Today on the podcast we’re speaking with Gianna Cassetta and Margaret Wilson, co-authors of The Caring Teacher, where they lay out specific strategies to build and improve on even the most challenging relationships.
They write that “we have to stop thinking about students from the lens of deficit and become aware of students’ potential and our responsibility for cultivating that potential in each and every student.”
Our conversation began with how Gianna got the idea for The Caring Teacher with a story about her son…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Gianna: I had the idea for the book almost four years ago. And I remember very clearly the experience that I had that made me think that I should start writing. It was around Thanksgiving holiday and family was over. And we were talking about how Caleb was developing as a soccer player and how good he felt when he was playing soccer, and how much he believed that was his place. And he developed close friendships and been a leader on his team and was able to really work through some difficult spots like in figuring out how to have conversations with coaches and things like that. And I remember saying that I wished that his school experience was like that, where he felt that engaged and able to talk to adults in that way and to feel more connected, because school's always been a place that, for him, is just not that engaging.
And I remember the family members saying something like, "So, what are you going to do about that?" With the expectation that I would jump in to get him to love school or to think about school in a different way. And I think a lot about how in our culture, in American culture, in white culture, there's this expectation that students or children are going to be the highest achievers possible and that his parents were going to be on them to do the best, get the highest GPAs, get into the best colleges, and that that's the most important thing for children. I really don't buy that. And I don't believe that for my own kids, for Caleb and for Sam, my other son, and for kids. I want them to feel passionate about what they're doing and I want them to feel compassion in the world and to be good people.
That doesn't always have to be about academic achievement. And so, as I started thinking about this book, because I do want teachers to be more aware and adults, in general, to be more aware of that, establishing good relationships can lead kids to be more engaged in school, that that connection actually matter. So even if the student doesn't see himself as the best mathematician or the best writer, that there can still be joy in the learning because they feel super connected at school. And Caleb's been, definitely gone in and out of that depending on the teacher, but that's something I want for all kids to be consistent. So that's really where it started.
Edie: And Margaret, how did you come to work with Gianna on the book?
Margaret: Well, Gianna and I go pretty far back. She started a school that I was a consultant for, a social-emotional learning consultant. And we worked really closely together there. Then after we both went off to do other things, she was doing some writing and over the years I'd occasionally read some things she wrote and talk to her about those. Then for this book, I think it was in the spring, I can't remember, Gianna. And she called. She's feeling a little stuck at a certain place with it and talked to me about the book. And the next thing I know, I was helping her write it. That's kind of how it went. We started to talk more and collaborate a little bit and I was like, "Well, why don't I try writing this part?" So it kind of grew from there. And it was really both challenging and a joy to work on with her because it brought up a lot of conversations we had had when we were working together at her school, and we had a lot of common experiences we could draw on, which was nice too.
Gianna: So Margaret was a consultant at a school that I was the school leader at in Denver. And working with her really changed my experience and thinking about how adults interact with children. She definitely lifted my level of consciousness about the importance of the adult-student relationship and the importance of kindness, and pushed me on my beliefs about how responsible I was for making students feel welcome and safe and secure in the school. So, when I was writing and I did get stuck but I knew the direction that I wanted the book to go and I knew Margaret had the expertise and the thinking to make it better. So, that was why I reached out to her.
Margaret: I've always learned so much from Gianna too. I would say that one thing we both loved about working together was that sort of challenge part of it. And I won't speak for you, Gianna, but I always, she often asked me tough questions that really elevated my level of thinking as well. So it's always been a very productive relationship.
Edie: Yeah, I mean, you start this book with a really tough question to ask ourselves, how much should we care about each other? So, will you expand on that and talk about where that question took you, that really challenging question took you?
Gianna: So, I think it relates back to what I was saying before about Margaret sort of pushing my thinking about our responsibility as adults. As a school leader, and I think this is true as a teacher too, we get very stuck in the belief and the pressure that we have to keep moving forward with kids and that we have stuff to get done and stuff to cover. And I think the pressure of daily school life can really make us forget about the caring part, particularly when we work in schools that are high needs, the students require a lot of us. There are challenges in terms of achievements, social-emotional needs, test scores. And I think a lot of us can get really lost there.
So, coming back to that question was something Margaret always helped me do. And it wasn't always easy to decide we should care about each other a lot. But that's the answer.
Margaret: Yeah, and I just want to add, for me, that... So, I did some consulting in a lot of schools and a lot of professional development with teachers. And I just want to also say that I think this comes through the book that we have a lot of empathy for all of the challenges that teachers face. But often people would ask me, "Do I have to like every student?" Or "how far do I need to go?" And I think it's something a lot of teachers wrestle with, but what we were trying to say in the book is that all of us have to make the effort. It makes such a difference for students when we do and when we don't, like a difference, obviously different ways, but it's just so worth the effort to care and to show that compassion that we talk about. And I think that both in our own classrooms and in schools we've worked in, Gianna and I've both seen what a difference that effort to connect to each other, teacher to student and then students to students in the classroom, can make.
Edie: Yeah. The book is so anecdotally rich with your own reflections and examining your own behaviors and biases, and you talk a lot about the importance of that. Could you say more about that here?
Margaret: I think one of the hardest things about writing the book, but also something that I value in any book I work on is being vulnerable and honest about our own moments when we didn't live up to maybe what we hoped or we had something that we learned from. So, in the book, we each shared some examples where we had some preconceived notions about children and then through a moment with that child or that child's family realized we had brought some things to the table. So, one of the anecdotes I wrote about in the book was a situation where at a parent-teacher conference, a mom told me that her child felt like I didn't like him. And she did it pretty harshly. She probably was very in-artful in how she said it. At the moment, I reacted, I think the way a lot of people would, and just got defensive. I'm like, "This is what I do. I'm a social-emotional learning person. I really care about all students."
But then when I stepped back from that and got past my emotions and really tried to be analytical, I started to see that I could see why he might feel that way. And I think it's so important for us as teachers to honor our own emotions, have that first reaction that's natural. But then to really start picking apart your relationship to see where things might go wrong. So for me, that's a lot of what the book is trying to help us all do is not deny how we're feeling about children, but not to stay there either, to move past that and figure out how we can improve.
Edie: Adding onto that, and you just mentioned it, how do we grow more into compassion and change negative behaviors that we recognize?
Margaret: I was going to say, there are a lot of things. I'm going to try to shorthand some and then, Gianna, you feel free to jump in. But at first, I think, is being honest with ourselves, and we have a chapter in the book that talks about why that matters and how to do some of that, really taking the time to not just say, "Oh everything is fine" or "I love my kids, they're all great," but really examine how you're feeling about kids because you can't do anything about it if you don't first recognize that. So just taking some time and we've got some exercises to think about that. And then to really start shifting our thinking, I think, about kids from that deficit model of what's wrong with them to more of an asset-based, what's going well and how can we build from there. We also talk a lot about intentionally building relationships with kids, which often just is starting with getting to know them better.
So I know sometimes when I look back on my teaching, some of my worst relationships with kids are because I didn't really get past the surface. We have a lot of strategies for that as well, and really helping them to grow into themselves. And we talk a lot about building their sense of relatedness that Gianna talked about with Caleb, helping them feel some autonomy, which is a challenge at school to feel that, have that need met. Also to feel competent at school even if you're not necessarily the best at whatever that you're feeling like throughout your day at school, you've got some confidence. And building all of those in students helps our relationships with them as well.
Gianna: I think I'd just add on that it's important for us as adults to become experts on ourselves. And a good colleague said to me not too long ago that if we got cancer, for example, we'd become experts in cancer and cancer treatment. We'd read every possible thing. We'd talked to experts in the field. We'd sort of track our bodies and how we're responding to treatments. And she said that the thing we owe to ourselves and to the students we teach is to do the same thing about our biases. Because if we don't become experts in what we're actually thinking and feeling about students, it becomes impossible to grow into more compassionate people. That the self-awareness has to come first so that we can begin to give ourselves space from that initial reaction that we're having to kids, who we don't have the best feelings for it, and to give ourselves space to put ourselves in their shoes and really start to think about the experience through their lens.
Margaret: Yeah. Just to add one more thing to that too. Obviously, I think it's very scary for people to admit they have any biases. So, a starting point is to recognize that everyone does and not have so much fear around that. And part of that has to do with that adult community too and building a place where you can discuss with other people without being judged, and discuss common biases that people might share.
Edie: You also note the importance of dialogue both internal and how we speak in public. Could you talk more about that?
Margaret: So, one piece that in working on the book and then some of the work we had done, each of us separately and together, is just the importance of, first of all, how we talk about kids even to ourselves. It seems like that's a little abstract but it really matters. If you think about it, if you're always thinking how problematic a child is for you and what trouble that child is making and if this child only would leave your classroom, things would be better, it's just impossible for you to feel good about that child and move forward in some ways. So, even though that internal dialogue might sound very, like I said, sort of abstract and hard to work on, it's so key to everything else. Because until you can sort of change that internal dialogue, it's hard to take steps externally to do anything about the problems that you're facing with a child.
Then in terms of those external conversations, we spend a lot of time in the book talking about how important it is how we speak about children with our colleagues. I'm sure a lot of people have experienced this too, have all experienced times when you're in the teacher workroom or the lounge and people are talking about children in such negative ways that it just makes it hard to make any progress with them. It just affects how you treat children and what you come to expect to children. One anecdote I talk about in the book is just how hard it was sometimes to have a colleague from the grade before you talk about a certain child in a certain way. I had one where I was almost dreading having the student in my class before I'd really even met him. And how damaging those sort of external conversations about children can be, both for our relationships with other adults and with the children.
So in terms of the other adults, a lot of expertise exists in teachers. There are people, that if we have productive conversations in our buildings, who can help us. But if all we're doing is spending our time is complaining about these children, we're not getting anything from that. Then internally as well, the more negative conversations we have, the worse we feel about the children and the situation. That, in turn, creates a negative cycle that just keeps repeating. What we're recommending in the book is trying to break that internal dialogue that you have, by shifting into a more positive frame, and then those external conversations too, trying to change either who you talk to, so trying to find people who can have those productive conversations or how you talk to people. We have some specific protocols for how to do some of that in the book, but it's so essential, both to how we feel and to how we act towards students.
Gianna: Everything Margaret said is about developing our own social and emotional competencies as adults. And that's the way we focus our attention or where we focus our attention, becomes our reality. So if our attention is always focused on deficits of students or what's not going well, or how a student or a parent wronged us, that's our reality. But if our attention is focused on problem-solving or moving forward or developing a relationship, that's our reality. So as adults, we have lots of choices about where we focus our attention. The other piece of this is, as humans, we talk about how the brain develops in different parts of the book. But as humans, most of our thoughts are negative. That's like a survival mechanism, but that doesn't mean that our thoughts are true. And part of having social and emotional competence is recognizing that our thoughts are not true, in deciding which thoughts to have. I think that's a lot of the work in the book is deciding how we're going to focus our attention, to be more positive.
Margaret: And just to add onto that, I think one thing in working with teachers that really helped people was when they realized that there was power in what Gianna just said, that you're not trapped by your current feelings and reality. You can actually have the power to change that. And I think that is so empowering because often, when you're in situations with challenges, whether they be with colleagues or students, you feel like, "I can't do anything about this," but I think what we're trying to show is you can actually do that and you can change your reality. Ultimately, that is very freeing and empowering as well.
One thing in writing the book that really struck me was just a lot of the strategies that we offer and a lot of the protocols require a lot of work of teachers, a lot of internal work, work with colleagues, and then work within your classroom. But the message I'd want to give to people reading and I think we strive to give in the book, is that there's a lot of joy in that too. And I know for me, days when I really was on my game and really bringing the strategies that we talk about, that my classroom was more joyful, and having those strong relationships with students made going to the classroom easier to do. Ultimately, creating joy in our classrooms for ourselves and our students is going to help all of us. So I feel like all that work has that payoff, that I think really enriches teachers' lives and can help sustain teachers through challenges.
Gianna: The thing I'd want to just say, I think this goes back to the beginning when I was talking about Caleb. It's, I think parents and adults and teachers and principals, we waste so much energy trying to get children, students, teenagers to fit into the mold that we have created in our minds of what children should be like. And it's culture, it's expectation, it's pressure. We get kind of stuck in this, in what we expect kids to be like. The reality is that humans are all very different from each other. And that if we could step outside of ourselves a little bit and recognize that there are so many different ways for different kids to demonstrate that they're competent and that it doesn't need to look one way and that there are so many ways for kids to experience decision-making and choice and autonomy. There are so many unique ways to build relationships and to get to know children, that could bring out that joy that Margaret's talking about. If we could just give ourselves some space to allow for that, we'd be so much happier as parents and as educators.
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Gianna Cassetta is a former teacher, principal, coach, and district level leader. Her passion for the teaching and learning process, and her commitment to whole child-focused opportunities that are differentiated to meet the needs of each student, led her to cofound and lead public, charter conversion, and charter schools in Harlem, New York, and in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of several Heinemann books: Classroom Management Matters: The Social and Emotional Learning Approach That Children Deserve; No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Practices; and The Caring Teacher: Strategies for Working Through Our Own Difficulties with Students. Follow Gianna on Twitter @Gianna_Cassetta.
Margaret Wilson was a classroom teacher for 15 years. She has taught kindergarten, first, second, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade. She has also worked as an assistant principal, professional developer, coach, and curriculum developer. She is the author of nine books, including The Language of Learning and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More.