Elmer Winner's goal is to cultivate, "vibrant, nurturing organizations committed to ensuring students with a quality learning environment," which should be appreciated by any student, parent, teacher or administrator. His main plan of action is to keep telling them and showing them over and over again in as many ways as possible. In this way, Winner uses the precepts of behavioural psychology and reinforcement to deliver desirable outcomes and meaningful school climate change.
It should be noted that the American system of schooling considers 'elementary' to mean kindergarten to grade five - not K to 8 as is the case in Canada. This is an important point since many of Winner's approaches involve repetition of phrases, memorization of important "messages," and activities that reinforce these messages of caring and positivity. I would have reservations about implementing the "positive person messages" with a class full of thirteen-year-olds (as is the case in our Grade 8 classes), but they could certainly be successful dealing with younger age-groups. Winner's statement: "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care," is indicative of the kinds of leadership techniques and school vision that he professes about.
As a school leader, improvements in attitude and behaviour can only be made possible and achievable by individuals having a real desire to change and the commitment to make it so. This book focuses on the approaches to student change, but I believe that teachers, too, often need changes in attitude and behaviour; in order to further their practice and adopt new and effective methods of reaching students - thereby raising achievement (however you choose to measure it).
On the topic of discipline and teaching students about correct behaviour choices, Winner describes that students must experience the "natural and unpleasant consequences of their own misbehaviour," but must also hear that you care about them and are committed to helping them. The relationship between choices and consequences is a crucial first-step to improving student behaviour, especially by using the principles of reinforcement to diminish negative behaviours and encourage positive ones (as explained by psychologist B.F. Skinner).
I enjoyed Winner's reference to things that are, "built upon sand rather than rock." This focus on initiatives and 'fly-by-night' ideas that attempt to improve instructional programs hits close to home for any educator who has spent time working in the education system. Many of the 'next great fix' approaches to improving schools are not grounded in grassroots-kinds of discourse. For meaningful change to occur, all facets of the education sector should be involved and accountable. Top-down decision-making and implementation is perhaps the worst way to improve our schools. Treat teachers not just as professionals, but as shareholders of wisdom and classroom knowledge. Tap into their strengths, goals and desires - since they are the ones who will be instituting change measures and new methods.
Winner disagrees with B.F. Skinner's postulation that it is more productive to study observable behaviour than internal mental processes. It is through an examination and careful consideration for these internal mental processes that Winner believes caring can break through and be lasting. B.F. Skinner's findings that behaviour that is reinforced will be continued and strengthened, but those behaviours that are not reinforced with be extinguished or eventually die out is the cornerstone of this book's pathway to cultivating a caring school environment.
On this point, often in a classroom teachers can fall victim to the habit of giving reinforcement and attention to negative student behaviour. Loudly saying a student's name or repeating it can actually serve to reinforce the behaviour since they are attaining your interest and attention (regardless of the fact that it's in a negative way). It is the most effective approach in class management style to
- Address the behaviour - not the child.
- Withdraw all attention and redirect using as little interaction and attention as possible.
- Avoid correcting students solely by saying their name.
Quoting a line from Blanchard's book, The One-Minute Manager, Elmer echoes: "...children are not what they think they are. Children are not what we think they are. But children will usually become what they think we think they are." With these powerful words, teacher-readers are instantly slapped with the realization that it is often OUR body language, words, and interactions with students that facilitates their own sense of self-worth and willingness to explore their own academic potential. Teachers can make or break a student's desire to try - a phenomenon that each and every one of us can probably attest to at some point in our own school days experiences growing up. Positive mentors and role models are needed in a child's life, in order to build the wealth of positive feedback and reinforcement required to develop a well-rounded and strong person.
A criticism that I have about one section in this book is Winner's choice (in the chapter of "Self-Control Techniques") to use the phrase "I'm an American citizen. You don't have the right to hurt me." While reading this sentence I found myself asking which citizens in the world does someone have the right to hurt? By focusing on the nationality and not the collective aspects of an individual, there is a diminishing of the powerful idea that abuse and injury should not be tolerated. Substituting "I'm a positive person" or "I'm a global citizen or even "I'm a person" would more effectively appeal to the ideas contained within the "Universal Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms" - not just an Americanized ideal of what American citizens are entitled to.
With that being said, there are some encouraging anecdotes and inspiring examples within the pages of this book. "The Power of Caring for Elementary Schools: Success Secrets for Principals, Teachers, and Parents," is the result of Winner's personal thinking and beliefs about children having worked for them for nearly thirty years in a public school setting. If you want to know more about this book visit Elmer Winner's website "The Power of Caring."