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Believing in Students: The Power to Make a Difference

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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After a morning Discipline With Dignity training, the high school principal and I walked to the cafeteria to eat lunch. He said, "I love your session, but it's not practical." I responded with my view that it was practical because it works -- but it’s just not easy.

He pointed to a girl sitting alone at a table and said, "Do you think it would work with her?” She looked like she was a character from the Mad Max movies. She had just been released from federal prison. Her look was extreme (maybe not so much today) with spiked orange and purple hair, tattoos, all black makeup including black lipstick and black rouge, and severe body piercings. The principal looked at me and said, "So what would you do?" I asked back, "What about you? How do you handle her?" He said that he would draw a line and tell her she'd better not cross it. I responded, "What if she says, 'I’ll kill you?' Which one of you will be more afraid, her because she crossed the line you drew, or you because she threatened you with death?" The truth is that if she's been to prison, nothing that can be done in a school would frighten her. Detention? Calling her mother?

So he again asked what I would do. I said, "Talk to her." And he invited me to go over and try it right then. So I did. Dressed in my three-piece suit, I sat down at her table. She looked at me for a minute and said, "Who the f**k are you, a***ole?" I was a little stunned and didn't have time to read a book or check my notes. So I relied on two strategies I had just taught the teachers in my morning session: meet the real needs of students and use challenge instead of threat.

I said, "I'm someone writing a book on teenage violence, and I think you know better about it than me. If you have the courage to tell the truth and answer one question (challenge), I'll put your name in my book (need to be noticed)." She asked what the question was, so I replied, "Are there any teachers who you listen to, follow directions, show respect and learn from?" She said she had one like that, and I asked her what made that teacher different from the others.

Her answer is one that I will never forget and has been one of the constants in my work ever since. It's a movie scene that replays over and over in my mind. Right before my eyes, her answer transformed her from a tough, hardened criminal to a frightened little girl.

Because she's stupid. She thinks I can get a job someday, that I may even be able to go to college, or be a good mother because I know all the things not to do.

Then she started crying. The tears streaked down her black make-up and made her look like a zebra with black drops falling on her white top.

I ain't going to college and I ain't getting a job. I'll never be a mother. I'm a dead girl. In prison when they write your name on the wall, you die, and my name is there. I know I'm going back. But that teacher believes in me, and man, it really, really matters.

Later I put her name, Roxanne, in my book and tried to find her to give her a copy, but nobody knew where she was or how to find her.

Sometime later, I traveled the country doing trainings. I asked administrators if I could meet with about ten of their most troubled students. I did this for grades K-12, in urban, rural and all economic areas. I did it on two Indian reservations. I asked two questions: "Who is your favorite teacher and why?" I expected most to say they had no teacher who was a favorite. But they all did. Among the top reasons was, "They believe in me."

Five Ways to Reach Out

Believing in students is not simply telling them that you believe in them. These words matter only if they are true and if you demonstrate them by your actions. There is no way to fake it, because kids have built in crap detectors (a phrase taken from Neil Postman, and Charles Weingartner, in Teaching As a Subversive Activity), and they can tell if you don't mean it. Here are some ways to express it.

1. Stop Using Rewards

Rewards are not needed if you believe in a student. The reward implies to them that they only way you can get them to do something is to pay them. That is the opposite of believing.

2. Encourage Effort More Than Achievement

Not every child can meet the unrealistic goals of a test-mad curriculum. Every child can try to do his or her best. Ironically, the harder students are encouraged to try, the better they do on our crazy high-stakes testing.

3. Give Second, Third and Fourth Chances

In many states, the law says, "Three strikes and you're out." In most schools, the most troubled kids get only one strike. The message is, "Be the way we want or we don't want you." School is for all children and mistakes are part of the learning process, not just for academics, but also for behavior. Rather than strike them out, teach them the skills they need to overcome their deficiencies.

4. Don't Say "You Failed" - Say "You Haven’t Done It Yet"

Encourage hope by letting students know that, no matter what they do, they can still do better. Safety always comes first in a school environment, of course. Sometimes safety concerns override points 3 and 4, but not as often as we think.

5. Increase Opportunities to Learn

The children who need recess the most are the first ones to lose it. Being removed from field trips, the cafeteria, library and all other learning opportunities only makes students less able to handle them in the future. No one would say to a basketball player, "You missed too many foul shots. You can’t practice until you get better." It is time to stop giving more opportunities to those who have already proven they are successful while denying opportunities to those who need them the most.

If we can start reaching kids like Roxanne sooner rather than later, who knows how many lives could change?


Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Jimmie Hughes Sanders's picture
Jimmie Hughes Sanders
6, 7 and 8th SEL teacher


M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Educators that do not believe in rewards based systems make me laugh, because they fail to acknowledge a fundamental aspect of every advanced society on this planet.

They all function on rewarding achievement. I will safely assume that any one of you who teaches, lectures, writes, etc., receives compensation for your efforts. Otherwise, you would not be able to live and function in modern society. Unless you are a member of a religious order who has taken a vow of poverty, then any protest against reward based systems rings false. You are essentially communicating "do as I say, not as I do." Any smart kid is going to realize your hypocritical stance.

This stuff about building intrinsic motivation simply flies in the face of the "real world." I've already written elsewhere about two of the most vocal anti-rewards advocates in America and the very comfortable lives they lead as a result of receiving ample compensation for their work.

This should be sufficient reason to discredit the entire notion of eliminating rewards. If you don't think so, then the next time someone hands you a check for work you've done, refuse to accept it. Let me know how that works out for you.

Jimmie Hughes Sanders's picture
Jimmie Hughes Sanders
6, 7 and 8th SEL teacher

You, dear sir, have your opinion and I have mine. I cannot count the number so students who appreciate those three little words spoken from the heart and revealed through sincerity.

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

[quote]Educators that do not believe in rewards based systems make me laugh, because they fail to acknowledge a fundamental aspect of every advanced society on this planet.

I would have to disagree with you hear Mr. Hauck. There was a time when I also "believed" that "dangling carrots" in front of a student would change behavior. After reading Daniels Pink's book Drive and several other resources on intrinsic motivation, metacognition, and the demonstration of 21st. Life Skills; I have come to the conclusion that "carrot dangling" is ineffective and unreliable. The model you address is known as Motivation 2.0. This ineffective business model was adopted by many educators/and institutions in the 1960's as a way to change student behavior. This model was not always associated with mastery of learning goals but grounded in value systems that the teacher felt were important to learn. These values are mostly grounded in authoritative rhetoric which Paulo Freire addressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as tools of conformity and not of freedom. Most of these "values" were not centered on the students interests or specific needs; the values were more teacher centered and highly subjective. Studies by McRegor and Douglass at MIT address the fact that humans have higher innate drives which promote behavior. Do you think a student really gets motivated to learn when they are penalized for thinking "out-of-the-box?" Or when their grade is determined by non-academic factors such as behavior or attendance? Pink gives vivid examples on how many open source products [e.g. Wikipedia, Firefox, Linux, etc] were produced outside of the Motivation 2.0 Model. You want to change student behavior? Give them respect, compassion, and many opportunities to create, innovate, and demonstrate their understanding. Allow them [your students] to take intellectual risks and become a student of their thinking.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

It is true that "love" and "caring" are different and that there are lines that teachers cannot cross. We can never be "friends" no matter how friendly we are. There must be some judgment in teaching, the less the better. But judgment is a part of the job, and true friends don't judge. Believing in students is different from both and a part of each. Believing in students does not mean or imply that inappropriate love is involved. The analogy is false and in some cases dangerous.

The reward issue has been debated many times from different points of view both in education in general and in my postings specifically. Educators can debate whether rewards work or not, but the debate only has meaning if the argument is fact and logic based. Overheated rhetoric helps the speaker get something off his chest but does little to add to expanding knowledge and more importantly, helping children.

No one needs to reward a child for doing something they love. The only time we reward is to get a child to do something that they don't want to do. Children learn that we do not believe in them if we are forced to give rewards, because it implicitly implies that we believe they won't do a task without getting something in return. This is insulting and ineffective.

I have heard the belief that salary and rewards in school are the same for over 30 years. Careful analysis shows they have nothing in common and it is a false comparison. Without writing a new book on the subject, I'll briefly give two reasons why the comparison fails. The most important is choice. All people have a choice where to work and what they do. Economics plays an important part of the decision, but it is still a decision. No one is forced by law to work at something they don't want or believe in. In school children are forced to work at things they do not want to and do not believe in. They have no choice, and must compete with others with different skill levels whether they want to or not. In the world of work doctors do not compete with salespeople, accountants or construction workers. In school they do.

The second difference is that salary is a fee for service. Employers pay and get something in return. The end helps the one who pays. In school, children do not work for teachers. They receive no material gain from student work. It is not a fee for service arrangement in any way. Let's stop comparing salary and reward once and for all.

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

[quote]This is not the America that my forefathers fought and died for. That's not the America my relatives risked their lives to escape to during times of war, either.Your approach only weakens and softens the minds and bodies of youth, invariably killing the spirit that made America, its citizens, and its culture, exceptional.[/quote]

Mr. Hauck- your comments do not surprise me at all. Such comments are not supported by current research nor my own experiences in the classroom w/o walls. I just read a good book called Stratosphere by Michael Fullan which addresses several principles related to creating an environment in which creativity and innovation can take place. Fullen addresses Teesa Amabile's and Steven Kramer's idea called the "Progress Principle." The foundation of this principle is that creating an environment which fosters joy in learning through engagement and creative work. "Workers who produced more were intrinsically motivated when small progress was reported and not extrinsically motivated by recognitions or reward systems."

Like Dr. Curwin, I'm not here to convince you of my choice in instructional pedagogy. Using ineffective methods based on OLD education models doesn't work for me personally. If they work for you GREAT!

Your comment on how your education model "Made America" is a matter of perspective. Indigenous peoples have a different perspective related to the government educational system which was imposed on them, denied them of their history, and culture. I could share more details on the impact Native American Boarding Schools sponsored by the U.S Government but that would ruin the purpose of this discussion.

I chose to use a pedagogy that values the culture, heritage, and practices of my students. Imposing Western models of education and ineffective business strategies from the 1960's would dishonor the history of my students, be irresponsible, and ineffective. Sure there was progress as a result of these models but progress for WHO?

My students do well in balancing the needs of the modern world with the responsibility they have to their community. This is what I love teaching population of students who have been historically oppressed by the models you shared with us. Don't teach a student about plants, teach them how to grow the plants so they can feed themselves. They take pride in this learning because it is purposeful and challenging work that supports creativity and innovation. There is no need to "bait" them with paper that contains the faces of dead presidents; they will learn when they find the experience to be an extension of themselves.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

The posts I write are hopefully entertaining and helpful to educators, but my real motivation to write is to shed a light that will eventually make an improvement in the lives of children. That has been the theme of my life's work. I encourage and welcome all feedback and discussion, even disagreement, because that is how we all learn. Ideas need to be shared, challenged and examined through the lens of what is best for children. What is not welcome or acceptable, in my view, is name calling, assumptions made about contributors or anything that is unprofessional. I really enjoy Edutopia for the professionalism in its members. So let's put all ideas on the table and leave insulting and personal remarks to faculty rooms where they seem to flourish.

Thank you

Farhana N. Shah's picture
Farhana N. Shah
Staff Development Teacher

This article inculcates the idea educators must meet the student where he or she is currently, then teach- which is what we SHOULD be doing. I think we as a society do not see our students as 'whole people', but rather an assembly line. Teaching and learning is a process, not a checklist. We are charged with developing our students, but we are failing, especially as parents of these kids and who are the first in line to be charged with this huge responsibility. As an educator in a public school system, the challenge is not the student, but uninvolved and unmotivated parents- there is no excuse because these are our kids.

Coach Walker's picture

I tend to agree that we as educators need to do more to reach students. I have found that taking the time out to speak with students on a one on one can make a huge difference in what is happening in that students life. Yes, we as parents should be more actively involved in our children's lives. However, with the demands that are placed on many parents at their jobs, they are unable to give more of themselves to their children's education, which is sad. Yet, as educator's we should want to reach the student that seems to be unreachable. Our jobs are to develop, educate and we have to always keep in mind that all students are able to learn.

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