Shut Up and Know Your Place! Part 2 (5 Strageties for Building Respect with Teens)


In our last post “Shut Up and Know Your Place” we argued that students need to learn more than obedience and authority if they are to compete globally in the future.  Unfortunately many teacher and student interactions are built around roles that make teachers the enforcers of rules, the students the receivers of discipline, and schools instruments of coercion.

When we subconsciously buy into these roles, we often create unnecessary stress for both teachers and students, we create conflict where it does not need to exist, and we waste valuable time and energy dealing with issues unrelated to teaching and learning. Because the roles were so clearly modeled for us, we quite naturally re-enact them with the subtle belief that this relationship is natural, traditional, and inevitable.

So what can we do to break the cycle?  Can we as teachers intentionally detach from our conventional enforcer roles and foster mutual respect that will improve not only student learning but overall school climate?  We believe the answer is yes.  Below are 5 strategies teachers (and other adults working with teens) can adopt to help students learn responsible individualism rather than compliance and obedience.

1.  Get Real: Adults should not let their role as a teacher prevent them from being authentic in front of their students.  It is ok to admit that we do not have all the answers, that we make mistakes, have flaws and insecurities.  Teachers who let students know they are human, build empathy and make it more likely respect will flow. Students have consistently reported this to us for the last fifteen years.  Building emotional buy-in within highly emotional adolescents shows no lack of professionalism but instead cements authentic humanity.  Kids care about the important people in their lives and this is one way to begin building importance on their level.

2.  Assume the best: Begin every teen relationship with the assumption that he or she is a good person.  No matter how shocking the hairdo, or how many tattoos and piercings, or how wild the fashion statement, this is not a wild animal and does not need to be controlled like one.  Until proven wrong, we must assume teens are good human beings, prone to mistakes like everyone else, but with the good intentions of self improvement and wanting to live a positive life.  At first disregard their attempts to shock you with their overpowering need to establish an identity.  If the hair, tattoos, piercings, or life-style choices need to be addressed, wait until a level of authenticity affords you the student’s trust. Reacting right away and serving as the guardian of society’s norms only discounts your message because you become the stereo-typical adult enforcer.  Many students carve out their identity by rejecting and revolting and they expect us to play our part. If we refuse to reject and revolt and instead engage, there is a very good chance the teacher will have credibility enough to deliver the necessary message.

3.  You must give to receive: Adults must first extend respect to teens if they hope to get it in return.  Do not patronize or talk down to adolescents.  Talk to them in tones and terms you would use with your adult friends. Teenagers are searching for hypocrisy and one of the fastest ways to prove them right, is through authoritarian disrespect. For example a teacher who demands all students respect the them while only reciprocating respect to students whom they prefer, will be quickly identified as a hypocrite.  Think of the difference between courtesy and respect as a guide. Two people who have never met normally extend courtesy and politeness. With time courtesy can develop into respect just as an acquaintance can become a friendship. When adults demand respect from teens, the one-way street immediately feels authoritarian. Extend and expect courtesy first and with time extend and demand respect. Twenty years ago, a teen explained to a room full of teachers that students were more willing to learn in a class, “where the teacher teaches with respect – not authority.” Those words have resonated ever since. Respect takes time but authority is conferred immediately. It is easy to see how one is favored over the other. It is easy to see why one succeeds longer than the other and with greater results.

4.  Take a different perspective: Label some teen behaviors as innovation rather than rebellion.  Students will need to be able to think outside the box to compete in an ever changing adult world.  Our families and society have subtly but forcefully told teens they are unique, special, and must stand up for themselves.  So when they express their uniqueness, no matter how against convention it might seem, look at it as a positive sign they are creative and becoming an individual. Tell them you understand and appreciate their need to define themselves.  Acknowledge how difficult it is to be a teenager, and how many traps there are to fall into.  Acknowledge their innovations and attempts. “Did you draw that on your backpack? That takes some serious talent. I’m impressed.”  Small comments offer an olive branch and implicitly tell the teen you’re not against him/her. That matters a great deal in the same way a compliment from someone you’d like to know makes adults feel good, too.

5.  Get interested in what they are interested in: Ask for a copy of the music they are passionate about.  Ask if their artwork is for sale.  Ask their opinion about which movie you should see this weekend.  “Would my 6 year old also like it?” Validate their opinion and reinforce honesty and authentic conversation.  When teens feel like teachers like them and are interested in their lives mutual respect is an inevitable result.  A quick search on the internet of their interests provides you volumes of information unavailable a generation ago.  Names, places, movements, music, and styles provide you valuable information for future interactions. Chances are you know something about the roots of their interests or something about the city or subculture of origin.  Your experience and education provide possible connections with articles, artwork, novels, problems, and social issues that may relate. Expanding on their passions always establishes credibility of the adult messenger.  Small chunks of time spent with a student or small group is rare in their high school experience and means more than they’ll likely tell you.

“These ideas all make sense and I’d love to be able to engage kids. But I have 36 kids in my class and I teach six periods. I don’t have time for this!”   This difficult reality is a reason but not an excuse. Teens are only in this place for a few impressionable years and when they hear the reality of your situation it only confirms that they are simply numbers – not people.  Academically we need to take every student seriously.  We must also take them seriously as people.

Be strategic. All teachers can identify the five students who move the class positively or negatively. By engaging one or two you influence the mindset of eight or ten. When that is done often enough there is a social tipping point which falls in your favor. Tip the balance toward respect by getting real, assuming the best, giving courtesy and respect, taking a different perspective, and getting interested in what interests them.  Soon, you’ll have a class that is learning out of respect for the teacher who will hardly ever need to use authority.  Time well spent.

Shut-up and know your place! (Responsible Individualism starts with Respect)



“Shouldn’t teenagers just shut-up and know their place? Don’t they just need to learn how to respect authority?” asked a concerned member of my family. The question was meant to carve out a case for society standing its ground while teens learned obedience, submission, and respect for authority.  These are all things teens have resisted for many successive generations. Teens often see it as the ultimate disrespect for their heightened state of awareness. “They think they know everything!”

Putting aside content and skills for now, let’s examine the impact of this divide on the social order of our schools and nation.

Generally, social order from the top down frees the leaders’ energy to achieve greater levels of efficiency and productivity in any group dynamic. Cutting loose the workers who refuse to submit teaches valuable and authentic lessons about real world survival. Doing what you’re told – and doing it well – is highly prized in most nations and by many people here in the United States. It goes without saying that organizations with single points of focus, like the military, vitally need a powerful sense of command and control. “Shut up and know your place works in that environment.  Education is not such an institution.

Students today are vaguely aware that experts believe the jobs from which they will retire have not yet been created. They clearly understand our country is in the midst of the greatest period of technological innovation in our history. Most young people are riding the leading edge of that change as consumers. They get it because they’ve been marketed more often than any other demographic with a message of entitlement.

Our families and society have subtly but forcefully told teens they are unique, special, and must stand up for themselves. These messages have been revealed in thousands of parent conferences and on public service commercials all the way back to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” campaigns. We’ve repeatedly told our children their lives are too valuable to waste.

We have also repeatedly encouraged students to pursue their own interests and to own the educational process. In a nation dedicated to the ideas of private property and enterprise we have ingrained in our students the belief that with ownership come depth of understanding and self-responsibility. Being self-responsible is one of the greatest attributes our future citizens could possess in a competitive free market democratic republic.

In one ear teens hear the value and importance of Self Advocacy.  In the other the directive to submit to the authority of the world of adults who clearly know better.

The health of our republic has rested upon the great ideas of individuals and the energy, common wisdom, and sacrifice of the masses. It is the consent of citizens that enables government to organize us for protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of personal happiness. In order to make informed choices our nation’s leaders have long favored a broad liberal arts education that offered an understanding of both Mother Nature and Father Culture. A working knowledge of the country and world was meant to help us understand change as it unfolds so we can help ourselves and our community.

School is somehow meant to accomplish all of this, and every child in America MUST attend – no small task. Each family wants something slightly different for their children and each child wants something slightly different than peers. If they are all encouraged to see the world differently, feel differently, and aspire differently, then a single model of participation is not only difficult to achieve but actually contrary to the mission. If our society and our families continue to encourage individuality and personal ownership of physical and intellectual property, then we must teach responsible individualism. Students must have a safe place to practice self-responsibility and ownership of their education but that means they must be nurtured as individuals rather than demographics.

I would not argue for authority and obedience to be the organizing method of this important and massive institution. Students must know more than authority and obedience to compete globally. Neither will stimulate innovation and neither truly teaches “your place”. Both offer productivity and efficiency but not ownership and certainly not enlightenment. Both are easier to organize and both tamp down misbehavior and that’s helpful. However, after graduation day, when authority is formally released, our young children must know how to survive in a changing future we cannot predict. Increasingly they will have to think for themselves.  They must continue to ride the leading edge of innovation and change or we will all be swept underneath.

To insure the great ideas of individuals and the energy, common wisdom, and sacrifice of the masses young people must be self-responsible and have ownership in our national experience. For the sake of their successful survival and for our future I would argue a different value – one clearly missing in our national politics and missing amongst large segments of our teen and adult population – responsible individualism. That starts with respect. After all, practice makes perfect.

From Adversaries to Allies. (5 Strategies for Meeting Teens on the Edge)


Last week, in The Great Rift Part 3, we argued that high schools do not need to resort to carrots to pull or punishments to push students in positive directions.  When students and teachers break down the traditional adversarial roles, and build relationships as allies working towards common goals, everyone wins.

So how can this be done?  How can the average teacher move away from the “Learn or I’ll hurt you” threats of failing scores, summer classes, and bleak futures, to motivate students to perform? This blog will illustrate 5 simple strategies teachers and schools can implement right away to begin building new and positive relationships with their students.

5 Strategies for meeting teens on the edge:

1.   Be Transparent. Explicitly tell students, “These are the 25 things you will need to know and the 15 skills you must demonstrate on the next exam.  If you know and can do all of them, you will ace the test.”

Often students feel their teachers are out to trick them.  They are not clear on exactly what they are expected to know or be able to do.  This creates the impression that the teacher is not on their side.

To be transparent teachers must resist the urge to sort, select, and differentiate between students.  If every student learns everything they were asked to learn, the teacher must have the courage to give everyone of them an A.  This is not grade inflation.  This is learning inflation!

When a student fails to earn that ‘A’ it is not because the teacher tricked them or did not tell them what they needed to learn.  The responsibility is theirs.  Before the test students can identify what they do not know and still need to learn and can ask the teacher or other students for help.  When students have ownership of their results and will not blame the teacher or the system.

2.   Communicate Desire to Help.  Teachers must communicate repeatedly that their goal is to help students succeed from the first day of school.

Teachers should spend time expressing their desire that each of their students learn everything they need to know and that every student earns an ‘A’.  The mark of an effective teacher is how much their students learn and retain, not how many ‘C’s or failing grades they give proving their class is difficult.  Low scores are not proof of rigor, but of a breakdown in teaching and learning.

This strategy goes hand in hand with strategy #1.  Teachers must communicate, “Here is what you need to learn, and my job and desire is to help you learn these things!”

When students feel the teacher genuinely wants them to learn, they tend to work harder and will be more likely to ask for help when they need it.

3.   Change the Teacher Role from “Authority” to “Advisor” High school teachers must treat students as adults and as intellectuals with a valuable voice.

Young children need to be told what to do.  They are not ready to make wise choices for themselves and most of the time do not resent having their lives managed without much explanation.

Teens are different. They at least THINK they’re ready to make decisions on their own and we have to positively coach their desire for independence. When they fall down, we pick them back up and ask them what’s been learned.

Teens have developed the ability to think critically and need to express their independence as thinkers and as people.  They will resist and resent being told what to do without explanation.  They will make their own choices whether adults like those choices or not.

The best thing teachers and adults can do with teens, is become trusted advisors who recognize their students have choices.  Teachers can recommend students study, ask for help, come in for a review session, or a number of other behaviors outside of the classroom, but they cannot control their decisions.  When a student understands that he or she is responsible for their decisions, they must take responsibility for the consequences.

The teacher told them everything they needed to know, (Transparency) expressed a desire for them to succeed, (Communicate Desire to Help) made themselves available for help and suggested a course of action.  If students fail to do these things and fail, they will not resent the teacher, and will learn via natural consequences.

4.   Help Students Set Goals. Give students an active voice in their learning by allowing them to set and share realistic goals.

Teachers are already being transparent, they have expressed their desire for their students to succeed, and are playing the role of advisor rather than authority by giving students ownership of their educations and behaviors.  They are ready for strategy #4.

Students know the teachers want them to succeed, but success is different for every student.  A student who struggles in math to get passing grades might set their sights on a B or even a C.  The teacher can then help them get there.  Many schools already use an individual learning plan (ILP – developed from the IEP in special education) to great success. This stimulates reflection and personal ownership. It also serves as a conversation starter throughout the year.

Together students and teachers can identify strategies to accomplish their goals like setting aside a certain amount of time for homework, advocating for help when needed, or asking for extra time, practice or even a redo.

When students reach their goals this is cause for a celebration (at minimum a high 5) and perhaps it is time to set new goals!

5.  Get to Know Students as People: This is a huge part of meeting teens on the EDGE.  Teachers should take the time to learn at least one unique thing about every student.

The message is,  “I understand that you are a complete person who exists outside of my classroom.”  Students need to feel valued and appreciated for who they are as people.

When a teacher takes the time (often 15 seconds) to ask a student how their softball game went last night, or to compliment them on their latest column in the school paper, or to ask what video game they are currently playing, or to burn a CD of the music they are listening to in their iPod, the student feels valued as a person beyond just a student. When the adult reaches out, the student is invited to reach back.

When this happens they are more likely to believe a teacher is sincere in their desire for student success, and it also enhanced their credibility as an adviser.

Each of the above 5 strategies are powerful on their own, but together can combine to make an incredible difference in how students and teachers relate and the results earned.
There are many more strategies for meeting teens on the EDGE and working as allies.  In future blogs we will illustrate additional and related strategies teachers and schools can use to work along side students as allies rather than adversaries.

The Great Rift Part 3: Common Ground


In Part 1 of this series, “The Hypocritical Carrot”, we looked at standardized testing from a student perspective.  Students often feel that the tests are a waste of time and that their teachers and schools’ motivational efforts seem artificial and hypocritical. Student voice is mostly silent and passive but they certainly have opinions nonetheless.

In Part 2, “Learn or I’ll Hurt You” we discussed how standardized testing has turned the tables on teachers. The “learn or I’ll hurt you” model used by generations of teachers to force student learning, is now being used to motivate teachers and schools to improve their outcomes.

Hypocritical carrots attempt to pull improvement forward while threats of punishments attempt to push it.  Neither is authentic when not linked to an individual student’s personal development.

Is there a way to avoid the need for both carrot style incentives and “Learn or I’ll hurt you” punishments?  We believe that politicians, school districts, administrators, teachers, parents, and students share more common ground than they realize.  At the end of the day we all want the same thing.  When a students graduate, politicians want them to be well-prepared productive contributors to society and the economy.  Parents want their graduates prepared to be successful in their continuing educations, careers, families, friendships, and passions.  Districts and schools want their graduates to be ready to compete in all these areas with graduates from other schools around the nation.  And the students?  They want all of the above!

This is powerful common ground but it is rarely expressed explicitly, or used as a guiding principle to align teenage students with the adults and institutions working on their behalf.

Two major pieces of the puzzle are missing to get all parties on the same page.  The first piece is communication.  When my colleagues and I explained the modern context of STAR tests (See Part 1:  Hypocritical Carrot) not one student remarked that they had heard this news before – it was totally new! (Or at least they understood it for the first time.) Students and their teachers are not having enough genuine conversations about the importance of testing.  Distrust and fear exist on both sides. It was clear students did not feel like they were a positive part of this equation.

Teachers and students must engage in an authentic dialogue about what testing is, what it is designed to do, and how it is in the best interest of not only their individual educations, but also the future of our educational system.  The conversations and communications need to stretch well beyond testing so an organic sense of trust exists in several arenas.

The second missing piece is a change in the way we think about education both in individual classrooms, and as a country.  We have to resist the urge to motivate through punishment and move away from the “learn or I’ll hurt you model” towards an “I’ll help you learn, grow, and succeed” model.

Former Education Undersecretary to President Bush, Dianne Ravich says it well when she states that we need to change the rhetoric about education, “Instead of speaking about punishing, firing, failing, and closing, speak instead about improving, supporting, developing, encouraging, and inspiring.”

If students and teachers can establish a relationship as allies rather than adversaries, everything changes.  When students understand and feel that their school and their teachers genuinely want them to be successful, they will be more likely to ask for help when they need it, and work much harder to reach their potential. Teenagers will work and put forth effort if it benefits them directly, or if it benefits someone who has aided them personally.  We must move away from indirect benefits and impersonal relationships which at best engender apathy.

Imagine students, teachers, principals, and schools working together as allies all year long.  Imagine honest and open communication that flows not only from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher.  Imagine a school full of students who believe their teachers and their school are on their side.

The benefits reaped on all sides are innumerable and powerful.  When it comes to standardized testing, there will be no need for bribing or begging with hypocritical carrots.  Students will want to give back to a school they believe believes in them. Test scores go up. Threats of punishment disappear.  Everyone wins.

“OK Tim and Todd.  This all sounds great in an imaginary utopia, but would this work in reality?  Give me specifics.  How can this be done?”  It takes time and a focused mission but we’ve experienced something very close to this vision – it can happen.

In our next blog we will outline 5 specific strategies for meeting teens on the edge, intentionally building relationships that put teachers and students on the same side as allies, and closing the Great Rift.

The Great Rift Part 2: Learn or I’ll Hurt You (Teacher Perspective)


“So little is said about improving public schools and so much about how to close schools, how to punish teachers.” – Diane Ravitch – former Assistant Secretary of Education –

The “Learn or I’ll hurt you” model of education, first described by Roland Barth, (Founding director of the Harvard Principals’ center) has been working well for generations.  When students do not demonstrate intrinsic motivation to learn a concept, master a skill, or complete a task, teachers and schools use extrinsic incentives to motivate instead. Continue reading

The Great Rift Part 1: The Hypocritical Carrot (Student Perspective)


“The whole testing thing was useless,” said one senior girl.

“How many of you feel the same way now that testing is over? I asked.  Raise your hands if you felt like these tests didn’t measure what you’ve learned this year?”  Every one of more than seventy students raised a hand. What had been a casual question sparked a powder keg of student opinions. Continue reading

Big Lesson in a Single Sentence


Sometimes a single comment changes everything.  Sometimes a single sentence has more impact that an entire book of words, concepts, and teachings.  Several years ago Todd Lile aimed a single sentence in my direction, and changed the way I taught and viewed education from that day forward.  I don’t believe I was doing a bad job before I heard this sentence, but I think that after I heard it, I became more effective as a teacher, and as a coach.  What was the sentence?  I will get to that in a minute, but first let me tell you how I went about doing things before hearing these 32 words.   Continue reading