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Good Behavior VS. Good Character: A Redemption Story by Dr. Jennifer Spencer

22 Sep 2013 6:26 PM | Anonymous member

Many of you know that, in my B.C. (Before Charlotte) years, I was trained as a public school educator, and I taught kindergarten and then second grade at a local elementary school. I was terrible. No, really, I was not good. I was so bad that I should thank my former principal for keeping me around so long. I don’t know that I would have re-hired that person. I think my early failure may have been because, as an idealistic person, I went into the profession with an unrealistic vision of what days would be like–about how exhausting it is to give all of yourself every minute of every day to a seemingly unmanageable number of children who aren’t really all that concerned if you are tired or if you haven’t had your morning coffee. I learned a new word that first year: ubiquitous. I remembered it because I associated it with my students. They really did seem to be everywhere at once.  It didn’t help that the curriculum was boring and I was required to stick to the workbook pages. My natural transparency worked against me. I have no poker face. I was miserable, everyone knew it, and after four years I quit.

Now, my first year was pretty rough, but there were some things I did get better at with experience. One of those was “classroom management.” There were, of course, sticker charts and a treasure box. But I was very pleased with myself when I created the most beautiful behavior chart I had ever seen. I cut a tree out of brown paper and hung it on the bulletin board. Then I cut out colorful autumn leaves–one for each child’s name–and hung them on the tree. Underneath the tree, there were levels of “offenses” as you got closer to the bottom of the bulletin board. The first level was a warning, the second was a time-out, the third was a note home, and the fourth was a trip to the principal’s office. The loveliest part was that I changed things every season. In winter, every child had a snowflake. In spring, everyone’s name went on a flower. And in summer there were green leaves. Whenever there was an infraction, the offending student had to go to the board and move his/her name off the tree to the chart below.  This is how I had been taught to control the behavior of children, and it worked pretty well, even if lots of kids in kindergarten cried when their names were moved. (Could they have felt like Cain, finding that living with their names in exile was harsher punishment than they could bear?) They showed a tremendous amount of compassion for one another. This was brought home to me when one little boy had a very bad day. His name was on level three, and so the next step was a trip to the principal. (Yes, I am aware that these children were only five years old, but what else could I do?) When the final offense was committed, he dropped his leaf as he was moving it. His friend was sitting nearby, and, with tears in her eyes, she lunged for that leaf as if all would be lost if it hit the ground. The boy took the leaf from her, placed it bravely on level four, and walked his green mile.

It is very difficult to look mistakes full in the face and say, “Mea culpa–I am guilty.” That is the hardest part of the paradigm shift–to realize past harms and ache for those children and for lost opportunities. But there is no going back, only moving forward. I did what I knew then.  The next difficulty is figuring out what to use in place of the harmful practices. I didn’t have any trouble, really, letting go of the sticker charts and the treasure box. (Read what Alfie Kohn says about rewards here.) But somehow it was harder for me to relinquish the perceived control that the behavior chart offered. I guess I thought that children needed a visual reminder so that they could self-regulate. (Although, if there is a visual reminder, can you really call it “self-regulation?”) And so I used what I considered then to be a less behavioristic version–a stoplight, on which every child had a clothes pin that could move from green to yellow to red. Looking back, I am not sure why I thought this was less behavioristic than the Tree of Shame. It somehow made sense at the time. Paradigm shifts don’t happen overnight. At first, I was diligent about using that stoplight and having the students record their color at the end of the day onto a chart to be sent home to parents. But after a few years, as I continued to grow in my understanding of Mason, I found myself using it less and less and finding that the children’s behavior did not get worse. Over time it ceased to be used altogether. It just hung there like a museum relic and was eventually forgotten. The year before I started my school, in a bold move, I took the stoplight down completely. No one noticed.

One of the first lunchtime conversations I remember happening at Willow Tree began when one student said, “I’m glad we don’t pull sticks at this school.” Pull sticks? “Yes. At my old school, when you did something bad you had to pull your stick and put it in a different pocket.” Oh. The Sticks of Shame. I asked how that made her feel. “Well, it made me angry and sad.” Hmm. And did it make you want to stop doing the thing that got you in trouble? “No. It made me want to do it more. I just tried harder not to get caught.” Ah. Outward compliance, but inward rebellion. I’m glad we don’t pull sticks, too. Or clothes pins. Or leaves.

So what did we adopt instead? Well, to be perfectly honest, we didn’t really have a plan. We just knew that we wanted good relationships with our students. We wanted them to grow in wisdom and character, and we knew that adults cannot orchestrate that (although there are lots of things we can do to impede it). It is an inward change–a working of the Holy Spirit–that needed time, unconditional love, and ideas. We decided to treat “infractions” as relational breaches. Sometimes the breaches occurred between the student and the teacher; other times they happened between students. We dealt with both the same way:

1. Repentance: Acknowledging our own wrongdoing;

2. Reconciliation: Communicating honestly and respectfully and righting the wrong;

3. Restoration: Giving and receiving forgiveness and then putting it from our minds.

At first, this required heavy guidance and modeling. But over time (and let’s be honest here–it can take a lot of time!), the children became less dependent on an adult to let them know when they had crossed a line. They began to recognize it themselves and engage with one another and their teachers to make things right. At the same time we were teaching children how to deal with relational breaches, the Holy Spirit was working through the edifying ideas found in all the rich literature we read. In my own experience, this is the fertile ground in which character and relationships are nourished. After we read and narrated, I usually asked, “What did you think about that?” Usually, the children had some new nugget of wisdom that they had never thought about before, and we had a conversation about it. When I think about this model and the authentic development of character it produces, the musical term “sotto voce” comes to my mind. Literally, it translates to “under the voice,” but it means to sing in a hushed tone for emphasis. Traditional curricula on “character development” are too direct and preachy. Authors who write great literature whisper truths that our souls recognize, and as they surface in the consciousness they bring both conviction and delight; they wield a force that makes us hope in the possibility that we can be better people, and then will ourselves to do so.  This is a feat far beyond any system of rewards and punishments.

The changes in character under this model are so gradual that they are hard to pinpoint until we get a large influx of new students and have to start again at the beginning. Then the differences become profoundly apparent.  We have to deal again with passive learning habits, subversion mentality, and a lack of knowledge about how to handle conflict. But God is faithful in His daily redemption of children and, thankfully, their teachers.

© Dr. Jennifer Spencer 2013


  • 25 Feb 2018 9:50 PM | Anonymous member
    I find your transparency so encouraging. I think many of us cringe when we look back at some of the methods we employed in the past and wish we could have a re-do. And yet you are right, all we can do is give ourselves grace for where we were and move forwards.
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