For a while, my sister taught in charter schools in New York City. Her experience wasnâ€™t good.
She related one story of elementary school students in their uniforms packed into an overheated room. Seeking relief, one solution-oriented boy took initiative and opened a window. But when the teacher entered the room and saw the open window, she got angry. â€œClose that window!â€ she barked. â€œI donâ€™t care if you burn up in here.â€
This was just one of my sisterâ€™s stories.
Suppose there was an intervention that could help stressed, time-pressed teachers to approach students in a way that was less punitive and more mutually respectful? Yet that helped them to set limits clearly so students would know unequivocally what was expected of them?
Although my sisterâ€™s story above doesnâ€™t touch on suspension, you may be able to see how the teacherâ€™s attitude wasnâ€™t exactly respectful or empathic. Yet R-E-S-P-E-C-T is exactly what can make the difference in reducing school suspensions.
According to a study led by Stanford social psychology researcher Jason A. Okonofua, respect and empathy go a long way toward building strong relationships between teachers and studentsâ€”which help reduce suspensions by helping students develop self-control.
The intervention Okonofua developed has the goal of developing empathy in teachers. According to an article in Education Week, teachers were given training in how studentsâ€™ insecurities and stress can cause them to misbehave. They also heard from students who said they felt more respected by teachers who approached them empathically.
â€œI donâ€™t think the concept of empathy is something new to many teachers,â€ Okonofua is quoted as saying. Â The intervention is â€œcreating a way psychologically for that empathy to persist in light of stressful environments. Itâ€™s not that [empathic] teachers just stop disciplining students. When they discipline, they ask the student why he or she is misbehaving and try to address the misbehaving in a way that addresses the behavior instead of the identity of the child.â€
The really hopeful news is that a little empathy and respect go a long way. Okonofua says in the article, â€œThe most interesting and inspiring part is that we only intervened with one of the studentsâ€™ teachers, and it affected their interactions with every other teacher. Just having one better relationship with a teacher at schoolâ€”just oneâ€”can serve as a buffer for all the other struggles and challenges at school.â€
For more about this important issue, go to Education Week.