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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sheldon Berman Builds a Network of Caring School Communities

The former superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools describes why implementing positive school culture is the first step to far-reaching, districtwide achievement. More to this story.
Transcript

Sheldon Berman Builds a Network of Caring School Communities (Transcript)

I have a very deep belief now that- that students do not do well academically unless they feel cared about, unless they feel that they’re included, unless they feel that there’s a climate around them where they can take risks, where they can share their learning, share their, sometimes misconceptions or wrong answers even and test those out in the world and not feel embarrassed or put down by it. So when you create that kind of safe place, students are better able to learn. They’re better able to work with peers. They’re- they’re more comfortable in the classroom. And- and there is a process that we can consciously create both through curriculum and-- set curriculum and through our-- the way we structure our classrooms that enables students to feel that sense of community.

Over a period of the- the first year, we developed the Care for Kids Program and then had schools apply for that program. As I said, out of 90 schools, 28-- there are more that applied. We accepted 28 schools who appeared to be ready to launch the program the following year. And then we provided extensive professional development for them during the summer and embedded professional development for them as they implemented the program during the year. And it made- it’s made a major difference. Everywhere I go, when I talk to elementary faculties, it’s made a major difference. But those early initiators in this case, have provoked interest among all the other schools. As I said, this is an initiative that people are eager for. You know, one of the things-- and it’s very clear, is that teachers are in teaching, particularly elementary teachers, because they love kids. And they love to create an environment where kids can thrive. And this is so natural. They understand it at a very basic level, that if they create a positive environment in their classroom, their classroom is going to be fun to be in both for themselves and for them- for their students. And the students are gonna learn more. And so it doesn’t take a lot of convincing. It- it-- what it takes is the demonstration that it can be done. And when teaches see that it can be done and that it can be successful, then they’re really willing to devote the energy and time to make it work.

I believe that actually what we’re doing is going very deeply and it’s not about charismatic principals or charismatic teachers. It’s about engaging all teachers and all the principals in the strategies that Care For Kids is engaged in. And it shouldn’t matter who the principal is. It’s nice that the principal is an advocate and the principal believes it and has to understand it. We have to have principal leadership but we don't have to have charismatic principal leadership. We have to have principal leadership that’s committed to this kind of vision and this direction. And we have to have teachers who are committed to this kind of vision and this kind of direction. And that’s what we’re pursuing in our hiring and in our appointments. We have a- a district philosophy and that- that district philosophy is part of our interview process. It’s part of our selection process. And hopefully, it won't be dependent on one individual. It will be dependent on a lot of us being deeply committed to the same kind of values and norms and wanting to build a vision of the district where- where this is the norm.

Once you’ve done it, you realize that-- or once you’ve been involved in- in social emotional learning, it changes the way you teach. It changes the way you are in a classroom. It changes the interaction you have with students so that you- you don't have the kinds of discipline problems you’ve had before. You don't have the kinds of- of organizational issues in the classroom that you my have had before. And what- what’s so interesting is, in giving up some of your authority to students, which is sometimes very difficult for teachers, you realize that you actually have more authority. And it’s one of those paradoxes in life, that when you literally involve students in class meetings, when you involve them in these morning meetings and discussions and sharing, that actually, you giving up control, allows you to have even more control and more direction of the classroom, because it’s more of a collective focus. And students buy-in. And once they buy-in, they’re a part of the classroom and they’re committed to what you’re doing.

Why doesn’t everybody do it? Well first of all, there are probably two major reasons, one is that we’re very tied up in the struggle to reach proficiency. With No Child Left Behind, with the targets that have been set, I think most educators are in a panic to attempt to do all they can to prepare students academically for the test and test results. I happen to believe that this is the best preparation for test- for positive test results. I think once you teach students those kinds of social skills, once they build a sense of community, you can move much faster academically than you would otherwise. You have far fewer behavior problems, far fewer disruptions, far more collaboration on learning so that students support each other learn--each others learning. But it takes investment of time on the front end. And sometimes we’re not willing to devote that- that time.

The other is, it takes skill to lead a class meeting. An effective class meeting takes the ability to not intervene too soon, to not impose one’s own values and one’s own thoughts on the situation and let students engage and discuss and struggle for a while and think about a situation carefully and think about what might be right or wrong in a situation and what are different possibilities and different options. As teachers we tend to want to jump in and solve problems for our students. And it means holding back and letting the students emerge with what are the best solutions and facilitating that dialog. And that’s often much more challenging for us to do. It isn’t touchy-feely stuff. It’s core social skills that give students the- the experience and the knowledge and talent to work effectively with others. This isn’t about, you know, being nice and treating each other nicely. This is about, this is serious work. It’s serious work to create a sense of community. It’s serious work to resolve conflicts. It’s serious work to create an environment that’s a positive environment in a classroom. And it’s serious work on the students’ part, to be able to manage themselves in a way that is constructive. And that’s the most important contribution that they learned. I would say that it’s- it's essential for higher quality results, academically. And it’s not that you don't have to do the academic work. You have to do the academic work. But frankly, the academic work is made easier once you do this

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Video Credits

Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Editor

  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

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  • Doug Keely

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.


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