Let’s face it; every school has its fair share of at-risk youth and challenges whether it’s disengaged students, bullying, drugs or a number of other issues. Instead of simply punishing these students, Steve Edwards has a solution in his book, co-authored by Paul Chapman, “Six Pillars of Dynamic Schools.”
The first step in solving any problem is positive communication, which leads to building effective relationships and trust. In Steve’s book, the example given is of a new school principal who would come to school every morning to find new graffiti on the walls. At first, it was a war of wills in which every time graffiti was drawn, she would have maintenance paint over it. But one morning after identifying one of the culprits, she invited him into her office, asked how his classes were going and offered him some juice.
The principal complemented him on his artistic talent, and offered up a plan; she felt that she needed to develop a theme of artwork that flowed throughout the building, rather than random drawings. For a project of this magnitude, they needed help from more artists. The next day, the rest of the graffiti artists had been informed of the plan by the student and agreed to help. Most of the members of the group were disengaged from school and were in an adversarial role with administration and teachers, but by coming to this first meeting, they were forging new ground that set the stage for unlimited possibilities.
The group was divided up into three teams: one to design murals, another to paint them, and the third to maintain and refurbish them. Paint was donated from a local hardware store, and the principal maintained her position by requiring that she approve all final mural designs and that the only colors that were to be used would be the school’s colors.
At the big reveal, student groups became involved. The jazz band featured live music, student council members gave tours, and the school’s culinary program provided refreshments. The principal provided the artists with plaques for their positive contributions to school and society. Because of this project, the students and the school received print and television coverage as well as desperately needed positive recognition. For the first time, youth began to trust adults, and adults and students began to work together for the betterment of the school. Every four years, the project begins anew for the next generation of artists, which helps to renew the school climate and culture.
This principal’s way of handling the situation may not work in other conditions. What if the school is starting to see gang involvement? In some circumstances it might be necessary to involve parents or law enforcement, but it is still important to treat students with respect.
To enhance communication and relationship-building skills, we must first recognize the value of committing time and energy in this area. A teacher who recognizes the importance of this welcomes their students on the first day of class, learns their names, and gather information about them thus demonstrating that the teacher is committed not only to the students’ academic needs but also to their social and emotional needs. Without establishing positive relationships with our students, we will merely be the delivery system for curriculum.
The graffiti artists at the urban school were receiving negative attention, but once the new principal engaged the students, she was able to transform the situation into one where they received positive recognition. Efforts like this helps students feel a personal connection to their school and to at least one adult, which can completely shift the culture and climate of the school, especially when more groups and students become involved.
By, Stephanie Elko
Edwards Ed Consultant