Vermonters for Better Education
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In the quite literal wake of the Littleton, Colorado, tragedy, we can expect government at all levels to throw money at the problem of school violence. That's the American way, and perhaps some good will come out of it. In that rush of green, though, the politicians, academics, and bureaucrats are almost certain to overlook, perhaps because they aren't glamorous and don't cost anything, some very small things that can make a very large difference in our schools' efforts to change the climate of alienation and indifference that produces violence. Here are a few:
Teach the kids how to be civil to each other. Many, many, many of our high school kids don't know how to talk to each other. They have grown up in homes where conversation is notable for its absence, where everybody eats standing at the refrigerator door or watching television, and where the dialogue of sitcoms, murder dramas, daytime talk shows, and commercials is the standard for interpersonal communications. As a result, they talk to each other in an unending stream of profanities, obscenities, and threats. They literally assault each other with their language. Schools should teach kids civility, manners, courtesy, and the advantages that flow from such civilized behavior.
And having taught the kids how to be civil, every adult member of the school's staff - administrators, teachers, aides, secretaries, custodians - should demand from the students and each other civil behavior on every occasion. That means confronting and correcting uncivilized behavior, wherever it happens and every time it happens, no matter how distasteful such confrontations are to the faint-hearted. The moral death knell of a school is the final product of a timorous hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil faculty/staff syndrome.
Establish a daily assembly which all students and faculty are obliged to attend. Although common in independent schools, such assemblies are almost unheard of in public schools. The closest they come is an announcement period over the public address system. That's a pity. A ritual beginning each day with everybody in the enterprise in the same room is probably the single most effective way to build a sense of belonging, a feeling of community, among both teachers and students. It is a time not just for announcements, but for congratulations and commiserations, for celebrations of individual and group achievements, for conferring honors, for defining and promoting community projects, even for happy birthdays. It is, quite simply, a daily occasion for belonging to each other.
Eat with the kids. In most schools, the last place you would find a teacher not assigned to lunch duty is in the cafeteria. Teachers don't like to go there because the language they hear is offensive to their ears, the noise is unbearable, and nobody likes to get caught in the middle of a food fight, all such things, of course, that wouldn't happen if the teachers ate with the kids. Much more important, though, such self-imposed separations from kids tell the kids straight on that the teachers don't want to be with them, that the community of the school has at least two parts and locations, the teachers in the faculty room and the kids somewhere else, but not with them.
Train the whole faculty and administration in mediation and conflict resolution skills. Then train the students, too. Promote an atmosphere that truly values verbal communication rather than threats and assaults as the avenue to resolution.
Establish a dress code. Not a dress code that tells the kids what they must wear, but what they can't wear. No dirty, torn, or ragged clothes. No multi-colored hair. No clothes with writing on them. No outlandish logos. Shirts with collars. Neatly cut hair. No gang or club emblems or styles. No deliberately clashing colors or styles. Critics of dress codes almost invariably claim that it isn't what you wear that counts, but what you are inside. That's simply not so, and our language proves it. The words "costume" and "custom" have the same root and mean what you wear and how you act, respectively. They come together in the word "habit," which means both what you wear and how you behave. Ditto "decorate" and "decorum." How you decorate yourself and how you behave are the same thing. To establish a dress code is explicitly to provide limits on appearance and behavior, limits that provide the necessary boundaries that adolescents and teenagers need to help define what is appropriate. A number of other critics assert that a dress code stifles kids' individuality. To that I say Amen! The last thing that most teenagers need is more confusion about who they are. They need limits, not license.
Celebrate the kids' work. Put up their art and their good papers everywhere there is empty wall space in classrooms and in halls, and change the displays frequently. Take pictures of kids doing school things - playing in games, acting in plays, explaining things in clubs, eating, standing around talking, dancing, listening to other kids' bands - and display the pictures all over the place, frequently changing these, too.
There are dozens of other small ways to do things right that can transform our schools. Moral transformation will come from within, not from without. All of the money in the world and all of the think-tanks in the ivy leagues can't make it happen until the people who live in the schools, the students and the teachers, want it to happen and efficaciously set about to make it happen. The kids will follow the adults' lead if the adults choose to lead.
Bernier L. Mayo
June 13, 1999