”

However, the core idea of “tough love” does resonate with me – caring and accountability is a great combination.  I want to offer a different way to talk about this combination that I believe serves our students better: unconditional positive regard for the person with conditional response to behavior or choices.
Unconditional positive regard means “I care about you, you have value, you don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing is going to change my mind.” I expand on this concept a lot here:

Conditional response to the behavior or choices means: “I don’t have to agree with every choice you make, but I understand that a choice with negative consequences does not detract from your value as a human, and I will care about you no matter what choices you make. I will help you understand the consequences (positive, negative or neutral) of your choices, and if there are impacts on me, I will respond in an authentic way.”

Where tough love says: “you gotta get this done,” conditional response says: “looks like you haven’t done your work. Tell me why, we’ll work together, and I’ll tell you what you can expect if you miss your deadline.”

Where tough love is firm and “objective” and sometimes discipline-driven, unconditional positive regard with conditional response is person-centered, and responds with natural consequences. It’s not “anything goes,” but it also doesn’t rely on arbitrary rules or consequences. Rather, a conditional response is aligned with a person’s true impact on others.

Where tough love says: “I love you, but..” unconditional positive regard with conditional response says: “I care about you, and…”

Some of you may be using the phrase “tough love” to describe an approach more like unconditional positive regard with a conditional response to behavior/choices. Shifting our language (even though the latter is more of a mouthful!) will help us be more clear about our practice and align our talk with our walk.

Students benefit when we care about them and hold them accountable, but in ways that are truly person-centered and respond to the student’s need for clear expectations, and not our own need for control or compliance. Let’s unconditionally care for our students while we do the messy work of responding to the challenges, together.

Breaking the script after conflict

After something tough happens between ourselves and our students, breaking or testing the positive relationship we’ve built, it’s essential to be intentional in our next steps. This is especially important when the hard situation feels personal, for instance when a student calls me a name, breaks something I own, or otherwise targets me. In these moments when I am feeling overwhelmed or personally attacked, it would be easy to act from a place of reactivity and blame. However, these are the moments where it’s most important that I take the opportunity to “break the script” with my student and work through conflict in a different way.

The script my students expect:

Student: *does a “bad” thing*

Teacher: *reprimands student for doing bad thing*

Student: *feels shame and either gets defensive and reactive or shuts down*

What can I do instead of reprimand or drop negative consequences down on my student? After we’ve taken a moment to cool down and re-regulate our emotions, here are a few ways I try to break the script with a student who has somehow damaged our relationship.

    1. Time in instead of time out. Just when I want to avoid my student or take a break from them might be the right time to spend even more time together. This shows my student that I care about them enough to sit with the discomfort and work through it together. Maybe we spend a lunch period together or work together on a school beautification project after class. Especially for children with insecure attachment styles, time in reinforces my role as a caring adult who won’t give up. 
    2. “I bet that did NOT feel good. Are you okay?” Kids do well if they can, and so most of the time when a student has made choices that negatively impact others, I wonder what is getting in their way of doing well. When in doubt, start with empathy. When I remember to start with my genuine care for my student, we can often skip past the minutiae of the conflict and get instead to the heart of the matter. 
    3. “Oh wow, what could I have done differently to support you before we got to that point?” Whenever I ask this question, I’m surprised by the insight and thoughtfulness of my students’ responses. I almost always learn something new about the way I was structuring a class, phrasing a request, or explaining a task, and how my choices did or did not support my student. Additionally, it really breaks the script for me to ask what I could have done differently instead of jumping to what my student could have done differently.

These are just three ways to break the script and move toward collaboration instead of blame and shame. This is opening for a restorative approach to conflict, and an invitation to work through instead of stay stuck.

The most challenging part in all of this is letting go of my own feelings of hurt or defensiveness. When I struggle to do so, I try to remember the richness of the work when we let down our walls, set aside our emotionally-laden roles of “teacher” and “student,”  and open ourselves to the beauty that lives in messy, true human connection.

Edcamp USA

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending Edcamp USA at the US Department of Education. Here’s a quick overview of the day (including some comments from yours truly):

A few people asked me afterward: “What did you learn?” In reflecting on the day, I think I learned very little in terms of new content: I didn’t walk away with a new app I’m dying to use, an innovative approach I hadn’t considered before, or a strategy I tested out in class that Monday.

Instead, I made connections. I took a walk with an educator from Florida and connected over giving students voice within and beyond the classroom. I sat with a circle of Edcamp organizers and connected over the challenges and joys of bringing teacher-driven professional development to our communities. I listened to Department of Education staffers who encouraged us to reach out to them with ideas and solutions to best serve all our kids. I brainstormed with a teacher around how to best support his students to create lasting community impact in a class connecting service learning and social studies.

All of these connections interlaced and overlapped, and I felt buoyed by the connected energy of a couple hundred educators who traveled from across the country for one reason: we want to support our students.

While Edcamp in a fancy location was awesome, the day also reminded me that Edcamp anywhere is Edcamp everywhere, and what Edcamp is about is relationships and connections. Relationships and connections: what better to be at the heart of a movement of educators?

Language Matters, or Why I Love Edutopia

So there are a lot of websites that have tips and resources for teachers. Why do I always refer people to Edutopia​? My answer lives in this story.

Edutopia has pages for different subjects, and one is mental health. Their description used to read like this:

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“Life in the 21st century is exciting but also stressful. Discover and share resources for promoting psychological well-being.”

As someone who works intensely with young people who struggle with mental health issues, this language rubbed me the wrong way. Mental health isn’t about “exciting but also stressful,” and I felt that the descriptor made light of those struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Language matters, and I think these small messages all around us build up to influence our thinking. Our worldview is shaped by the narratives around us. Edutopia focuses on “what works in education,” and to me, continuing misunderstanding and stigmatization of those with mental health challenges is not “what works.”

So I said something about the page description to the team at Edutopia, like, hey, I don’t think this description is doing what you want it to do, and here’s why.

The response to my concern is why I will recommend Edutopia and its community to anyone who wants resources on what works in education. The team there could have ignored my feedback, or could have said, “well, it’s just two sentences on a page, it doesn’t matter.” Instead? They asked me for more feedback – how would I rework the language? They took things under consideration as part of their larger process. And ultimately, they made a change.

Here’s how the page looks now:

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“Find compassionate perspectives and evidence-based strategies to foster school environments that promote psychological well-being and support students experiencing behavioral, emotional or social challenges.”

That is language I can stand behind. That language validates the challenges and invites teachers into the process. More importantly, the change shows me that Edutopia not only recognizes the importance of language, but also the importance of feedback and evaluation, and the hard work it takes to consistently align our “walk” with our “talk” – our values with our actions. As an educator I hope I can capitalize on moments of feedback as effectively as I saw Edutopia do here. Reflectiveness, openness, and a willingness to grow – that’s what “works” in education.

The Way Through

When people ask me what subject I teach, I never know how to respond. My teaching license is in English Language Arts. My master’s degree is in educational technology. In the past five years I’ve taught science, social studies, art, physical education, and more at our small school, where every teacher flexes to meet our students’ needs.

What I think I really teach, though, is how to get through. Conflict, adversity, anxiety – whatever the “it” is, I teach students to tolerate, regulate, and eventually move forward. Getting through is so much harder than going around, more complex, and ultimately a more necessary skill in life.

In the traditional public school, the response to conflict is “get out,” not get through. Leave the classroom if you’re disruptive. Take a suspension for a major breach. Thankfully, more schools are moving toward restorative approaches. Turning to inclusion instead of exclusion teaches students that it’s more important to work through as a community than to jettison the uncomfortable.

Working through truly is uncomfortable. Over and over, when my students get into conflict – with each other, with me, with their teachers – I hear “it’s whatever, I’ll just ignore it. I’m just done with this.” As most of us who have spoken similar sentences know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. So I fall back on some tried and true approaches to helping students build confidence that working through is possible.

 

First, here’s what I say to my students as we start the process:

 

  • “I care about you.” Unconditional positive regard from teachers and staff is the foundation. When teachers approach conflictual situations with “I still care about you; let’s try this again,” students begin to build confidence in the resiliency of true and caring relationships.
  • “You don’t have to be friends.” I almost never ask students to apologize to one another; I never ask them to mend a friendship. Instead, I focus on the true bottom line: we are a learning community, and when we’re here we respect the right of everyone to access their education. While rebuilding a friendship can be a huge, insurmountable task, reestablishing roles as classmates can feel more attainable.
  • “You’re allowed to be mad. Let’s find some different ways to express that.” One surefire way to lose the trust of a student is to invalidate their feelings. When we try too hard to get back to neutral, we miss the opportunity to work through what it feels like to be mad, anxious, or sad. This is the feeling of “meta-okay” and it’s something I try to foster during the working through. Working with the actual emotion helps students find a way to safely express it without harming the community.

 

Once the student is in a place to start the work, we do a process we call “repair.” Not apology, not punishment, definitely not discipline. The idea is to help the student work through mending some of the rifts in relationship and community. What this process looks like varies greatly depending on the nature of the rift, the developmental stage of the student, and the strength of the peer group to help facilitate the process.

 

Some ways this has looked include these, used alone or in combination:

  • The student using social thinking strategies to reflect on the conflict (social scripting, filling in thought bubbles in a cartoon, etc)
  • Writing a letter to the individual or group harmed, and either delivering it or reading it aloud
  • Drawing a timeline of the events in a conflict and identifying points where different choices would have made the situation smaller, rather than bigger
  • Education pieces about bullying, conflict, communication styles, and so on
  • Creating or repairing something for the community (fixing a squeaky door, baking cookies to put out at lunch) as a way to put something positive back into the group
  • Bringing the family and school team together to look at any bigger picture supports needed
  • Prepping for a facilitated conversation between two students or a student and a teacher
  • Mapping out emotions during a conflict and where self-care or regulation strategies could have had a positive impact

 

The possibilities are endless – we just strive to create an authentic experience of reflection and repair that helps the student work through the conflict rather than just go around it.

 

So what are the outcomes?

 

Sometimes, I’ve seen this process fail completely. The student wasn’t ready to take ownership, needed more of a break after a conflict, or didn’t have enough trust in staff that it was safe to work through. In these cases, we go back to core strategies of building relationship and awareness and try again.

 

More often, I’ve seen students struggle through the beginning stages of this process and then land somewhere solid at the end. Students use the structure and tools we give them to take ownership and make an action plan. I’ve seen students make themselves vulnerable to teachers and say “I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that.” I’ve seen students say to one another, “It wasn’t okay how you treated me, but I’m willing to try again.”

 

Most amazingly, I’ve seen students get into conflicts over, and over, and over again. I’ve seen them using the tools I’ve given them to work through, and then start to not need the tools anymore. I’ve seen them adopt the language: “repair,” “make a plan,” “respect your right to learn.” Through the repetition of the process, I’ve seen students internalize the process and come to truly believe that it’s possible to work through.

 

When we finally believe that working through is truly an option, we are more able to express our thoughts without fear of losing our place in community. We can be vulnerable and trust that the process will carry us through. We can tolerate pain, anger, and anxiety knowing that there are steps to move us forward.

 

We build hope.

 

And that’s what I teach.

Supporting Students Who Experience Trauma

I’ve been getting more involved lately on Edutopia as a volunteer community facilitator. Here’s a post I put up a couple of days ago on supporting students who experience(d) trauma:

http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/8-ways-support-students-who-experience-trauma

It’s really astounding and heart-breaking to realize just how many of our students have or will experience trauma in their lives. As important as the strategies for supporting students are, I really want to emphasize my last point on there – taking care of ourselves.

When we are well, we can support our students well. When we take time to make sense of our own emotions, we can help students make sense of theirs. When we experience resilience, we help our students become more resilient themselves.

Trauma is real and present, but so is healing. When we provide safe and caring classrooms, we help our students move forward.

Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.