Stafford offers views on teaching, supporting middle years students

Column: 
December 22, 2017

Stafford

Debra Stafford shares personal observations with audience at Saskatchewan Middle Years Association convention.

Given that the background information refers to her as an educational consultant as well as an author, it was perhaps predictable that Dedra Stafford infused both roles while addressing the Saskatchewan Middle Years Association convention.

Phrases like “thrive skills,” “grit” and “growth mindset” punctuated her concurrent session as well. These phrases also happen to be key components in the book Teaching Kids To Thrive: Teaching Kids the Other Essential Skills for Success, which Stafford co-wrote with Debbie Thompson Silver.

While arguably most of what Stafford was selling would have been well known to the educators in the room, there was nevertheless plenty of folks taking notes or utilizing their cell phones to capture the messages in her session.

Stafford’s presentation was sprinkled with her wit, which was geared specifically for those teachers who are entrusted with middle years students similar to what she had also done for nearly two decades herself.

There were also plenty of nods of agreement among the participants when Stafford alluded to the intense changes in students’ brains in adolescence.

“We need to understand that a major change in a child at that age can happen right there in your classroom, and we have to be aware that all brains mature differently since the students’ decision maker is still developing.”

Stafford stressed that the role of the teacher in this often unsettling time for middle years students is to scaffold their learning while stressing the need for patience in their approach.

Echoing the often referred to language regarding 21st century learners, Stafford suggested that in all likelihood this will mean students will need to do things differently than in current practice.

According to her research on the subject, Stafford stressed that thrive skills can make or break a kid. “This is not something you’re going to find in your book like math and reading, but it is critical in preparing these students,” she said.

Stafford noted that thrive skills can be incorporated into existing curriculum without investing additional instructional time.

Her reference to thrive skills segued into the word grit, which she said has actually resulted in some push back from the education sector, particularly in her native United States.

In an effort to illustrate how grit works, she administered what was ostensibly a mathematical quiz for the teachers in the room. The results would determine their respective grit factor.

In Stafford’s view, the grit factor translates into making sure students understand that effort is essential to achievement. “We need to focus on perseverance and tenacity and to help students understand that you need to keep going when you experience adversity.”

Stafford also stressed the need for middle years students and teachers alike to allow for the growth mindset that is occurring at this age.

“Ability is developed, and you as the teachers are the ones planting the seeds. So, you need to have an environment that is challenging and prepares them to be resilient, and to help them understand that maybe you can’t do this yet.

“But, it’s important to remember that when you struggle is when you learn. You’re not learning if it’s too easy. You give them the tools and the strategies to help them see that pathway. Mistakes along the way allows thinking to happen. To fail is normal; it gives them a chance to solve the problem for the next time and to overcome that obstacle. It’s important to get through to these kids the importance of working really hard and then you have to let them grow.”

This approach is all part of Stafford’s firmly held belief that it is essential for kids to take ownership of their own learning and thereby develop the problem-solving traits that will serve them well in the future.

“If you give them all the answers, you’re not teaching. You are there to provide them with opportunities to learn and to see what their strengths are. By building self-efficacy you’re turning your kids loose and they earn it in terms of figuring out the problem they are presented with.”

Stafford underscored the importance of letting students fail as long as you’re there to provide the support.

“You’re there to help them get up if they fall and you want to help get them from failure to success. You can’t fix everything, but you’ve got to plant the seed and nurture it,” she said.