Turning protests into teachable moments

Whether you follow football or not, you’ve no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding certain NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality during pre-game National Anthem ceremonies.

If you’re as rabid a fan as I am, you saw more than one player take a knee during the Star-Bangled Banner ahead of yesterday’s games.

As the debate over these protests continues on social media and in front of water coolers (Read: heroic activism vs. affront to military and service heroes), institutions and organizations across the country, including schools, are forced to consider what happens when the controversy reaches their doors.

The NBA and the NBA players’ associations, for instance, recently sponsored talks about how to deal with protests during the upcoming basketball season, according to recent reports.

Recent police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa will likely stoke the fires of protests even higher.

As educators think about how to address the issues in schools, the focus will be on how to balance teachable moments with respect for teachers’ and students’ personal beliefs and opinions, writes Education Week’s Evie Blad in her Rules for Engagement blog.

Whatever choices you make, giving students a way to vent and express themselves is vital, she says. Here’s a few of her suggestions for how to do that.

Taking advantage of a teachable moment
If you do encounter protests in your classrooms or at school sporting events, discipline might be the knee-jerk reaction. But think before you act.

In Naples, Fla., recently, a high school principal threatened to kick students out of football games if they refused to stand and be quiet during the National Anthem. A video he created about the policy ignited a firestorm in the local community, per the Miami Herald.

Hard-line policies seem like an easy solution for a lot of schools. But they aren’t always the smartest approach, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, tells Blad.

“Schools talk such a great game about wanting to produce civically engaged students,” he explains “This is something schools should be embracing as a teaching opportunity.”

Discussions about race, patriotism, and crime prevention are never easy. Each of these topics is sensitive, and requires a certain tact. But what better place than schools to start a conversation about acceptance and understanding?

“At a time when schools are increasingly advocating for student voice and calling on students to think critically about current events,” writes Blad, “educators could use these conversations as a chance to help students grow and learn.”

Starting the conversation
Whether your school district has faced protests around these or other issues or not, there’s no rule that says you have to wait for a headline to have a teachable moment.

Blad suggests confronting the issue head-on in the classroom, and in the broader school community.

She offers these suggestions for how to kick-off a dialogue in your schools:

  • Assign essays for students to express whether they agree or disagree with athletes’ protests.
  • Stage student debates over the issues surrounding the protests.
  • Conduct community-wide discussions on race and justice in America. This can include both students and community members.

Also, give students a safe place to privately express their thoughts and opinions. Online forums and inboxes work well. So, too, do one-on-one meetings.

Don’t wait for controversy or protest to erupt in your district. Take the opportunity to lead the conversation about these and other critical issues.

What steps do you take to manage and teach around student protests in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want to start a meaningful dialogue with students? Here’s one way to encourage thoughtful and productive conversations around sensitive issues.

Is your classroom the next Uber?

If I say the word startup, what image springs to mind?

You probably picture an open-air office full of twentysomething hipsters in sandals huddled around a whiteboard or laptops.

It’s easy to stereotype the startup “look.” But startup culture is about more than funky offices and millennial-era perks.

Startups pride themselves on risk-taking, innovation and adaptation, as well as the ability to respond quickly to customer and market demands.

The mindset has captivated the business world with the meteoric rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb.

But business leaders aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the startup vibe. Schools would do well to adopt some of these traits as well, says startup and education advocate Jeff Hemmett.

In a talk at last year’s TedxWestVancouverED, Hemmett outlined why a strong startup culture could benefit schools, and help educators and students succeed in a world of perpetual change.

‘Classroom, Inc.’
Comparing America’s traditional education system to a tiny startup might seem impractical. But if you start to view each classroom as its own entity, you begin to realize that our schools are more nimble than we like to think.

Hemmett dubs this way of thinking, “Classroom, Inc.”

Instead of producing the next great social network, streaming platform, or online retailer, America’s classrooms create an even more valuable commodity: opportunity.

“Now, the kids in your classroom, they might not know what they want to be when they grow up,” Hemmett told a group of educators during his talk. “It could be a rockstar, could be a CEO, could be an activist. It doesn’t matter. Their opportunity to become any or all of these things comes from you.”

In the face of rapid, unpredictable change, it’s up to schools to provide new opportunities and avenues for students.

Staying lean and responsive
Large, blue-chip corporations are averse to change, says Hemmett. That’s because they’re not built to react quickly to disruption.

Startups, on the other hand, are lean and responsive. They challenge each employee to cultivate that elusive entrepreneurial spirit and they give people the freedom to learn and build on their own, or in collaboration with others.

This is why startups attract the best talent in the world, Hemmett says.

Attracting great talent is a challenge education faces every day, along with developing leadership, creating a unified vision, and navigating a complex maze of human emotion and interaction.

Talk the talk
Speed and adaptability are great, but they don’t mean a thing absent the ability to forecast and react to reliable data. That’s why startups put so much effort into gathering feedback from customers and users.

Take Uber for example. A large part of the company’s business model is based on one simple, but effective premise: riders provide feedback on drivers, drivers provide feedback on riders. The company uses this feedback to hone and perfect its services, and to keep customers coming back.

In an era of increased competition, where students and families can choose to ditch traditional public schools for alternative options on a whim, the power of feedback and the importance of listening to parents’ and students’ concerns is more important than ever.

For more on the startup culture in schools, check out Hemmett’s full Tedx talk below:

What ways might your school or district consider adopting a startup culture to stay ahead of changes in learning culture? Tell us in the comments.

Want to encourage greater collaboration in your schools? Here’s one way to get students and parents engaged in a conversation about real change.

3 ways to be a more charismatic school leader

For education leaders, the challenge of rallying different groups, from board members to staff to faculty to students to parents toward a single purpose is no small feat.

Success requires more than good management or organizational skills. Some would say it also requires charisma, that intangible something that so many good leaders have.

But where does charisma come from?

“Many people hold the false belief that charisma is something you’re born with, a trait that cannot be developed or cultivated,” writes author and business expert Chris Myers in Forbes. “In reality, anyone can learn to cultivate charisma, motivate their team, and become a more influential leader.”

Myers suggests that effective leadership is a talent that needs to be cultivated and worked on. The best leaders succeed because they constantly assess their skills, understand their weaknesses, and address gaps in their approach.

He offers three steps for leaders to foster charisma.

Though the article is written with the boardroom set in mind, school leaders too can use these tips to build consensus in their communities.

Confidence is key
“I’ve learned that charisma and confidence go hand-in-hand, and neither can be faked,” writes Myers.

Without confidence, it’s hard to sell others on your idea, he says.

Do not confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence comes from being secure in your understanding of problems and from leveraging what you know to develop solutions.

Confident leaders understand what they know and learn about what they don’t, writes Myers. That’s why the best leaders are not afraid to gather feedback, or to change course when they encounter a better idea.

They also make sure that their constituents understand their strategy before they implement it.

For school leaders, openness is the best policy. Not everyone will agree with your approach upfront, but they will appreciate your efforts to keep them informed and engaged in the decision-making process.

Body language and tone matter
Sometimes success depends as much on how you carry yourself as what you say.

“Charismatic people are naturally magnetic and attract others into their orbit,” writes Myers. “Warm smiles, good posture, and a quickness of motion all help to make people feel energized, safe, and happy.”

How often do you walk the hallways? Do you meet personally with students and teachers and ask them about the challenges they face? How often do you meet with parents and other community members?

Tone matters too.

Is your messaging dry and overly formal, or do you find ways to let your personality and charisma come through?

Temperature is equally important
Myers adds that real charisma requires warmth and compassion.

Such qualities simply cannot be faked.

As a leader, do you make an effort to get out into your community? What steps do you take to show parents and students and others how much you care?

You might not always make the most popular decision. The key is for your community to both see and to feel how much you care. And charisma can play a big role in that.

How have you sought to develop charisma in your job as a school leader? Tell us in the comments.

Want to be more accessible to the members of your school community? One way is to ask for their feedback.

How to connect teachers with the communities they serve

In most rural and suburban schools, students are taught by teachers who have similar experiences to themselves.

Many of these teachers went to the same or similar schools, live in the same communities, and hail from comparable socio-economic backgrounds.

But that’s not often the case when it comes to inner-city education.

By now,  you’ve heard about the horrendous attrition rates in underserved urban school communities, especially when it comes to those hard-to-keep first-year teachers.

Their reasons for leaving run the gamut from higher-paying job opportunities elsewhere to high levels of stress in urban education environments.

But most experts attribute the annual exodus of new urban school teachers to one unshakeable reality: most of them simply are not physically or emotionally invested in the communities they serve.

While children of color account for more than half of the students in America’s public schools, just 18 percent of public K12 teachers are people of color, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. This contrast is especially stark in urban schools where poor students of color are often served by first-time teachers, many of whom are predominantly young, white, and from middle- or higher-class backgrounds.

This difference in background, and culture, often creates a dissonance that is difficult to bridge.

Change in the Windy City
In Chicago, one program is working to change that trend.

The Step Up program offers teaching students from Illinois State University the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the communities they hope to serve as teachers upon graduation.

The program pairs 21 aspiring teacher fellows with host families in four of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. For four weeks, these fellows assist in classroom environments in those communities, volunteer with community service organizations, and take classes and seminars on culture and teaching approaches in that area.

The ultimate goal is to put some teeth into the “cultural competence” requirements embedded in many university teaching programs, and to instill in aspiring teachers a commitment to the communities they serve.

The idea is to teach fellows “not to have the savior mentality,” one host dad, Tony Velazco, said in a recent Education Week and PBS News\Hour report (watch below). “They’re not coming in to save people. They’re coming in to be part of the community and they really have to know where the kids are coming from in order to teach them better. To reach them. To inspire them.”

For more about the Step Up program, check out this full video report from Ed Week and the PBS NewsHour:

So, what’s the next step?
Start with a question: Will this approach and others like it help more teachers take jobs and stay longer in urban schools?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Step Up reports that more than 80 percent of fellows are still in the classroom beyond the five-year mark.

If you’re having trouble with teacher-community engagement, getting your teachers in a full-immersion program might not be feasible. But you can encourage engagement through on-going dialogues between teachers and the students and families they serve.

How do you actively promote teacher-community engagement in your schools or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to help your teachers develop a deeper sense of engagement and connection with your school community? Here’s one way to get the ball rolling.

As ESSA looms, states set standards for Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning: It’s a concept lauded for its ability to help students develop important life skills that go beyond academics.

At the same time, the crux of what exactly a good social-emotional curriculum is and how to measure it is often hard to pin down.

How do we ensure students master the social skills required to navigate unending challenges in their lives? What are the best ways to teach abstract emotional concepts, such as empathy? How do we measure their ability to develop these skills over time?

In August, eight states—California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington—announced an agreement designed to solve these and other challenges.

The collaborative will work to develop standards for social-emotional learning and strategies for encouraging local districts to embrace the concept, as outlined recently in Education Week.

These standards could play a role in how districts and states gauge their progress under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Setting standards
“We have amassed so much research by this point that we’re now ready, I believe, to really be helping to inform education through things like policy and learning standards,” Linda Dusenbury, a senior researcher at The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), told Ed Week.

CASEL will assist the eight participating states in creating strategies for implementing SEL in their schools.

For each state, CASEL will help develop statewide, grade-appropriate standards for assessing school progress in SEL, shareable guides for introducing SEL-related lessons into traditional academic work, and strategies for implementing the new standards.

For states like California, the goal is to get this work done before ESSA takes effect.

New standards for ESSA?
Under new ESSA accountability rules, states must add at least one non-academic indicator to measure school progress.

It’s an important and long overdue step, education research guru Dr. Stephan Knobloch writes in a recent guide from K12 Insight on the impact of ESSA.

“Savvy school leaders have long known that test scores alone provide a very narrow window into student achievement—and that non-academic factors such as climate and engagement play a significant role in helping students succeed in school and beyond.”

SEL implementation could also play a huge role—at least that’s the hope of states such as California.

A group of California districts recently said that including SELs in accountability standards under ESSA could ignite the adoption of social-emotional learning in schools throughout the country, reports Ed Week.

But experts, including those at CASEL, say that it’s too early to start using SEL as an accountability measure. Instead, they’re focusing on collaborations, such as the one announced in August, to continue to develop standards.

Whether states are allowed to include SEL as an accountability indicator will be determined over the next couple of months, as states and the U.S. Department of Education review comments on proposed ESSA accountability rules.

This marks a key time for school communities to make their voices heard, Knobloch told educators in a recent webinar. (Watch: Everything you need to know about ESSA: How to demystify non-academic indicators.)

“If they (the public) don’t participate, my fear is that we’re going to be regretting it and we’re going to have a backlash, something similar to NCLB ten years into the actual legislation, rather than taking the ownership now and getting it right,” he said.

If your state or district is hoping to include SEL as a performance indicator under ESSA, now is the time to make your voice heard. And community members can be among your best and most vocal advocates.

In the meantime, these eight initial states are working to create a model for SEL that other schools and states can use.

How do you engage your school community about SEL and ESSA? Tell us in the comments.

Will ESSA affect your district’s strategies in the future? Here’s one way to give your community a real voice in how success is measured under the new law.

In wake of tragedy, schools must help students cope

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, this is the third in a series of posts on preventing and coping with student suicide. For more information on National Suicide Prevention Week, follow the hashtag


For those who’ve never experienced it, the shock that accompanies the sudden passing of a friend or loved one is unthinkable.

When death comes in the form of suicide, the shock for family and classmates can be overwhelming.

“Many survivors of suicide loss relate the same experience as mine: their loved one’s death by suicide was entirely unexpected.” writes Alyssa Relyea, who lost her twin brother to suicide, on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s blog.

Relyea has since become an advocate for suicide awareness, teaching others how to look for and spot suicide warning signs. She’s learned to live with the memory of tragedy. But years later, she admits the feeling is still raw.

Unfortunately, Relyea is not alone. Across the country, thousands of teens are forced to confront the harsh reality of suicide every year.

Add the weight of unthinkable personal grief to the social and academic pressures of high school—and the feelings can be overwhelming.

Schools play an important role in helping students deal with and work through tragedy, especially when the victim is a classmate.

With this in mind, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) created a toolkit for school administrators that features tools and resources to help students cope in the aftermath of a suicide.

As we close out this week of remembrance and awareness, the guide’s tips for helping students cope with the tragedy of suicide continue to resonate.

Here’s a few key points of advice for helping students cope with tragedy, courtesy of the guide:

Give students immediate, individual attention.
In the wake of a teen suicide or other tragedy, it’s important for schools to immediately and vocally offer students access to emotional and psychological support.

Meeting one-on-one or in small groups allows teachers and staff to give students the intimate attention they need—and to provide additional help for those especially affected.

The AFSP and SPRC recommend that these initial sessions focus on providing students with strategies for dealing with their grief and giving them time and safe space to express their feelings and emotions.

Provide students practical ways to cope.
Schools should equip students with adoptable strategies to help deal with stress and loss. These might include:

  • Breathing and counting exercises—think count to 10 slowly, or deep breathing.
  • The pursuit of hobbies, such as music, reading, sports, or exercise as coping mechanisms.
  • Writing a list of hopes for the future to focus on moving forward.
  • Strengthening bonds with friends and family and improving personal communication skills.

Help parents support their kids.
When it come to tragedy, most parents are just as inexperienced. As educators and counselors, you can help parents support their children outside of school.

Provide guidance on coping best practices. Invite parents to discuss these issues with grief counselors or teachers. Give community members a forum for venting their own concerns and personal grief, whether through in-person meetings or as part of some kind of online forum.

And make sure parents and guardians understand and are aware of the support offered to students through the school.

Acknowledge milestones and anniversaries.
Students will be especially susceptible to grief on certain dates throughout the year, particularly those dates that mark a birthday or anniversary of a loss.

Whether it’s the student’s birthday, anniversary of their passing, or some other important marker, don’t be afraid to acknowledge and celebrate that student’s memory. And make a point to offer support and be extra vigilant on these days.

Help students express their emotions.
If you do nothing else, make a point of being there for your students when and where they need help.

“Youth will vary widely in terms of emotional expression,” write the toolkit’s authors. “Some may become openly emotional, others may be reluctant to talk at all, and still others may use humor. Acknowledge the breadth of feelings and diversity of experiences and emphasize the importance of being respectful of others.”

Give students every opportunity to vent their frustrations.

Nobody wants to confront these sudden tragedies. They are horrible and often painful. Sadly, they‘ve also become a reality for far too many students and families.

What steps does your school or district take to provide support and counseling when it is needed most?

As we close out the week, take a look back at the other posts in this series (Wednesday and Thursday) for ways to lead in times of untimely loss and grief in your school community.