The Tribal Teacher
The focus of our work is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours. These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self, exclusion or neglect from the only ‘tribe’ they have ever experienced - their family. Louis Cozolino, the American psychologist has been at the forefront of this approach in assisting children with a history of abuse. He has provided a detailed review of what he calls the tribal classroom in his book ‘Attachment-Based Teaching - Creating a Tribal Classroom’ (see Newsletter of 1st August 2018 – The Tribal Classroom).
Unfortunately, or some would declare ‘fortunately’ this approach has morphed into a formal program that has provided a step by step approach to develop creating a ‘tribal classroom’. We have seen this ‘trademarking’ of many a ‘good idea’ repeated over and over again in behaviour modification programs; take the positive psychology movement that has spawned ‘Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support’ (PBIS), the once valued ‘Reality Therapy/Choice Theory’, ‘Assertive Discipline’; the list goes on. These are all underpinned by a deal of common sense but as soon as you ‘formalise’ it you lose the ability to cater for the diversity of our children.
However, the point is, we can help these kids by providing group activities that promote the opportunities for all students to develop secure attachments to the group and from that within the classroom. The students we focus on will find this difficult at first but by providing a few group-rules their anxiety can be reduced and they can develop what Cololino describes as a social synapse. The formal program outlines these as:
- Attentive Listening
- Showing appreciation of everyone’s contribution
- Each student having the right to participate, or not
- There is a sense of mutual respect
In this Newsletter I want to focus on the teacher’s role in this approach. I am not going to indulge into restating all the great information that is available including the ‘quality teaching’ model – another systematization of common sense but as the ‘parent’ of the tribal class.
At the top of every good parenting inventory is the importance of being a good role model. Children are so busy watching what you do they can’t hear what you are saying. They will become the person you are so it is important to ‘be the person’ you want them to be.
It goes beyond just modelling, as ‘parent’ you are the leader of the group and what the students want more than anything else is a consistent, predictable environment where they can learn, through trial and correction how to successfully navigate through life with a sense of self-control.
There is an age ‘gradient’ in this approach. When they are very young they are unable to really make meaningful choices, they don’t have enough knowledge and so you have to present them with situational scenarios where they learn the fundamental skills. This necessitates a more ‘authoritarian’ approach but this must be balanced with complete fairness in a nurturing environment.
Someone has to be in-charge and that person is you! As they get older, this authoritarian approach by the teacher changes to become one of a ‘constructionist’ where the responsibility for student behaviour is placed firmly on their shoulders. In my experience this is a rare achievement, most school leavers still have a fair bit of ‘improving’ to do but by the time they are about to exit school we would hope they are all at least predominantly responsible.
They need to experience the negative consequences when they choose the ‘wrong’ behaviour in an effort to get their needs met but these should be delivered with the emphasis on the behaviour not the child. In your dealings with the students, at any age the following is a good guide to achieving this:
- Encouragement should outweigh praise. The latter can become destructive in their teens.
- Consequences should always replace punishments. Punishment never works in the long run (see Newsletter 2nd April 2018 – Consequences – Neither Punishment not Reward) punishment teaches the kids what not to do. Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving. The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours. They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.
- Co-operation should always dominate obedience, this is age sensitive. For instance, more and more we see young children defying their parents when it comes to them ‘getting their way’. I watch my grandchildren using a whole range of behaviour to change their parent’s decisions after they have said ‘no’! There are times when ‘because I said so’ is probably the right thing to do; these children are not able to understand the long-term consequences of eating the junk food they crave!
However, eventually we want our children to be independent, communal obedience is a feature of political dictatorships and social cooperation is the mark of a healthy society.
Finally, here are some ‘parent tips’ to help you engage with your class:
- Be involved with their life – find out about their interests, where they have lived, understand their history at an appropriate level. We don’t have the right to understand the details of their ‘intimate’ life but when the student knows you are interested they are more likely to form the relationship that will help them engage in your lessons.
How often have I helped a relationship with a ‘troubled’ student just by finding out which sporting team or ‘rock star’ he/she follows. When I know this, I take every opportunity to ‘bump into them’ in the playground an engage in some good-fun banter.
- Always get to the classroom before the students and as they arrive greet them with their name and, if appropriate give them a ‘high five’, ‘fist pump’ or just shake hands; do this with a smile. This is one of the most powerful things you can do, it sends the message that you want to be there. Contrast this with the effect teachers, who arrive late and then criticise the students for not ‘waiting quietly in line’! What message is that behaviour sending to the class?
- Tell them things about your life. Some teachers balk at this; I suspect they feel their life is none of the student’s business. On an intimate scale they are right, your personal life is your business but if you accept the importance of a relationship you have to participate. Telling them stories about your childhood, as lame as these may feel to you is very powerful. It humanises you.
- Finish the lesson with a story – in primary schools this can be a serial, despite the benefits of engaging them in literacy the ‘right’ story teaches them about life and at least you send them home looking forward to the next day! It is hypothesised that this is a primitive need, a throw-back to the times when tribes finished their days sitting around a campfire exchanging stories.
This Newsletter has focused on a teacher’s approach to the tribal classroom and is not to be considered part of the extensive literature being bombarded into schools and an ever-increasing rate. I believe that relationships are at the core of all successful educational experiences. Further, they exist in the lower areas of our brain, the limbic system and as such are much more difficult to access and to change.
This modern approach to teacher training focuses on cognitive contributions which are quick and easy to implement for educated adults (teachers) but:
- They are not appropriate for the young developing mind which requires ‘lessons’ for their emotional and social education
- These cognitive lessons ‘disappear’ when the students’ stress levels are raised and they start behaving based on their emotional and social beliefs.
When all is said and done the teacher/student relationship is the most important feature of quality education and that boils down to how each participant feel about each other.