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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Why do students come to school?

Photo by Jonathan Andrew from Pexels

(The following is a sample chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on called Take CHARGE. It looks at six steps to set up successful classroom management and six steps for deescalating behavioral outbursts. The first part of successful classroom management is confidence and the first part of confidence is purpose. This excerpt would follow the previous post.)

Here’s a crazy thought.

What if kids don’t know why they’re in school?

You could probably assume that they knew at one point. Either their parents or their kindergarten teacher told them at one point that school was where you learned new things. Assuming that the students found that to be a motivating factor, that should have been enough to get them through a few years at least.

But if you have ever taught older students you know that they sometimes have learned different reasons for going to school.

School is where you’re made fun of for being wrong or different.

School is where you feel anxious every time you have to go to lunch in the cafeteria.

School is where disinterested adults make you do tons of worksheet packets.

School is where you are forced to go, day in and day out, whether you want to or not.

Before moving on to other aspects of confidence, I’d like to take a moment and try to redeem one of the foundational truths of education that gets lost far too often.

School is where students are loved, supported, and stretched to learn and do things they couldn’t do on their own.

If that truth isn’t obvious to your students every single day, then that’s going to be your first step in taking charge of the classroom.

Make it obvious.

Control is an illusion

This unfortunate reality was made clear to me a few years ago. Serving as an instructional coach, one of my many roles was to serve as the go-to guy for any troubled classrooms. Viewed as a jack-of-all-trades, I was sent to assist teachers that might need help due to a variety of reasons.

Sometimes the class was staffed by a long-term substitute and I needed to help get the curriculum and instruction back on pace. At other times, there were certain behavioral situations that I helped teachers with. Add to that data disaggregation, small groups tips, and a host of other educational tools, and my job was never dull.

And until I went into Mr. Goshen’s class, I thought I had a pretty decent handle on education.

His students taught me otherwise.

Most classes have one or two (or three or four) unruly students. Those are the ones that teachers would do well to befriend and make their special helpers. What I had never experienced before Mr. Goshen’s class was the inverse of that principle.

There were about three or four ruly students and the rest were off. the. chain.

I’m always open to learning new things. That being said, Mr. Goshen’s students taught me a few things that I didn’t really want to know.

My sense of control over a classroom was an illusion.

They outnumbered me. Significantly. One, or even two, adults can not sufficiently put out fires if the entire room is a raging inferno. Floating on a lake of gasoline. And every student has a flamethrower.

I needed to know a lot more about human behavior if I wanted to help Mr. Goshen. Because my skill set at the time was completely inadequate.

Before you get all judgmental, here are a few facts. Mr. Goshen did not yell at his students. He was positive, supportive, and the students liked him. The problem was not a flaw in his personality, his interactions, or his attentiveness. His students enjoyed seeing him and, after a day of tearing up his classroom, most would give him a hug or fist bump, anxious to see him the next day.

When a class loses its way

Reflecting back on my short and ineffective time with Mr. Goshen’s class, which is serving as a significant part of my motivation for writing this book, I now have a clearer picture of what went wrong. All of my little tips and tricks were useless. My eagle-eyed teacher looks, repeated directives, positive options, and everything else I tried were completely useless.

I was standing in front of a five-alarm raging inferno armed with a dollar store water pistol. That was empty. And broken.

If I could talk to myself back then, I would give myself some advice that I’d like to share with you.

School is for learning. School is for trying, failing, and getting back up and trying again.

School is for students to learn not only content but how to manage themselves and even learning how to learn.

While it was obvious that I knew these things, and Mr. Goshen as well, the students had forgotten that purpose. To them, school was a place in which you were either predator or prey. School was a place of failure, because that is how they viewed themselves. They were several years behind in reading and math. Many of them were illiterate.

Before they worked on procedures, class commitments, or any kind of behavioral management system, Mr. Goshen’s class needed to retrieve its true purpose.

A powerful ritual

Instead of assuming that students know why they were there, Mr. Goshen’s class would have benefited from a daily chant or ritual that set the tone for the class. If I could talk to my past self, I would recommend a call-and-response similar to this:

Teacher: Why are we here?

Students: To learn as much as we can.

Teacher: How do we best learn?

Students: By helping each other succeed.

Teacher: Who is responsible for learning?

Students: I am - we are!

Before you write this type of mantra as silly or gimmicky, consider a few things.

In their impactful book Freedom to Learn: Creating a Classroom Where Every Child Thrives, Dr. Art Willans and Cari Williams describe several fundamentals discovered and verified through behavioral science and group dynamics. The first fundamental is the need for a common purpose. For a group to be functional, members must unify to accomplish a common purpose. In this context, everyone can excel when a class of students unifies as a group.

Imagine whitewater rafting with your students down a churning river. You’re coming up to a set of rapids, classified as moderately difficult (class 3). You should be able to make it through but you’ll need a few students to help row at key points. As you grab your oar and look back to give directions to your students, you see chaos. Three children are fighting over one of the oars, a fourth has thrown his oar into the river, and the last two are no longer in the raft. Instead, they jumped out 30 seconds ago without life vests.

Without everyone on the raft rowing in the same direction, with the same purpose, your raft is at the mercy of the rapids. That is not a pleasant feeling, either for recreational rafters or teachers in the classroom.

No, don’t get me wrong. Even if you could convince your students to participate in a morning chant, your classroom wouldn’t change on its own. The chant, or mantra, is representative of some deeper truths that will be explored throughout the remainder of this book. The purpose of the chant is to bring into the open what is sometimes forgotten.

School is for learning.

Learning only happens when students feel safe, both emotionally and psychologically.

For that safety to exist, it requires cooperation, empathy, leadership, and agency.

Why are we here?

The opening refrain from the mantra asks students a simple question: Why are we here?

While this might seem to be common sense, one thing I’ve learned throughout my years in education is that common sense is not common. Sometimes you have to call out what’s hidden and assumed because, until you can agree on common definitions, oftentimes people can use the same words but mean entirely different things.

Some students don’t know why they’re in school. Some go because their parents make them. Others attend because of a sense of obligation, as their parents have preached the benefits of getting a good education for years. Still others attend to get good grades, focused on larger goals like graduation, college, or careers. A sizable portion of students attend school because that’s where their friends are and they’re social creatures.

Goal orientation plays a large role in student success. If students don’t have a specific goal or purpose for attending school, then their effort is likely to be hampered by misalignment. Even if students have some type of goal related to achievement or performance, that may be at odds with what the teacher wants for his or her students.

The goal orientation that has the strongest relationship to learning and achievement, especially in the face of struggle, is what researchers have named mastery goal orientation. With this purpose, either conscious or subconscious, students go through school with a focus on learning for learning’s sake. They enjoy the thrill and challenge of tackling unknown topics and absorbing random factoids. If teachers were to populate their classrooms with students that shared a common goal orientation, it would most likely be one focused on learning rather than achieving.

So, one wonders, how can teachers steer students toward this beneficial goal orientation?

First and foremost, make it explicit. Make it evident and repeat it daily.

Teacher: Why are we here?

Students: To learn as much as we can.

Notice the response is not, “To get good grades,” or, “To pass the high-stakes test,” or even, “Because we are legally required to due to compulsory attendance laws.”

I would actually be quite frightened if students answered with the third response.

Second, back up the slogan with words. In a previous book, Solving Student Engagement: Designing Instruction to Motivate Every Student, I spent some time exploring ways to encourage a mastery goal orientation. To summarize that content, teachers would do well to focus their energy considering how they design tasks and on their grading philosophy.

Students are going to have a hard time focusing on learning if the tasks they are assigned lack meaning. Fill-in-the-blank worksheets, repetitive tasks, and low level questions that require simplistic answers don’t fool students. They communicate that learning is not a process of discovery but instead a required action that results in a grade and/or time being filled.

Even with well-designed learning tasks, uniformity breeds boredom. Diverse tasks produce novelty and interest, keeping students engaged for longer periods of time. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, tasks should be challenging. A one-size-fits-all approach to assigning tasks is a sure way of losing the interest of many students. Each student, as an individual, needs to be treated as such instead of as a widget on an assembly line.

If teachers can create and implement a curriculum program with meaningful, diverse, and challenging tasks, all of that can be undone by a poor approach to grading. In the traditional schooling system, students are expected to learn according to a strict timeline approved by the district office. If students, heaven forbid, learn the required material but along a delayed timeline, they are typically penalized in the grade book. If they fail an assignment but then show mastery after some feedback or tutoring, oftentimes the highest grade they can achieve is a 70%.

This traditional grading theory emphasizes uniformity and strict adherence to a prescribed learning schedule rather than the reality that students learn at different rates, by different methods, and from different starting places along the learning continuum. If teachers want students to come to school with the right goal, to learn as much as they can, they need to make that goal explicit and then back it up with how they teach and grade their students.

How do we best learn?

In A Teacher’s Guide to Successful Classroom Management and Differentiated Instruction, Billie Birnie states that if teachers seek a true partnership in learning, the roles of both teacher and students need to be clear. While learning as much as they can is a great start for students’ purpose at school, it’s only the beginning.

Learning is communal. It is a process that grows not just between a teacher and a student but within a larger community context. What was apparently missing from Mr. Goshen’s classroom was a sense of unity. The students were not there to help each other or even be friends with each other. Like first-class passengers scrambling for limited lifeboats on the Titanic, his students were concerned only with meeting their own needs.

That’s not said in judgment in any way. Humans are wired to meet their needs in any way possible. Once they’ve met their physical needs, they naturally turn to their psychological needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. While we will look at all three in depth in the next part of the Take CHARGE acronym (Human), we can briefly discuss one now.

Relatedness is our psychological need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to be connected to others. It’s why we live in communities, why family bonds are so powerful, and why inclusion in a group, whether it be a gaming club, a church, or a gang is so important. Teachers have the ability to tap into that need if they are aware of its value and how to access it.

Teacher: How do we best learn?

Students: By helping each other succeed.

Schools and learning do not need to be a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum situation, all outcomes must add up to zero. So, if I’m winning, someone else must be losing. Everyone can’t get a trophy, so my success comes at your expense. While sports is an area that definitely qualifies as zero-sum, school and learning doesn’t have to.

Just because one student succeeds doesn’t mean another has to fail. Everyone can learn. Everyone can win. This win-win mentality, discussed in Stephen Covey’s seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, provides a communal aspect to the learning that teachers hope to sustain in their classrooms.

As with the mastery learning orientation previously discussed, teachers should start by making the learning community explicit.

But that’s only the beginning.

Teachers should constantly work on team building within their classroom. Many different games and activities exist to build camaraderie amongst students. While some might claim it’s a waste of time that could be better spent learning academic content, I’d argue that it saves time down the road. If conflicts can be avoided and wrinkles ironed out between students through team building, it’ll make for a much more positive learning environment that will see dividends in achievement.

Additionally, and a topic that will also be revisited later in some detail, students need a safe space and an opportunity to work out their conflicts. They will disagree, they will get their feelings hurt, and they’ll have some big emotions they need to work through. Not having a plan and a structure for that is like building a 10-story apartment building without any fire escapes.

Who is responsible for learning?

Dr. Art Willans and Cari Williams also state that students helping each other is typical when teachers place an emphasis on everyone working together. Once students accept that they have a responsibility to everyone, they learn how to help each other. This shared responsibility, not only for my only learning and behavior but for yours as well, is the final piece of the relatedness puzzle that, I know now, was missing from Mr. Goshen’s classroom.

The students were disconnected from each other and either did not care about or got sadistic pleasure from watching others fail. This toxic environment, which I could sense but couldn’t clearly enunciate, destroyed any chance of building momentum toward productive learning. In a true community, the members are responsible for each other.

My actions affect you. Your actions affect me. For both of us to be successful, we each need to pull our weight. This sobering reality, instead of frightening or overwhelming students, can help develop constructive relationships. As previously stated, humans pursue their psychological needs throughout their daily lives. One of those is relatedness, a need to belong. They can find fulfillment in that in the classroom.

Teacher: Who is responsible for learning?

Students: I am - we are!

The response to this basic question has two parts. First, students own their learning. Later on we’ll discuss release, how we meet the students’ need for autonomy. In short, students, as humans, seek control. They need to feel a sense of direction, of power, of order in their lives. In the chaotic worlds that they live in, oftentimes the only sense of order they can create is through misbehavior.

They have learned, through trial and error, that certain actions, like dropping the F bomb, will always result in predictable responses, such as being sent to the principal’s office. While we might see the consequence as not being beneficial, for students with little to no order, that sense of predictability is priceless. If they want attention, all they have to do is punch the student next to them. They’ll get attention, albeit negative attention, in a predictable manner.

Since students, as humans, are seeking control and predictability, teachers would be wise to fulfill that basic psychological need through a more beneficial avenue. Once students have been exposed to the power of having a growth mindset, how to regulate their emotions, and a host of other skills and attitudes that will be discussed later, they’ll start to feel power.

They’ll move from being a victim of chance to the captain of their fate. Showing students how to learn, how to grow, and how to work constructively with peers is a very empowering thing. Additionally, students respond to the last question with a second answer - “We are!”

This brings things back around to their communal purpose, to learn as much as they can. They only succeed if everyone succeeds. While there are individual awards in team sports, most players would give up all individual accolades if they could win the championship as a team. Once students view their classmates that way, once they begin to see how they are responsible for their friends, that it’s not a zero sum game, it becomes empowering.

They are not alone. They have a strong, beneficial purpose for going to school every day. They have a team of friends that has their back.

That’s what Mr. Goshen’s class was missing, what I unfortunately could not articulate in time to help him.

So if I were to stop by your classroom in the near future, or, heaven forbid, your evaluator, and either of us were to drop down next to one of your students to ask, “Why are you here?”, how would they answer?

First, decide how you’d want your students to answer. Then you can come up with a plan on how to make that a reality.

Keep reading to find out how.

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