Joy and a Moral Compass Are Imperative to Learning

Social distancing restrictions highlight the importance of relationships for children
December 8, 2020 Updated: December 8, 2020

Months of distance learning, online schooling, ad-hoc homeschooling, and hybrid methods that began in the recent school year have shown that course material is far from the only thing that matters when it comes to learning.

Structure, consistency, character, and perhaps unsurprisingly, play, are also deeply necessary in creating a good environment for learning, as many experienced teachers know.

Eighth-grade creative writing teacher Andrew Cotten says that despite the upheaval of normalcy this past year—from teaching online in the spring to a cautious new alternating schedule in the fall—certain principles that have served him well still hold true, although they may be more challenging right now.

“What works well and what will always work well,” he said, “is having a relationship with students. Being there for them … seeing them as people, getting to know them.”

Relationship-building is hard with distance learning, though Cotten’s class had the benefit of already having gotten to know him and their peers earlier that year. But as students returned in the fall, holding each other at arm’s length and even, he said, carrying some trauma, it took a lot of time, grace, and effort on his part to work to foster trust and relationships.

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Andrew Cotten. (Courtesy of Andrew Cotten)

Grades Versus Growth

Cotten, who teaches in Mountain Brook, Alabama, had a mentor who once told him that teachers were no longer considered the gatekeepers of knowledge, that the smartest one in the room was no longer the robed scholar at the chalkboard, but a device in everyone’s hand. But the focus on children is timeless, Cotten said.

Cotten teaches 13-year-olds, students at that in-between age where “they’re at the Peter Pan age—Wendy wants him to grow up, the Lost Boys want them to stay young forever.”

“There is still a child in them, as cool as they want to act,” Cotten said. “They’re at this really weird crossroads.” He says they want to assert their independence, but they still need plenty of guidance. They want attention, but they also want to be invisible. At this age, in a creative writing class, they are no longer at the stage of drilling fundamentals, they need something else.

It’s about serving them not serving the content,” he said. It’s about helping the kids grow and love learning. 

A student is someone who asks “When am I ever going to need this?” and “Is this going to be on the test?” and goes through their school days with anxiety over grades.

“But learners are people who are willing to take risks, to grow, to see this as a holistic experience,” Cotten said.

A learner sees opportunity in everything they do to pick up and hone their skills, even if the lesson is learning to work with people you don’t see eye to eye with, or learning to sift through information, or the lesson that loads of practice is what leads to mastery. In Cotten’s class, essays are “a chance to express yourself, to practice communication, to be effective in your communication.”

“Grades versus growth is a big belief that has helped me in my understanding in being a teacher in regards to relationships, that students aren’t just here to earn grades, and if they are, how can I help them get something out of this and view this as an opportunity for growth?” he said.

“Every day is about valuing the process of learning, not fixating on the product.”

Cotten’s classroom culture is based on a personal mantra he has: be silly, be honest, be kind. “Silly” is a reach for 13-year-olds, honesty sounds deceptively simple but can be harder when it comes to emotional honesty, and kindness is a deeply important and firm rule in the classroom, but with modeling and unflappable enthusiasm, Cotten sets a good example to allow the students to do that. Silliness encourages curiosity, developing learners instead of grade-fixated students, and that changes the entire student-teacher relationship.

“The problem is students want to push against their teachers, right? But they start to lean against their teachers and use them as a support,” Cotten said. “If the teacher doesn’t care about you, every classroom’s a war zone, you know? But when there’s a culture built, it really, it takes a tough kid to want to be mean in there.”

boys playing ball
A good environment for learning consists not only of structure, consistency, and character-forming opportunities, but also play. (Robert Collins/Unsplash)

Passion and Play

One of Cotten’s favorite descriptions of writing is something a professor once told him: “Every sentence is a playground”—he’s a firm believer in play, both in and out of the classroom.

“I had a student put it this way: There is a huge difference between 8 to 3 [the school day] and 3 to 8. What are you doing from 3 to 8 that brings you joy? I think that feeds into what you do from 8 to 3,” Cotten said. “That impacts you as a student during the day, both positively and negatively.”

Aaron Benner, who taught fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, said the most effective thing he did to build trust, and, in effect, authority, with his students was organizing football games during recess.

“My favorite strategy was playing football with my students,” Benner said. He’d eschew lunch at the teacher’s lounge for time outdoors with his kids, and take on the role of quarterback. Any kid could join, and often students from other classes did. The rules included two-hand touch and that everybody gets a chance to catch the ball.

aaron benner
Aaron Benner. (Courtesy of Aaron Benner)

“We always try to look out for everybody, and try to make sure everybody has fun.

“It just decreased a lot of animosity and decreased a lot of tension,” Benner said. “It was like a miracle worker, and it kept me in shape as well.”

“They were more willing to learn, they were awake, the changes were swift. If any disciplinary issues did arise, the respect they had for me was astronomical, it was completely different from the other teachers,” Benner said.

For 21 years, Benner taught at an elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the school had its share of disciplinary issues.

Discipline and Safety

Benner was known for having a safe and stable classroom; often, he would even have students from other classes or grades placed with him from classrooms that were too rowdy for the teachers to fully handle.

But outside of his classroom, it was a different story. There would be a blatant disregard for rules in the hallways, disruptions, and even violence. In fact, Benner made national news a few years ago when he became a sort of whistleblower for the kind of disciplinary disregard in his school district.

In 2017, he had filed a lawsuit against his school district for what they did to him after he spoke out against the policies. The school where Benner worked already had disciplinary issues, but when the district in 2014 adopted a racial equity program that sought to decrease suspensions for black students, Benner found that administrators stopped taking disciplinary actions against black students almost entirely, disregarding teacher recommendations. Benner added that as a black man, he’s certainly faced racism himself, but that was no way to address it.

The policy reduced the number of suspensions, which meant the principals could get cash bonuses, but it didn’t reduce bad behavior and violence. Instead, bad behavior skyrocketed.

Things came to a head when Benner saw a fourth-grade boy punch a girl so hard she was knocked unconscious and he reported the incident to the principal. He spoke to the girl’s mother two days later and learned that she wasn’t informed of the assault, and when the mother raised questions, the school put Benner under investigation—the first of four.

Benner ended up speaking on national television about what was happening in his school, with students’ safety tossed aside because of racial equity programs, and his teachers’ union pressuring him to admit to things he didn’t do instead of defending him.

“The things I saw when my kids were walking the halls would be just almost criminal,” he said. “I was always just shocked at how resilient kids at the public schools in St. Paul could be because of the chaos they would see on a daily basis.

“The bottom line became that I had to keep my kids safe, teaching was second to the safety of my students throughout the school day,” Benner said.

An added challenge was to maintain his own classroom culture, because the students were now getting mixed messages; fighting was punished in Benner’s class, but they would see other kids get away with it on the playground. It wore out good teachers like Benner.

Benner’s case was settled last year, but he had already quit a few years prior and taken a Dean of Students position at a private Catholic charter high school. He misses teaching, but brought a lot of wisdom about student behavior to his new role.

Demonstrating Stability

When Benner used to teach elementary grades in St. Paul, from day one, he would make sure to be clear with his students about the rituals and routines of the class, and would both explain and demonstrate the rules.

“If I didn’t want students to walk around in class, I would model that, I would explain that, and I would have a lot of movement breaks,” he said. He would also have everyone agree on behavior at the beginning of the school year. “And sometimes it would be silly, like ‘Are we going to allow anybody to fight in the class?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are we going to allow foul language?’ ‘No!'”

Benner said he did fun things in class—like celebrating the end of the school year by making French toast for the students—but he was always very clear that he was there to be a teacher, not their friend.

“And it would shock my students: ‘I am not here to be your friend.’ They’d gasp,” Benner said. “I’d say, ‘I’m here to be your teacher. I’m here to challenge you.'”

“I like helping people become better,” he says. For Benner, it’s a calling. He stumbled into teaching while working at a halfway house as his first job after getting a degree in sociology and criminal justice. Benner had extra time that he spent volunteering at a school, and it sparked something in him when he realized the students listened to him more than their regular teacher.

As a teacher of young fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students, Benner was very aware that the classroom was a character-forming place, as well as a place of learning.

“You need to be a person of good moral character,” he said, “You don’t have to be religious but you have to teach what is right and wrong. You have to have a moral compass, you have to talk about ethics, you have to teach your students to be critical thinkers, those are very important things.”

Discipline is important too, but discipline should never be a public ordeal, and needs to fit the behavior. Benner’s current school used to have an automatic expulsion rule for stealing, but after a group of students were suspended for stealing food, there was an uproar; the consequence was severe, yet did not address the stealing itself.

Benner asked graduating seniors who had lunch money left in their accounts whether they would be willing to donate it to a lunch money fund, so students who ran out of money could come to him to get a free lunch instead.

No one gets expelled for stealing food anymore.

“You’re trying to be kind and compassionate, but you are also trying to teach students there are consequences for your behavior, there are consequences for your actions,” Benner said.

Having parents and teachers on the same page is also imperative if you really want to impart lasting lessons on character and behavior, he explained. It creates a sense of stability in the students’ lives, which translates almost consistently to good behavior.

For instance, Benner’s first phone call home, always early in the school year, is always good news. He wants parents to know that he won’t only call when there’s trouble; that prevents parents from putting up a defensive wall. He also makes sure parents are aware of all the rules and consequences at the beginning of the year, something his new school also does extensively.

Not long ago, he ran into one of his oldest students, now 37 years old, who reminded him of how much Benner’s home visits meant. It wasn’t Benner’s idea; it was a school requirement when he was starting out, but the student laughed and said he had been worried the neighborhood gangs would scare his teacher away, and thought it was so cool his teacher cared enough to visit anyway.

“He gave me a hug and told his wife, ‘This guy used to go to my house and he would check on me,'” Benner said.

Brains and Bodies

Leigh Bortins, a North Carolina-based homeschooler and founder of Classical Conversations, was also quick to note the importance of movement.

“Our brain’s attached to our bodies and some us learn while we are moving,” she said. “So that’s why you’ll see a girl sucking on her lip, pacing her bedroom while she’s trying to figure out what to write, or you’ll see a boy who has to go out and shoot some hoops before he can solve a math problem.

“Motions can very often help when we’re struggling. One of the things we’re very good at doing with our little kids is giving them crayons and pencils and big pieces of paper—this is why we need to do the same with the adolescents who struggle with that issue—let them go to the board, or let them do it in chalk on the driveway, let them be big in their thinking,” Bortins said.

Behavior and a sense of discipline also have a lot to do with movement. In effect, it’s just a continuation of all the very good things you started doing as a new parent with a young child, Bortins said. “And, of course, one of the things you first do with your very young infant is teach them how to control their bodies.

“They reach out to grab things, eventually potty training, getting the food in their mouths, making their beds, all of those things.

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According to Leigh Bortins, a good preparation for academic learning involve activities that promote hand-eye coordination, an aspect of teaching children to control themselves. (Madalyn Cox/Unsplash)

“What’s natural to teach a child is how to control themselves, because you don’t want them wiggling like a worm in every situation that they’re in. So what a lot of people forget is that one of the best preparations for academic training is, of course, full body control. You have to have hand-eye coordination to hold your crayon, your paintbrushes, your pencil,” she said.

It’s much like practicing a skill; an acquaintance of hers had three young children, one of whom was especially rowdy, but several moms came together to help walk the child around the building to work off his extra energy while giving her time to work with her two other children. It taught the young boy that rules wouldn’t be dropped just because they were inconvenient, and that they wouldn’t give up on him just because he didn’t learn how to do something right away.

“You also have the idea of controlling yourself to get along with one another,” Bortins said. One of the things she’s told her own children is how you need to esteem your brother more than your legos, you need to esteem your sister more than your dolls.

“The sibling relationship is the first place, even before you go to school, that children learn to control their appetites and passions and desires, and expect to share.”

Family is the first place we learn about relationships, behavior, and how to interact with the world. Bortins remembers that growing up, when she or her siblings left the house their parents would say, “Remember, you’re a Bryant!”

“All four of us grew up knowing that we represented our mother and our father, and our siblings and our grandparents, and our cousins, aunts, uncles, the whole family,” she said. “That it reflects on all of us, that we’re a family. It’s just having this attitude of, ‘You’re not alone in this, we’re going to help you, and this also means you’re going to hurt us,’ and that’s what love is, is the ability to be hurt.”

Learning to appreciate your siblings goes hand in hand with being obedient to your parents, Bortins said, adding that maybe not everyone likes the word obedience, but that’s really what it is. You teach or train your children to behave in a certain way. It’s possible, and it makes the family experience one that is pleasant.

“And character lessons aren’t always for the kids—sometimes they’re for the parents,” Bortins said. Character forming is a lifelong process, she said, and “We’re all practicing for the next day.”

School sometimes has people thinking in terms of weeks or periods or semesters, but life isn’t like that.

“As homeschoolers, we don’t really think in small segments, we think in the life of our child, the life of our family, and even now with my grandchildren,” she said.