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Teachers learn new discipline techniques, aim to build better relationships with students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --  Out-of-school suspensions decreased at Guyandotte Elementary School by 90 percent from 2010 to 2011.

Guyandotte Principal Martha Evans says that's all because her staff made an effort to build better relationships with students -- a simple, but key factor that's missing in many schools and causing discipline issues across the state, she said.

 "It's all about relationships. It's about teaching the kids what your expectations are -- kids want to do what you want them to do. You have to care enough to say, 'I'm not telling you this to chew you out, I'm telling you this so that you can succeed,'" Evans said.

"And when they understand that you believe in them and that you love them, they'll do anything for you." she said.

"Then you intervene when they mess up. That might mean bringing parents in or it might just mean a hand on the shoulder to say 'Honey, we don't run in the hall.' Often, that does it."

Evans helped lead a Safe and Supportive Schools class last week at Capital High School, where nearly 300 teachers from across the state attended professional development workshops.

The week of activities marked the launch of the West Virginia Center for Professional Development summer schedule.

The Safe and Supportive Schools program focuses on proactive approaches to ensure schools provide a safe and engaging learning environment.

Evans spoke to a group of teachers from Greenbrier and Webster counties Wednesday about implementing preventative methods, and the importance of analyzing school data in order to identify problems.

"Our prevention pieces are the biggest. We want to nip it in the bud before it ever happens, and the most important thing is to exhibit routines and procedures. Children find security in structure," she said. "But before you can ever change a behavior, you've got to identify where it's coming from. If I know a student has a problem with being tardy, I can't address it until I know why it's happening."

Teachers examined data from surveys taken by West Virginia students last school year, and determined ways they could help drive those numbers down that were negatively impacting students' overall health.

For instance, 16 percent of students who were surveyed in 2012 said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Thirty-five percent said they felt depression and other mental health issues were a severe problem at their schools.

In addition, 12 percent said they had smoked marijuana in the past month, and 14 percent admitted to binge drinking.

Larry Stinn, longtime teacher and principal, told teachers that they have the ability help curb those statistics by reframing the way they approach inappropriate behavior and student consequences.

"If I'm out to catch and punish them and that's my attitude, they're going to focus only on that. But if it's strictly a matter of behavior, then they have a chance to think about it," he said. "Your attitude is crucial to theirs."

Greg Cartwright, a former Calhoun County schools administrator, said that self-awareness and self-management should not only be student goals, but also goals for teachers as well.

"I was a high school principal for 22 years and in reflection, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made was assuming that when kids came to high school that they were mature enough to know how to behave," Cartwright said.

"It's about shaping behavior. It's got to be clearly stated and consistently enforced. Otherwise, they're not rules -- they're merely suggestions." Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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