Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

New Century, New Kid, Same Old School


The nature of authority, in case you hadn’t noticed, has changed.  Yet school, especially how adults interact with students, is still largely a reflection of the way teachers themselves were taught and it is, unfortunately, perfect for another time. Or rather, perfect for the fantasy of another time.

For good or ill our current students do not offer teachers and school officials respect simply because of their positions. Of course few teachers offer administrators respect simply because they are administrators. Nor can even a president or prime minister expect respect simply because of his or her position.  In our schools, in our classrooms, in our society leadership, as Dennis Sparks has written, “is no longer a position, it is an action. One can lead from anywhere.”

Authority and respect, which used to be commanded, now must be earned. While teachers must maintain authority in their classrooms to be effective, the means by how that authority is established has become more complex and negotiable. Hence, new teacher practices must be developed where high expectations, such as in building student responsibility for self-management, as well as respect and trust, are facilitated rather than demanded.   

Here is an example of how to shift that dynamic.

Many teachers use the beginning of the school year as an opportunity to set rules and expectations for the year. Once upon a time this could be accomplished by merely posting the rules and strictly enforcing them.   Of course this still works, albeit less effectively, but more to the point, it’s also much less useful to our children. The modern economy is continually moving toward employees being independent, resourceful and able to apply critical success skills such as self-regulation and persistence to see a vision through to fruition.  In this context learning to be compliant is much less important learning to be cooperative out of self-interest: compliance for a purpose.

Instead of just posting rules, consider asking students to collaborate on developing a chart of successful learning behaviors. The fear many teachers have when embarking on such an enterprise is that if they allow students to create such a list, it will merely devolve into silliness:

rule 1:  no homework, ever!

rule 2: class attendance optional

However if you begin by getting students to own some truth about their own successful learning experiences, they’ll think more deeply about times when they genuinely learned.  Through a writing prompt or discussion ask students to visit a time when they felt successful as learners. Although for the most part you will get school related learning, you may also be amazed at what proficiencies some of our most reluctant learners are achieving outside of the walls of school.

You will hear stories of coaches and parents and bosses at work engaging our students in all kinds of amazing ways to help them connect to their competencies. Other students, who in your class founder, will recognize other classes where they have mastered complex subjects. When all the anecdotes have been shared, drill down to what specific qualities were extant during these successes.

Doubtless you will have to wean them off such generalities as, ‘I had a good teacher’, or ‘it just kind of happened.’ Ask instead what qualities the teacher was exhibiting, and what qualities the students bringing to the learning experience. What you begin to evolve are classroom conditions and learning behaviors that identify how students were able to be successful such as: teachers excited about their subjects; students paying attention; staying on task; everybody using positive language; being encouraging. Work at it bit more and you can refine it into a series of behaviors that can be created into actionable items that empower the teacher and student to achieve learning success by:

·         using encouragements instead of criticisms;

·         listening more than you speak;

·         talking myself through difficulties by reminding myself of when I have succeeded before.

Once you have asked students to base their suggestions for a great classroom on previous actual successful learning experiences, the silly get replaced by a startlingly accurate list of what students must do, and want to do (and how teachers can help them) to foster a great classroom work ethic and achieve academic success (you’d also be teaching cause and effect, by the way).  Indeed you may find that the student list will mirror the very list you planned to present to them.

Of course such a chart, like a bicycle helmet, is only effective if used. Savvy educators employ these charts not only as teacher driven assessments (to be clear this exercise in no way diminishes the need to hold students accountable) but as key reference points to facilitate guided student self-reflection for growth and progress.  It also gives teachers excellent ‘data’ for developing effective teaching behaviors that these students have already identified as effective.  

Educators that do this do more than teach a subject. They do more than teach students how to develop habits of success and critical thinking skills. They do more than teach kids how to be life-long learners. What they teach is the future.