Non-Profit Aims to Improve Learning With Positive Classroom Cultures

Brandee Brandt, a San Antonio, TX English language arts teacher at Luna Middle School, is finding it easier to reach students over the past two years than at any other point in her 15-year career.

According to Brandt, non-profit professional development foundation Great Expectations’ methodology has helped her create a productive environment in her technologically-integrated classroom.

“The teacher-training model motivates, inspires and challenges individuals to achieve excellence in learning and living. Guided by six basic tenets and 17 classroom practices, Great Expectations emphasizes educators create an environment that is non-threatening and conducive to risk-taking, critical thinking skills are taught, and discipline with dignity and logic are evident,” said Brandt.

As K-12 classrooms continue to evolve into tech-driven places for learning, Great Expectations sees social environment as the most crucial component to learning success, and that seems to be at the heart of what they’re about.

Brandt noted that creating a “culture of respect and academic excellence” while encouraging student cooperation and collaboration is key to providing the best atmosphere for 21st century learning in her experience.

Kristin Falcon, an Assistant Principal at Anderson Elementary in the Spring Independent School District, 20 minutes outside of Houston, TX,  trained in Great Expectations at McNabb Elementary, and followed up by working at Northgate Crossing Elementary, which has used Great Expectations for 5 years. There she became a Great Expectations instructor.

“In my role as assistant principal, I often rely on the ideas behind the Great Expectations discipline philosophy when I deal with  students, but I don’t use terminology specific to Great Expectations,” said Falcon.

“When I become a principal with my own campus, I definitely hope to be able to have my staff trained in Great Expectations. It really creates a sense of community when student expectations are consistent campus-wide, and the same vocabulary is used in all settings.”

Flacon noted that if one were to look at each of Great Expectations’ 17 Classroom Practices individually, most of them are simply recommended teaching strategies based on research and used in other teaching models. Others, such as the forms of courtesy such as Practice #2, which requires students to speak in complete sentences and address each other by name, and Practice #13, which has students recite and reflect upon a class creed daily, are specific to Great Expectations.

Anderson Elementary doesn’t use Great Expectations school-wide, meaning that there are points of struggle as she implements and adapts what she’s learned with her classes and fellow teachers.

“The biggest ‘struggle’ that I have observed with implementing Great Expectations was one that I had myself after being trained for the first time. Great Expectations’s discipline philosophy calls for educators to deal with each discipline issue on an individual basis and use it as a learning opportunity. This means that using conduct charts, or any discipline system where prescribed consequences are assigned to students [such as] first offense equals missed recess; second offense equals phone call home, etcetera, is not recommended,” said Falcon.

“For teachers who have been in education for a while, this shift in the way we view and handle discipline issues can be challenging. It is much “easier” to just rely on a conduct chart or system to do the work for us rather than to actually deal with an issue and help a student learn to change their behavior. However, with practice this does get easier. Once you see a student truly beginning to change because he wants to, not because he [or she] is trying to avoid a consequence, it all begins to make sense and the extra work doesn’t seem so difficult any more.”

She recalled a time from this year where she relied on Great Expectations’ discipline philosophy to guide her decisions in dealing with a kindergarten student that was sent to her after using a marker to write on the wall and toilet seat in one of the bathrooms.

“He initially denied it, but it was easy to prove. He’d written his name on his work. Gotta love kindergarteners,” said Falcon.

“Anyway, after talking with the student about what he did, I asked him what he thought we should do to ‘fix’ this problem. He immediately answered ‘Take away my recess.’ When I asked him how that was going to fix the mess in the bathroom, he looked at me with a confused look. I ended up walking him down to the custodian’s office, where we borrowed some cleaning supplies – towels, spray cleaner, gloves, and safety goggles – and I walked him to the restroom where he had to clean up the mess he’d made.”

The graffiti took him a while to scrub off, but the student eventually cleaned off all of the marks her had made.

“At one point he even asked me if he could just miss recess instead of doing this. When we finished, I walked him back to the custodian’s office to return the supplies and we talked about how hard his job must be cleaning up messes like that every day. The student asked me if he should apologize to the custodian and I told him it was up to him. What he ended up saying to the custodian melted my heart: ‘I’m sorry kids make messes and you have to clean them up. I’m not going to let anyone do that anymore.’  He had gone from being upset about getting in trouble, to truly feeling responsible for helping our custodian. To me, lessons like these are much more important than making sure students are punished for every infraction.”

Brandt had similar success in a situation of prolonged misbehavior from a student seeking extra attention for his antics. She cited that his low self-esteem caused him to go into full blown disruptive states, causing the class to give him the negative attention he sought.

“After two months of positive reinforcement, praise and appreciation, and acknowledgment of potential achievements, his demeanor changed. A child once withdrawn became eager to share in class.”

His attendance is now in the 90th percentile, she reported, where before he had issues with high rates of absence. His grades improved from near-failing to the A-B range.

“All [of my students] benefit from this opportunity. Walking into my room, each student is greeted by name, establishing a culture of mutual respect and creating an environment where students know they are valued as unique and special individuals,” said Brandt.

“Each class begins as we recite the word and quote of the week – reminding students the importance of positive daily routines. One of the most effective classroom strategies is having students engaged and motivated. To do this I use ‘love and logic’, where reminding students of choice and logical consequences makes them process their actions.”

One of the class’ favorite quotes to recite is “Excellence is never an accident.” Brandt said that they truly believe it when they say it, and with that belief her expectations of students can increase over time. A supportive classroom atmosphere is also cultivated through students providing peer encouragement routinely.

“As a teacher practicing this methodology, I witness a non-threatening environment that is conducive to risk taking. My students practice critical thinking skills using enriched vocabulary while assuming responsibility for their own behavior,” said Brandt.

“Changing the classroom atmosphere is imperative for student success and teacher longevity. Once campuses embrace the philosophy, students will receive the accolades they deserve while teachers experience the joy of making student connections.”

Attending a GE summer institute costs $600 per participant, which Falcon acknowledged was a little steep when training a whole school staff or district, but noted that its competitiveness versus other weeklong teacher training institutes.

Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor
Education World®

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