THE 21st Century Classroom: THE NEW FOUR Rs (Subtitled: Where Have All The Hippies Gone?)

Within the 21st Century, every institution is experiencing a shift within it’s framework:  Change is EVERYWHERE. Often, it’s messy, not a pretty picture, and it’s not always easy. Though change is natural to the intentional order of life, however, it’s not always welcome within the human condition.  Some of us embrace change for it seems so “normal”.  On the other hand, for most people, especially teachers, educators, and schools and its underlying culture, change is not familiar, nor comfortable, .  Most often, the “Why reinvent the wheel” mentality plays a major role within the school system and a majority of it’s members are simply comfortable with status quo.  But then again, there is a reason for this:

When I started teaching in 1980, as I saw it, there were two sides to the education coin: On one side, there were a number of educators who were simply guiding young people toward enculturation, socialization, and skill building; working with the basic “norms” and standards of that day.  And that’s where I first heard the term, “Why rock the boat?”.  On the flip side, I worked with a smaller number of teachers, who may have easily been described as “hippies” / counter-cultural, whose purpose was to turn the boat in a much different direction.  My Student Teaching Master Teachers were working from this side of the system.   As a result, I tended to gravitate toward the second group of teachers.   And ever since, I have been somewhat known as a sh*t stirrer; always thinking outside of the box.

The comment about “hippies” and non-conformists is important: As we move deep into a new transitional period, transforming socially, our education teaching force looks radically different than it did back in the hey-day of the 70’s; for there are very few non-conformists and outside the box educators working within today’s schools.  In fact, many of these people end up quitting within the first five years of their developing career.  Check it out for yourself: Look at reasons why teachers leave in droves by their fifth year.  [].  As a result, many of today’s teacher’s, conformists by nature, have settled on a system which constantly changes it’s focus, but rarely sees fundamental changes at the core.  For example, over the last 39 years, I have seen more assessments, tests, curriculum changes, reading philosophies, math philosophies, social initiatives introduced year after year, with few of these actually implemented with fidelity, consistency, and sustainability; it’s as if the public school teacher has been on a never-ending treadmill featuring one new fad after another and going faster and faster with each new initiative.  So the creative types, innovators, outside the box thinkers, and those who are open to something different, often said, “F*** this”, and left.  I know it sounds harsh and is a broad generalization; however, it gets the point.  My current colleagues, teachers in the classroom, are some of the hardest working people I know,  And they generally accept each demand, and every new initiative without an argument.  However, over 93% of today’s teachers feel over-whelmed and have a strong sense of stress and it’s impact when it comes to teaching today.  (Check out the NEA survey from 2018 related to the statement above).  And the stress associated with a never-ending set of initiatives and high stakes testing not only impacts the employees but it trickles down to the students; who are often impacted by trauma and stress themselves.

Simply, the system needs an overhaul.  And I am not talking about “Charter Schools”, “Vouchers”, or any other politically guided model.  I am really talking about getting back to the core basics:   Try this on for size:

As a Behavior Specialist, working directly within classrooms every day, I see what works best for today’s children.  And I also see what fails.  Simply, teachers who embrace the New Four Rs [Relationship, Reliability, Relevance, & Resilience], experience significantly less disreguation within their classrooms and students, in contrast to teachers who are still holding on to the Old Three Rs alone [Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic: Core Curriculum] as their guiding light.  Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting we throw out our curriculum guides and turn our classrooms into non-instructional settings.  Far from the truth.  However, for every observation and classroom visit where I see teachers successfully navigate the complexity of today’s students through the Relationship, Reliability, Relevance, and Resilience lens, I also see teachers struggle, at their wit’s end, and ready to quit, for they are tightly holding on to beliefs and values of the past [The Old Three Rs].  Many of those who struggle often cry out: “Our job is to teach our students, we cannot let these kids just do what they want”.

Many of today’s teachers feel that they are torn: Caught between having to demonstrate higher test scores, keep up the pace with a developmentally inappropriate curriculum, and stay the course no matter what.  And at the same time, most see their students crashing and burning due to the intensity of the curriculum pacing, impact of trauma living in the 21st century, and a pervasive need to belong.  However, there are few teachers within today’s schools who are willing to take a stand and say, “enough is enough” and STAY in the classroom and do so as non-conformists.

So I am writing this piece for you; those who are sick and tired of the direction of public education guided by a political agenda much greater than anything we ever imagined back in the 80’s.   Today’s education system is driven by large publishing houses, testing corporations, and the business community at large.  Similar to what happened years ago in medicine, when “healing” and “wellness” got lost within the context of the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, and simplified DSM criteria.

The solution to today’s public education system is fairly simple: THE NEW FOUR Rs.  Within a brief synopsis, the following recommendations DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE and if implemented across the board in ALL CLASSES; we would see major changes in our students, our children, and our lives.

RESILIENCE 1.0: Simply, teachers today are “first responders” as their students come to school every day; many students are leaving fractured homes and maintain a level of ACES (adverse childhood experiences) through trauma which impacts their lives.  As a result, today’s teachers need to be resilient at the highest levels to assure they are prepared to meet the needs of their complex, intense, and often highly agitated students.   These agitations may look like acts of violence.  As a Behavior Specialist, I have seen more thrown chairs than I ever imagined.  And I have spoken to Behavior Specialists across the country and they all tell me they see the same in their districts.  But it’s not that today’s children are “bad to the bone”; it’s a matter of trauma, stress, and gaps within significant fundamental skills associated with self-regulation, social – emotional learning, and impulse control.

RELATIONSHIP: At the core of the classroom, student to teacher relationship serves as the foundation for learning.  Think back upon your own experience, likely your favorite teacher was the one who “got you” and demonstrated empathy and understanding.  Within today’s trauma sensitive classrooms, relationship building is essential.  For further information, review any research highlighting “Social Emotional Learning” and the impact on learning.  As a result, today’s children, across all social – demographic lines, struggle with belonging at the core as well as self-regulation.  This is where relationship serves as the bridge toward connection; the human connection first and foremost.

REGULATION: Within today’s world, guided at lightening speed by technology, cell phones, and impulsive reactions to over-bearing stimuli, most of our students are lacking the core Executive Function skills such as Working Memory, Initiation, Organization / Planning, and Impulse Control.  As a result, our classrooms need to reflect structure, predictability, consistency, stability, calm, and security.   Instead of speeding things up, our students are most successful when their classrooms are slower, quieter, and guided by a “less is more” value system.   For more ideas on this, check out “Accommodations of ADD/ADHD” for the recommendations here are often going to make a great difference for ALL students.

RELEVANCE: And this is where ADD/ADHD and even Autism really shine; our most volatile students, are often those who are disengaged when there is NO MEANING associated with learning.  However, when you present activities which resonate with their interests and passions, “hyper-focus” tends to unfold.  It’s often feast or famine in today’s classroom.  Nevertheless, due to the over-sensory lifestyle guided by technology, most of our students are seeking novelty, high interest, and relevant learning opportunities.  This is where the most creative and innovative teachers shine: Art, movement, projects, collaborative activities, and “universal design” are essential for today’s students.  Take notice:  worksheets, canned lessons, and pen / paper guided activities basically kill the love of learning.   And by doing so, this is where behavior escalations present themselves the most.

RESILIENCE 2.0: Finally, if the classroom is founded upon the elements above, then our students’ personal sense of resilience will evolve. For there’s nothing as powerful as taping into the resources within one self, leading toward success by over-coming obstacles, and finding a personal light within, in the learning process.  Maslow addresses this within the Hierarchy of Needs.  He was quoted as stating: “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”  So true.  And if you believe this, then, immediately, we all need to assure our classrooms are laboratories leading toward our very best selves, where human potential is the guiding light and our actions are self evident.  I know this sounds lofty and like a huge under-taking but …

It’s quiet simple when you think about it:

  1. Believe in the infinite possibilities within each one of our students; as if each presents an essential part of a much larger quilt unfolding.  Imagine what school would be like from the beginning, at Kindergarten, if every child was perceived as a gift waiting to be discovered in contrast to an empty vessel waiting to be filled up, as we see within the current values and belief system.  Fundamentally, today’s schools function from the top-down; where we imagine “college for all” or “competitive jobs” and work backwards from there.  We miss so much of the extraordinary nature of children by thinking this way.
  2. Know that THE NEW FOUR Rs serve as the platform of all learning.  Build your program based upon these four essential principles within each school day no matter that grade level, content area, or instructional method you work with.  These four principles are grounded in neuro-science as well as developmental theory.
  3. And most importantly, continue to serve each student through a common curriculum but don’t see it as the “purpose” of learning; self-discovery and self-actualization will serve our students much greater in a constantly changing society.   According to many sociologists, due to the changes to unfold, a high percentage of our current Kindergartners will walk into a work force where many of the jobs do not exist today. The soft-skills within the Social Emotional Learning platform will serve as the hard-skills of tomorrow.  See your room as a laboratory leading toward the unfolding of the human potential.   Nothing less.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Ferris Buehler 

In the wisdom of the great philosopher Ferris Buehler, “You could miss it”.  It’s time to stop and look around.  Change is happening before our very eyes. And our ability to bring a higher level of consciousness to the classroom is within our control: THE FOUR Rs are doable!  It’s time to be a part of the solution rather than reinforce the problem.  Imagine: Be a hippie teacher and seek out a counter-cultural perspective in lieu of the prevailing model where the purpose of teaching is measured by testing.  For we all know, it’s so much more …

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