Special Education Opinion

5 Tips for Healthy and Happy Students (and Teachers)

By Brian Ristow — November 15, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: In 2017, Brian Ristow, a special education teacher at TeWinkle Middle School in California, was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to New Zealand. While there, he found students to be more independent and happier. Here are his recommendations for bringing that happiness into U.S. classrooms.

On my previous trips to New Zealand, I encountered school after school full of smiling schoolchildren, in formal school uniforms, without any shoes on, in the dead of winter! To be clear, these children did indeed have shoes, but they chose to not wear them and were given the freedom to make this choice. The notion of children being barefoot at school is indicative of a larger philosophical framework, one in which children are given the freedom to “lead” in the educational process.

In many ways, kids in New Zealand are let free to be kids—although given certain guardrails and clear expectations by the teacher—to explore, to inquire, and to discover. Oddly enough, it seems to work! In my exploration of schools in New Zealand, I witnessed some of the most well-adjusted, creative, confident, mentally healthy, and happy students. (And for the data-driven, evidence-based proponents, New Zealand consistently scores near the top of the list on PISA tests). The following are a collection of ideas for healthy and happy students (and teachers) inspired by visits to K-12 schools throughout New Zealand, compiled in the hope of bringing a measure of sanity and balance back to an overly demanding American educational experience.

Tip #1: Take Risks

“This is a safe place to make a mistake”

“Mistakes make us clever”

“Mistakes are the steppingstones to learning”

“Risk is the soil for growth”

These are direct quotes found on walls of classrooms. Risk-taking is not exclusive to students, but should be modeled by teachers as well. Take a risk to teach something new this year, something out of your comfort zone, ideally something chosen by students. In the height of the fidget-spinner craze, one school withheld its judgment on the matter and instead held a “Fidget Learning Day,” led by students, to discuss the place of fidget spinners in school. (Surprisingly, the students overwhelmingly voiced concern for potential distraction.)

Tip #2: Encourage a Sense of Responsibility

“Participation” and “contribution” are two words found throughout the official New Zealand Curriculum. There is an emphasis on participation and contribution not only within the walls of the classroom, but outside those walls as well. In secondary school, students are selected to serve on the school board as full board members. They vote on budgetary matters, help determine appropriate disciplinary measures, and interview potential teachers. In elementary schools, students are commonly put in charge of running all aspects of schoolwide assemblies from greeting, to programing, to emceeing, to running the audio/visual system. Students serve as lunchtime playground monitors, act as crossing guards, and lead safety teams. Students are not forced into these roles, but rather, covet such responsibilities. Arguing over who gets to be the lunchtime playground monitor is a regular occurrence. When I asked one of my own children about her experiences in the first few weeks of school in New Zealand, she lamented, “There’s too much responsibility.” As Americans, we aren’t so used to such participation, but certainly it would do us well!

Tip #3: Encourage Autonomous Learning

While the idea of “independent studies” in the United States has connotations of a lack of teaching or lazy teaching, autonomous learning is the idea of independent, meaningful learning without close supervision. In visiting schools across New Zealand, one of the first impressions one gets is: Where are all the teachers? Students are often spread across the classroom and across campus, working on a variety of impressive tasks, seemingly unsupervised. From the very first year of schooling, there is an explicit emphasis on managing self. “I can work in a variety of settings without the teacher having to monitor my behavior,” is a common learning target. Upon asking about this pervasive independent (or autonomous) learning, one elementary school teacher commented, “Independent may mean individually or collaboratively, but without the teacher.” In such an environment, children have the space to explore, discover, and design on their own; they are learning to learn, without the teacher.

Tip #4: Nurture Well-Being

Teachers who are well, who are in their best state, will naturally bring that positive state of being into the classroom. Alternately, teachers who are unwell, who are in a less than ideal state, no matter how good their intentions, will bring residual negativity. As teachers, we know this to be true; a bad morning at home will set us up for failure later on at school. A number of examples abound to promote teacher well-being, which will, of course, promote student well-being.

One school sacrificed the first 5-10 minutes of every staff meeting for staff to check in with a small group of colleagues around the prompt, “How are you?” Although sacrificing valuable meeting minutes, the principal found a more engaged staff and more productive meetings occurring as a result of staff members checking in with each other prior to a meeting.

In another example, a principal described a long-standing practice of asking his teachers at the beginning of year:

(1) How will you keep yourself well this year?

(2) How can I help you do this at school?

After receiving feedback, he proceeds to make arrangements and bring in items that will promote the well-being of his staff, according to their responses. In his mind, it is a crucial aspect of his job to look after his teachers in this manner, so that teachers may look well after their students.

Tip #5: Have Fun

“Things learned without joy will be easily forgotten"—Finnish Proverb

As parents, teachers, and community members, I think we all unanimously agree that our current education system is not designed for the promotion of joy. Yet it does not have to be so. The Finnish system has the concept of joy embedded in the curriculum, and the New Zealand Curriculum also has a recurring aim to promote positive attitudes toward learning, that students should “enjoy language and literature in all its variety.” Learning should be fun; school should be enjoyable.

I was fortunate to visit a 1st grade class on a Friday afternoon to witness the highlight of the week—an activity they called “Junk.” To the chants of “junk, junk, junk,” each Friday the teacher dumped out bags full of the weekly recycling collection onto the floor. The students spent the next hour designing and assembling a vast array of creations using the recycling. There were no parameters, no direction. This was my daughter’s class, and this was the highlight of her week, every week. Her skillful teacher is well aware of the link between joy and learning, purposely designing activities to promote creativity, problem-solving, and engineering, with no shortage of fun.

In conclusion, promoting healthy and happy students (and teachers) falls very much within the realm of education, not outside of it. How can you, as a student, parent, teacher, or community member incorporate taking risks, building a sense of responsibility, promoting autonomous learning, nurturing well-being, and having fun in our schools? Pick one, surround it with student choice and student voice, ensure it is student-centered and student-led, and have fun!

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos taken by, and used with permission of, the author.

Image 1: Barefoot students in a New Zealand classroom.

Image 2: Students learning leadership skills as crossing guards.

Image 3: Sign in school.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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