Check Your Approach


It’s 3:20pm on the Friday before winter break.  I’m driving home in complete silence, thinking. Every part of my soul wants to be thinking about the holiday parties I will attend, the fellowship with family I will enjoy, and of course, the rest I so eagerly have been longing for. However, this is not what consumes my thoughts.  A student has touched my inner core this week.  I will come back to this shortly.

As I drove along, encased within my own silence, I began thinking of the “Scholar Statement” I wrote over the past summer.  My students recite it every morning and it reads as follows:

2002 Doc Hurley Scholars

I am a Scholar.

I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.

I cannot fail and WILL NOT fail,

because failure is not an option.

I am in control of my future and my destiny.

I am a Scholar.

I am the FUTURE.

I wrote this after spending some time thinking of ways to help my students change the way they think about learning.  I had recently visited a local charter school and done some research on the Uncommon Schools. I was drawn to the approach the schools use to help students focus on a future filled with success. I found that inside the walls of these schools, student classrooms are typically named for colleges and students referred to as scholars, thus committing to reinvent students’ thinking from that of a fixed mindset to that of a growth mindset. In a 2012 interview, Carol Dweck clarifies the difference between the two mindsets as follows:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (retrieved December 24, 2013 from

So, the approach of the Uncommon Schools now became MY approach. The Scholar Statement became our daily affirmation. I needed to empower them. I needed for them to embrace the greatness that many of them had yet to realize was within them.  They are all Scholars and are referred to as such no matter where we are or what we are doing in the school.  The Scholar Statement is a reminder of my expectations for them and the expectations for themselves and each other. There is greatness filling the walls of my classroom.

With that, let me share this interaction I had with one particular scholar during our last week of 2013 together.  I will call this young man Victor. On the Thursday before break, the school attends the annual winter program. This year, K-2 students, with the exception of about 17 of my scholars, performed the program.  The music teacher asked if this select group of scholars would assist the kindergarteners with one song during the program, as well as greet parents and act as runners for other classes in between songs. Of course, like a proud mother, I agreed to allow the scholars to participate. Victor was among the chosen.

Now, Victor is one of six siblings. He’s the third oldest. He is known to cause mischief and to instigate drama. He is also very bright, athletic, and funny.  You see, I found in his academic records that Victor has the documented potential of performing in the advanced level on the state’s standardized assessment.  His scores have been on the decline since 3rd grade.  His strength is in the area of mathematics, particularly with problem solving.  He especially enjoys the challenge of solving 6th grade problems. Reading is not his best friend, but he trudges through it, only to pacify me. However, this can all change if Victor is having a difficult morning. There are times when Victor refuses to work and instead pouts in protest to the daily assignments. That’s quite a difference from the description above, isn’t it?  His inability to process frustration often times blocks his capability to complete his work.  There are times when he is confronted with something that pushes him straight to the point of giving up.  He doesn’t believe that there is more to his mindset. It’s fixed! So, rather than exerting more effort, he reverts to behavioral disruptions instead.

Today, the Thursday before break, Victor is in his all too familiar mischievous mood. He is all over the place, excited, off task, and in somebody’s ear about anything insignificant (albeit significant enough to get under anyone’s skin)!  He has become quite skilled at doing things under the radar. Normally, I can detect even his slightest thought of becoming disruptive, but today with so much going on, he is two steps ahead of me.

As we waited for the other grade levels to arrive for the performance, I noticed one of my girls crying uncontrollably. I had been sitting in view of them and hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, so I was aghast at the sight. I knelt down and asked what was wrong. She proceeded to tell me through each crying breath that Victor had been calling her names and how extremely tired she was of him messing with her. Victor is avoiding eye contact with me at all cost as I speak with her, so I know…something is up.  He’s even talking to himself under his breath and I know he’s trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care that she is telling me what he has done. My stare has now become a glare and Victor’s eyes finally meet mine.  I motion for him to take a seat on the bleachers and allow the young lady to go to the restroom to get herself together.

I am SO upset with Victor and I begin to scold him. “Scholars are respectful to each other and to other people!” I scolded. Then, I stopped. I had to approach this differently. He’s been yelled at and scolded enough.  Probably more than imaginable but that is an uncertainty and is irrelevant at this particular moment. What is important right at this moment is the manner in which I choose to address Victor about what has happened between him and his peer. I waited a few moments before speaking with him. We both needed a moment.

need new approach to IT,

Moments have passed and I think I’m ready, so I call Victor over to me and away from his peers. I ask him what that incident was about and he admits he called her names, but only AFTER she called him names first. Now, this next statement will seem a bit cliché, but I have to say it…she’s the student that never says a word and is never in trouble, so needless to say, it was difficult for me to believe this accusation. I shared my reservation with Victor and he understood my dilemma.  I thanked him for his honesty and understanding at that moment. It was at this point that I shifted the conversation from his admitted negative behavior to his positive and greater potential.

I told Victor that he was filled with greatness. I told him how smart he was, in addition to being athletic and humorous. I told him that he could do anything he wanted to do, but that he blocks his greatness with some of the choices he makes inside and outside of school.  I explained that hurting people is just a way of blocking the good that is inside of him.  I tell him that it’s ok to be smart and to show others that he is smart.  “You are and are allowed to be a great example for your peers! Don’t be ashamed of your ability.  Use your greatness to change the world around you.” I continued. Victor said nothing. Tears began to stream down his face instead.  I asked him why he was crying. He again said nothing.  I asked if he had ever been told that he was smart and filled with greatness. As he wiped his tears, he still said nothing. Only shook his head indicating he had not. My heart sank at that very moment. I have been thinking about Victor and that conversation ever since.

The following day, the last day before break, Victor was…different. This is the day we all expect shenanigans and over zealousness from our students, so I expected Victor to respond in-kind. This time, I was wrong. Victor came in reserved and stoic. Rather than sitting with the other young men that had congregated to work on a holiday packet, Victor sat alone. Don’t get me wrong, he did not withdraw himself entirely. I could, however, tell that he was making good choices, purposefully and consciously, throughout the day. It took my reflecting on the events of the day to realize what had happened. Victor had heard what I said and had begun thinking about his potential.  He even gave me a hug and wished me a Merry Christmas before he left. The best gift I could ever receive. I have to admit; I cannot help but wonder if this change in mindset will continue once we return from break. I expect that there will be more to be done with my Victor and more to this story after break, but for now, at least he and I both know that change is possible, there is hope, and there is a future for him.

My reflection reveals that our approach, as educators, matters.  What we say and how we say it, what we do and how we do it…matters.  Our choice of actions and words can have a transformational affect on our students’ lives. They can be interpreted as s/he cares or s/he doesn’t. One word, one phrase is all it takes to make or break them. One word, one phrase can change the mindset of our students in the blink of an eye. That’s quite a bit of power and responsibility, wouldn’t you say? I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also realize that this duty comes with the territory.   We have committed to taking the good with the bad. It is my opinion that we have changed the meaning of that statement. You see, what we frequently find ourselves doing is taking the “good” and the “bad” and using them to label our students as such.  Yes, you’ve done it! We’ve all done it.  “He’s good.” and “She’s bad.” But, let’s be clear, we should not consider “good” and “bad” to be definitions of a student’s behavior but rather an indication of a students inability to communicate their needs and/or the lack of guidance they may or may not receive outside of school.

As I conclude, stop and think about YOUR Victor…or Victoria.  Think about what s/he does and says, the choices s/he makes, the challenges s/he takes you through on a daily basis.  Now, think about how you have responded.  How did you intervene? What was your approach? Know that while you think you may be emotionally connected and have developed a trusting rapport with your students, there may be something buried so deep down that they don’t even realize there is pain inside. We have been charged with the task of helping our students work through their confusion in order to help them realize their potential and free their minds. It is imperative for us to keep this in the forefront of our minds when disruptive behavior outweighs productive behavior. So, the next time YOUR Victor is under everyone’s skin…take a moment…and check your approach.


8 comments on “Check Your Approach

  1. Stacey J. Brown says:

    I love this Soror! As I embark on this new challenge at Village Prep, I aspire to move in the direction of the Uncommon Schools after which we were modeled. Your article is very well written and an excellent piece for educators. I believe in creating the right mindset and in helping to train my young teachers to believe the same. We must teach children to believe in their potential, to plan ahead and to dream big. Stay tuned…more schools will begin under the Breakthrough Charter Schools umbrella. I hope to work with you in the future!
    Head of School
    Village Preparatory School
    Cliffs Campus

    Would you mind if I shared this composition with my staff as we return in January? Would you care to serve as a speaker on this topic at a staff meeting (pro devmt @ ev

    • Thank you so much Soror!! As I shared with you, I truly believe in the approach of the Uncommon Schools. I know that there are more students than just my Victor who feel that there is nothing for them. But, it is my mission to shift that mindset as I would challenge other educators to do as well. I push them daily but support them when they fall. This is new to many of my scholars (as I’m sure you can attest as well). I’m up for the challenge.

      I would be happy to come and speak with your staff. And please, by all means, share, share, share!

      Thanks for your feedback!

  2. Stacey J. Brown says:

    Here’s the rest of my message…

    Would you mind if I shared this composition with my staff as we return in January? Would you care to serve as a speaker on this topic at a staff meeting (pro devmt @ every mtg)…Wednesdays from 4-5)

  3. Jane Stange says:

    My principal is training with the people with Uncommon Schools. I am still not sold on the approach. Have you read the book, Teaching with Love and Logic? As I read what you wrote I kept thinking of Victor’s name…a victor is one who triumphs! There is a principal from Philadelphia from about 20 years ago who used to have her student body recite..I will act in such a way that I will be proud of myself and others will be proud of me too. I came to school to learn and I will learn. I will have a good day. It is what I tell myself everyday….I learn something new everyday with teaching. I am proud to see that you are still growing too 🙂

    • Thank you Jane! Victor of course is a pseudonym, but it suits him well, because he WILL triumph! I believe that he will. I have NOT read the book. Thank you for the suggestion. I will look it up. Continue to read about the Uncommon Schools before you decide. Visit one if you can. It really is a fascinating experience. At least it was for me. Jane, will you expand about your feelings about the Uncommon Schools? What, in particular, is concerning for you. As I continue to research best practices in school improvement, I would love to hear your views.

      Thank you so much for joining me on this venture! I am proud of you as well and appreciate that you’re growing along with me! 🙂
      Merry Christmas my friend to you and your family! Enjoy your break.

  4. Stacey J. Brown says:

    The “Love and Logic” book is on my “upcoming reading” list. I have two teachers who read it and run their classroom that way. It’s a wonderful, focused learning environment. I can see that both approaches require inner commitment, real belief in the scholars’ abilities – despite their obstacles, and overall teaching talent. It’s so easy to go too far away from “warm” in the Doug Lemov “warm/strict” philosophy – especially with the more severe behaviors. Im still new to it all and feel quite good about the freedom I have been given to bring the love and warmth. I think – every school needs funding for complete wrap around services – including child psychologists who see children, clinical counselors who work with children and families, after school homework / activities staff ( not staffed by your already overworked, underpaid teachers). This is when we can really make a lasting impact.

  5. vakunzmann says:

    What a wonderful story. I am praying that “Victor” is indeed victorious in changing his mindset. It is amazing what can, and does happen when students of any age are told and/or reminded of their greatness. My favorite line to tell my students, “You are destined for greatness!” I used to tell my own children this and now all four are traveling and living all around the world. Greatness, of course, is subjective. Becoming a leader in one’s community (Cesar Chavez) or becoming a leader of your family (my sons), both require greatness!
    Love your thoughts and I will continue to read your blog. I look forward to it, on fact.
    Thank you from this Victoria.

    • Thank you Victoria! 🙂 Indeed, greatness is subjective, but none the less possible as you have so eloquently described! Thank you that insight! Powerful! I share the same message (Scholar Statement) with not only my students, but my 3 children as well. I want & need so badly for my children (I’m including my students here as well) to know that they can conquer ANYTHING!

      Thank you for following. I look forward to reading and sharing in more discussions with you! 🙂

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