This article is a follow-up to what I had written and was published in last The Sunday Gleaner of November 24, 2013, 'Values, standards and education'. We cannot deny the reality of our Jamaican classrooms that see many students coming in with many deficiencies because of their economic and social backgrounds. Yet we cannot give up. We must find solutions that can help.
In our society, where dysfunctional parenting seems to be the norm, it is the school that has found itself with the responsibility of giving our students hope. Studies have shown the importance of the first five years of a child's life in developing their brain.
According to Eric Jensen, in Teaching with Poverty in Mind: "Chronic exposure to poverty causes the brain to physically change in a detrimental manner." This statement, if it stands by itself, will support the hopelessness some teachers feel in the classroom. However, it does not end there.
Jensen maintains, based on research, that: "Because the brain is designed to adapt to experience, it can also change for the better. In other words, poor children can experience emotional, social, and academic success."
What then are some of the ways we can give our students positive experiences that will help them to succeed against the odds? I will put forward one main point in this article: That we should make school a safe place - physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
In order to make our schools safe physically, we must have perimeter fencing enclosing the schools. This is to ensure that we keep persons within the school grounds safe from those in the community who would want access to the school to do our students and staff harm or to damage the compound.
Many students come from areas where they do not feel physically safe. It is important that they feel that school is a bastion of safety from the physical threats they face in their communities.
We must ensure that students do not take weapons to school. This means that where we have reason to believe that this is happening, students must be searched for weapons using the Ministry of Education's Security and Safety Guidelines which give the principal and designate permission to search where a threat is perceived.
USE METAL DETECTORS
Furthermore, where it is deemed necessary, we need to employ the use of metal detectors to deter those whose thinking has not yet been transformed to a peaceful mindset. In addition, where it can be obtained, security cameras need to be put into our schools to give close supervision to students' behaviour.
School should also be safe emotionally. The classroom needs to be a safe place for the students, so they can learn by expressing themselves, make mistakes, and learn from said mistakes.
Nan Henderson, in an article, 'Havens of resilience', in Educational Leadership, September 2013, speaks to the importance of schools helping students to develop resilience in order to overcome the challenges of poverty and abuse. She articulates that "a student's resilience is fostered when his or her internal and environmental protective factors are strengthened".
Henderson points out: "All caring adults in a school are potential agents of protective factors. First, they can notice and reinforce students' internal protective factors - such as easy temperament, good reasoning skills, self-esteem, and internal locus of control."
In addition, teachers can help students to recognise and grow these traits by "engaging students in conversations and other interactions".
Second, educators can "create classroom and school cultures that are infused with environmental protective factors (such as) regular structures, routines, civility, and caring".
We know, as Ms Henderson acknowledges, that teachers cannot "eradicate poverty, remove neighbourhood gangs, stop cultural violence, heal parental addictions, or prevent the myriad of other types of stress, risk, and trauma that many students face daily". Yet, many times, it is a teacher who makes a difference in the lives of children and makes school a safe place for them.
Children who are brought up feeling emotionally safe at home are not the ones who challenge us in the classrooms. It is those students who come from places where they experience neglect and abuse that usually present defiant and disrespectful behaviour. These students are the ones who need us to reach out to them.
Allison Warshof and Nancy Rappaport, in 'Staying connected with troubled students', in Educational Leadership, September 2013, advise teachers to build relationships with such students. Building relationships begins with "empathetic listening - the ability to tune in to what the other person is actually saying, instead of what we want to hear".
They continue by explaining that "empathetic listening can be developed and practised. It starts with being attuned - being aware of the changing needs, feelings, and states of another person, and shifting our response accordingly. Teachers who are empathetic listeners consider the students' point of view without neglecting their own."
One attitude that is very important to Jamaicans, more so to students, is respect. Teachers have to be careful to not only demand respect of our students, but to give them respect. One of the most significant ways that we as teachers can do this is to listen to our students. Let them give their point of view.
Many students complain that teachers do not listen to them; they do not allow them to give their side of the story. To gain our students' confidence and respect, we must listen to their stories. Even when we are upset with them, listen to their stories. This is one way in which we can make our classes a safe place emotionally for our students.
How do we make school a safe place for our students, mentally?
As teachers, we need to carefully diagnose our students' strengths and weaknesses and deliberately design strategies to address these. It means we must differentiate our teaching. This is a lot of work, but it will be more beneficial in the long run to both the teacher and the student.
Do not expect a student who is weak in a skill that is needed to deal with a topic to perform optimally. When such a student is called upon to respond, and feels hopeless, the student becomes embarrassed in front of his or her peers. Embarrassment leads to a feeling of being disrespected, and then the student begins to act out to maintain power and status.
If we use groupings and individual coaching to assist our students, we can help them to develop at a pace that will encourage them and infuse them with a sense of hope that they can learn.
I can hear the teachers complaining about class sizes and the lack of space for grouping, but our creativity will assist us in finding ways to make it happen. In addition, it is important that we inform our students of what we will be teaching ahead of time, set standards for them, and give them ready feedback.
The more predictable our classrooms are, the safer the students will feel. They will make an effort to learn and not be embarrassed because they make mistakes, since it is through trying they realise that they can learn.
Last, we must not forget that we must provide spiritual guidance for our students. We still have the freedom to express our faith and beliefs and to encourage our students to develop their own. Ensure that students participate in meaningful devotions at school.
Infuse your classes with the teaching of soft skills and life lessons that will help students to develop. Remember, many of our defiant and challenging students are hurting and confused and need to be shown a clear path and to be guided in making wise choices. Many homes are not providing this; it is up to us, as teachers, to do so.
This is by no means the only solution to our problems of defiance, violence and disrespect in the Jamaican classroom, but it is a beginning. In spite of our lack of resources, difficult personal issues, and sense of inadequacy, let us, teachers, rethink the way we approach our students. Let us understand the powerful impact that the power of one can have on even one student. Let us start the ripple effect.
Esther Tyson is an educator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.