Interview by Kate Bedford

©2001 Kate Bedford, Six Seconds

Jane Bluestein is an award winning author and speaker. Her newest book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, is a comprehensive look at how we can make any educational institution safer— from an emotional, academic, behavioral, social, and physical standpoint. Formerly an inner-city classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor, and teacher training program coordinator, Dr. Bluestein currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Chemistry classDuring our interview, I was struck by both Jane’s passion for education and compassion for children and teachers alike. She is a dedicated educator as well as an advocate for change. Listening to Jane’s descriptions of modern schools, I felt both despair and tremendous hope. Mostly I was relieved to know that American schools had an advocate and reformer like Jane cheering them on.

Kate: In your new book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, you paint a disturbingly grim picture of the social dynamics of modern schools.

Jane: That was not my original intent. In fact, I really went into this trying to keep it as positive as possible, but that would have meant ignoring a great deal of feedback from some of the people I interviewed. I was appalled by the number of people who had such horrible experiences being tormented by other kids, and often right under the noses of teachers who did nothing to advocate for them and nothing to support them. The first couple times I heard this I thought they were extreme cases. As I started getting more stories, many were violent. I worked with a woman who was severely abused in school. I asked her what the teachers did about it and she said, “Nothing, they would send the kids back to class.” She was actually beaten with a baseball bat in front of one of the teachers. When I started getting stories like that from dozens of people, I thought, “This is a disturbing trend.” Then I found some early childhood literature that said in about 3/4 of incidents between preschoolers that were witnessed by adults, teachers did not intervene. They took no action at all.

I think to gloss over that would be a real disservice to kids who are not experiencing support and yet are experiencing any kind of teasing, humiliation, and even brutal physical abuse, at school.

Kate: In your book, you describe the kind of students who tend to be picked on as having low verbal skills, low social skills, and being without the social allies to back them up. That is a good argument for emotional intelligence programs.

Jane: It tends to be a vicious circle. When kids who have a greater sensitivity and few psychological strengths are picked on, they tend to buy into it and get upset. Then the bully has achieved his or her goal and gotten her reaction. What ends up happening is the kids who do not have the social skills, or the ability to laugh things off, are hyper sensitive to this kind of teasing. They are the ones who draw the most fire because they are the ones who are the most fun to watch blow up.

If you have kids who are very solid in their sense of who they are, in their own groundedness, in their own emotional intelligence, these are kids who can laugh it off. Part of what bullying is about is getting a reaction. Imagine if you call me a name and I say, “Yeah, that’s right”. Your bulling didn’t work because you’re trying to get a reaction from me. Chances are you are going to move on to an easier target.

Four kids in the woodsWe have two things going on here. First of all, we have a high level of reactivity and sensitivity. We are all sensitive to varying degrees. One of the goals I would see is trying to help teens to not take everything so personally. Immediately they can misinterpret social cues, or blow things out of proportion, or even assume something is negative. We need to teach kids how to depersonalize these contacts and not let them inside their energy fields. A second goal is to the help kids become a little more respectful of each other.

Kate: I liked the quote in the book, “We have taught tolerance but we have not taught respect.”

Jane: Punishing intolerance and disrespect is not a way to teach tolerance and respect. That is the model we have now.

Kate: Then how do you see teaching tolerance and respect? How do you go about putting that into a school?

Jane: You put kids in situations where they are interacting with people who are different from them but with a shared goal. For example, one of the principals I worked with took over a school that was an absolute mess— totally unsafe. She took some of the biggest bullies, some of the toughest kids in the class, and paired them with the special-needs students. Suddenly, all kinds of behavior changes started happening.

That is what I did my dissertation on. I had my 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders going down to work with kindergarten kids. Originally I sent them down because I was carpooling with the kindergarten teacher and she was so exhausted I was afraid she was going fall asleep on the way home. So I started sending my kids down there to give her a hand with things like getting these kids zipped up, and getting their milks open. About a week or two later, she told me “So and so cut recess to come down and read a story with my kids. So and so cut recess to put on a puppet show and teach my kids their colors.” Who do you think was cutting recess?

Kate: The bullies.

Three elementary studentsJane: Yes! The kids who were at the bottom end of the academic achievement and social skills ladders. Do you know what happens when schools implement social skills programs or peer mentoring programs? Who always gets picked? The highest achieving the best-social-skills kids. We know we can take these low-social-skills kids and put them in a situation where they can be a helper, where they can do service, or be a mentor with somebody who looks up to them, somebody who needs something they have, somebody who respects who they are and what they have to offer, that’s when we see the changes.

You can’t just stand up in a room and say, “Now kids, we are going to do a lesson on respect. Now respect is important because ‘yada yada’ and let’s put some posters on the wall.” This doesn’t work, especially in an environment where teachers speak so disrespectfully to kids and to one another. How often are we not walking the talk?

Kate: In other chapters in your book, you talk about the role a teacher can play as sympathetic witness to a student, and look at the teachers’ role in creating emotionally safe schools.

Jane: A few years ago I did a book called Mentors, Masters, and Mrs. MacGregor. It is a collection of stories about teachers who made a difference in students’ lives. I started very simply. I put tape recorder under everyone’s nose and asked, “Who was the best teacher you ever had?” God help you if you sat on a plane next to me because I asked everyone I met. I asked the clerks at the hotel, if they weren’t busy.

Two preschool kids playing with clayWhat I got back were stories about teachers who not necessarily stood up for the kid, but at least witnessed for them. Sometimes all they did was say, “My door is open if you need me.” Or teachers said, “I know your mom just died, I know you’re having a hard time right now. If you ever need to talk, I am here.” A lot of times people gave me the feeling that if it hadn’t been for that one teacher, that one little bit of attention and caring, that kid would not have made it that year. All it takes is one little acknowledgement. That is what I mean by advocacy. You are not going to court for the kid. It simply means you notice that child and you notice that kid in distress. How many kids go through a divorce, go through some family trauma in a small town where everyone in the town would know what is going on, yet everyone ignores it and them. All it takes is noticing a kid. Make that connection.

Kate: Josh’s (Joshua Freedman, Director of 6Seconds) question for you is, “What piece of research or information do you want every teacher to know? What do you want on their bumper stickers to help them be more emotionally savvy teachers?”

Jane: Make a connection. It comes down to that. And make a connection by listening. Make a connection by looking at kids with your heart instead of with your grade book. Make a connection. Part of it too is taking care of yourself, which means screening out a lot of the negative press that we get. Screening out the pressure we have on us for all things quantifiable. So we can shut the door and connect with a kid in a way that says, “You are where you are. I accept where you are. I honor where you are. And I am here to go from where you are to some place a little higher.”

Kate: One of the pieces I enjoyed about your book was the discussion of what it meant to listen. The idea that listening is different from sitting there waiting for your turn to answer. Did you find many teachers lacked listening skills?

Jane: I don’t think many of us have had really good models for that. It certainly is a skill I have spent most of my adult life trying to develop and I still feel like I have a long way to go on it. I have a list of non-supportive responses in one of my other books. It includes giving advice, just dismissing it or minimizing it, or making excuses for the other person. When I go over those in a workshop with teachers —oh the groans I hear. Everybody is saying, “Man, I do that all the time.”

Middle school students talkingWe have not had that many models of people who actually shut up when we are talking and hear what we have to say without listening for an opening to getting to their agenda, or tell us what we should do, or tell us that we are too sensitive. At what point do I get to have the space to just feel, and be, and express? I can’t do that in an environment where no one is listening. The sad thing is how many adults say, “I really want the kids to come to me, I want them to trust me.” But how many roadblocks do we put up?

One of the skills I teach in my workshops is to start asking questions and then shut up and listen instead of giving advice. Use questions as a way to help guide the kid to a solution. Ask the kind of questions that honor the kid’s intelligence and ability to solve problems, and take responsibility for his or her issues, while being there to support them as they are trying to figure out what options are available to them. (Click here for more information: “Alternatives to Advice Giving.”)

Kate: In preparation for this interview I looked at the Department of Education’s Web site and found an Executive Summery of George Bush’s Education plan. I want to read you part of that plan. He says, “Increase accountability for student’s performance. States districts and schools improved achievement will be rewarded. Failure will be sanctioned. Parents will know how well their child is learning and schools held accountable for their effectiveness with an annual state math and reading assessment in grade 3 and 8.”

Jane: I have a few problems with this. I have been in the education profession for close to 30 years and I have never seen morale as low as it is right now. When people ask, “What is driving teachers out of the profession?” the one thing that I see over and over again is this lust for test scores. I heard a great quote, “You can’t tell the quality of the sheep by how much it weighs.” And another quote, “The chicken doesn’t get heavier just because you keep putting in on the scale.” Kids don’t get smarter by testing, they get smarter by teaching. And look at what they are testing; they are testing only two of how many intelligences? What if the way a child is smart happens to be in an area other than math and reading?

Kate: In testing only two kinds of skills they are not getting a picture of how prepared this individual is for life.

Jane: I don’t have a problem with the test. I have a problem with that they do with the results.

A great test uses the results as a way of saying, “Okay, Here is what I need to teach you.” What a great test. But, what happens to teachers when kids don’t test well? Look at what has happened in schools where the sanctions have had stakes like funding, promotion, and bonuses. I was in a school a few weeks ago and teachers told me they are hearing teachers say to kids, “Its your fault I didn’t get my bonus.” Ok, tell me how that is going to raise the kids’ test scores? This punitive approach means we are shifting the focus off of teaching. What teaching really is about is starting wherever the learner is and moving them forward, not punishing that child because someone didn’t do a good job last year.

I am, quiet frankly, very nervous about what is happening in this profession. I don’t know where we lost control. I don’t have a problem with measurements and, at a fundamental level, I don’t have a problem with accountability, when you make me accountable for my behavior. But, when you make me accountable for the performance of students who I’ve only worked with for a certain amount of time, without the support of being able to address their needs individually, that gets into the area of severe dysfunction.

Kate: It is making you accountable for someone else’s behavior, but their behavior in a very narrow field.

Jane: No question, no question at all.

Kate: You set aside teaching them the big picture and how to think, and put that energy towards taking a test.

Jane: Exactly. I think the whole situation has gone out of control and the kids and the profession are being hurt. We are losing teachers. I have teachers telling me, “It is just not fun anymore. I am not teaching.”

Young children working togetherTeachers are so busy “covering content.” I love that whole idea, “covering content.” What’s that got to do with teaching? If you want to increase test scores, you start where the kid is and move him forward. Build on current knowledge, build on current strengths, build on their strongest intelligences, and build on their preferred modalities. But, we are still basically teaching like every kid in our school is going to go into a factory when they get out. We don’t have the kind of economy that standardized testing reflect. The whole notion of standardization is a throwback to a time that basically doesn’t exist any more, and hasn’t existed since the mid 50s.

By the way, just throwing a bunch of computers or a bunch of money at schools to get them online is not a way to prepare kids when every other piece of our structure, our infrastructure, our relationship structures, our energy dynamics, our power dynamics are basically set up to turn kids out to work in a factory.

In so many ways this is the best time ever to be teaching. I said that at the end of the book. One of the biggest challenges in writing this book was not giving into the despair I feel when I go out on the road and talk to teachers.

This should be such a good time to be a teaching. Think about how much more we know about how people learn now. We are in such a wonderful place to take advantage of this information and actually create learners. I mentioned this whole thing of covering content. This whole thing of “I have to get through these 16 pages of math this week.” Well, if those 16 pages are over the heads of the kids you are teaching, you may as well be covering content in another language. Covering content is not teaching. If all you want to do is cover content, you don’t even need kids. Go on down to the bus station and cover content.

If your content is division, and I don’t know how to add or subtract, you can cover that content until the cows come home. No matter how beautifully you present it, no matter how wonderful your materials are, if I don’t have the developmental readiness, the experience, the skill foundation or whatever else I need to make room and hang this new information on, you are wasting your time and you are wasting my time.

Kate: This brings me to my final question. Hypothetically, you have been assigned to be George Bush’s education advisor and he assigns you to design the perfect school, the emotionally safe school, and the school that is designed to create learners. What would you do? What would you include in your dream school?

Jane: Firstly, absolutely outlaw corporal punishment in school. We must become more creative and positive in dealing with discipline issues.

I would also I would throw out the idea of standardization. If you have two kids in that school don’t you dare standardize them unless they are clones.

Then, I would get rid of the current grading system, as we now know it. If you are talking about accountability, do it in a form of documentation that is actually more description, more comprehensive, and would include things like work samples, something more project-based. Use these kinds of experiences to teach basic skills.

Teach skills through projects and hands-on experiences. Rather than having everyone on the same page, bring in service learning to teach social skills. Instead of teaching a lesson on social skills, and then moving onto math, incorporate service learning in the classroom.

Return to doing what we were doing when we believed in teaching to the whole child, teaching to the heart, teaching to the head. Doing more interactive tutoring, and peer mentoring. Create multi-age classes where activities are set up so that every child can succeed and develop skills based on his or her personal needs.

Importance of movementLet kids move more. This is absolutely important. Bring in more tactile, kinesthetic, sensory stimulation. More music, more movement, more brain integration. Watch how many kids who are being labeled hyperactive are suddenly not hyperactive anymore. We can get rid of a whole lot of those labels if we get kids out of their seats, moving around, interacting, talking, and using all their senses in learning.

Develop better relationships between teachers, between teachers and administrators, between teachers and parents, so that we really do have a village, so that school is a caring community. Right now we don’t have a caring community and we don’t get caring by punishing non-caring. They don’t learn by shame and they don’t learn by punishment and they don’t learn by fear and they don’t learn by threats. And whatever they do learn by fear and threats is not what we want them to be learning.

We’ll just mail this off to George and see what he has to say. I sent him a copy of the book.

Kate: Well, he wants to be the education president.

Jane: If you want to be the education president then how about teaching the way people learn.

Kate: Thank you so much for your time.

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