In some of my classes, I can change the children’s behavior by explaining what I want. The students listen to the logic of my requests and they understand. Those are the easy ones.
In some of my classes, I provide consistent consequences for inappropriate behavior. Some children are looking for the boundaries, because they can’t set bounds themselves. Once they are certain the consequences will always be there, they change their behavior to avoid them.
Then there are those classes where logically explaining is a waste of my breath, and consequences are nothing more than another episode in their lives. These are the classes I dread because I am faced with certain behaviors that I cannot change and cannot impact, whether I yell or punish or speak sweetly. What am I supposed to do with those?
I was in despair until I read the inspiring words of Bill Strickland. He’s an entrepreneur who grew up in the inner city and who has done incredible things in poverty-ridden neighborhoods. His story, which will amaze you, contains truths we all ought to know as educators and people: http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_strickland_makes_change_with_a_slide_show/transcript?language=en
“You have to change the way that people see themselves before you can change their behavior.” What a twist on my usual way of thinking! My students are going to do what they want, regardless of my consequences, until their self-image changes.
“It's all in the way that you think about people that often determines their behavior.” Children can’t think of themselves in a different way until I think of them in a different way. That’s a lot of responsibility on me.
And finally, “Children will become like the people who teach them.” This last one is the hardest of all to hear. It speaks to the power I ultimately wield as a teacher and the price I pay for giving up on my students in the classroom.
The good news for me as an arts educator is that I am in the business of teaching people to think of themselves in a different way. When students learn music, they are not just adding information to their minds. Their self-image has changed because they have become musicians.
The same transformation can be said to occur for visual artists and athletes, and even foreign language speakers. “I am an artist.” “I am bilingual.”
This transformation is so obvious that it is easily dismissed as a truism. Yet in the context of Mr. Strickland’s words, music classes, art, PE, foreign language, when supported and implemented effectively, have the potential to do what all the PBIS programs often fail to do: change students’ behavior in a significant and permanent way.
Whether we can break through the often trivial perception of our subjects depends on us. Whether we can explain that these common sense transformations are actually vital ones for the school depends on our ability to recognize and communicate the true value of what we do. And like our children, those upon whom we rely for our livelihoods, our administrators, our parents and our leaders, will not change their behavior until we change the way we think about them and the way they think about themselves: as potential partners in making our schools the places they are supposed to be.