The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Resetting Social Expectations

Every class, every year, has its own unique characteristics. They all have their own challenges, their own strengths, their own goals. Sure, I have goals for every class that are aligned to learning standards and goals that are based on the expectations for students at this age, but I also have goals that are very specific to each class.

One of my big goals for my class this year is for them all to develop a greater sense of empathy for others. I’ve already written about this quite a bit. Empathy is a core characteristic of those who are kind. For my class, especially, I think that each and every single one of my students has the capacity to show empathy, to think about others, and to be kind. I also think that they have had many years of struggling to do this with one another and they are not sure if they can really do it.

Not all of them. No, many of my students have an abundance of empathy, kindness, and understanding. But even this students get frustrated when they feel like the same students are doing the same thing over and over again and never changing. I want these students to feel like their efforts are worthwhile, too.

Today was the first day of the second quarter. There was an outburst in class this morning that set everyone off in the wrong direction. I’m not going to go into the details because, quite honestly, the details don’t matter. What matters is what we chose to do about it later. Once the students were able to regain their collective composure, I brought them to the carpet for a class meeting. We needed to talk about the issue and do it openly, honestly, candidly. Sometimes, I fear, we are so careful to not misspeak that we avoid addressing the actual issue. This is often referred to as “the elephant in the room.” I decided that the start of the second quarter was as good as any to address the elephant.

It is this: there are some members of the class who are easily set off by others and they don’t want to back down for fear of being labeled cowardly or weak. So instead of using healthy, positive problem solving skills, they respond to fire with fire. And that just makes the fire worse. And it burns others. So we needed to talk about strategies to solve these problems in positive ways. We talked about seating arrangements, we talked about social networks in the class, we talked about adults who can be talked to about problems, we talked about not putting a spotlight on someone when they are feeling defensive because that only makes them feel more defensive and sometimes leads them to go on the offense. We talked about trust. We talked about the right to learn and the right to be respected.

We spent a good portion of the morning on this conversation. Maybe more time than I would have wanted, but it was important. Students cannot learn in an environment where they are more worried about the next outburst than the next reading assignment, the next math problem, the next science project, the next social students inquiry. I think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We use this in different settings, but it absolutely applies to education:

Now, whether or not you fully accept Maslow’s hierarchy, I think it can be acknowledged that there are certain criteria needed before we can really successfully learn and grow together. That’s my main take-away, at least. So we have reset our social expectations. We are starting over fresh. Again. It is a new quarter and we are going to work together to make sure that every member of our class, as much as we possible can, feels like their needs are being met by their peers.

We’ve got a lot of work to do this year. But I am confident that, working together, we can do it!


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