A Social Contract for Well-Being
When writing dialogue for fiction, I have found a useful practice is to simply open one’s ears. This is not the same as active eavesdropping, as opening the ears is closer to turning off the natural filters one uses to drown out the background noise. The overly loud and frequently unavoidable conversations filled with laughter, anger, and idle chat about items without any context can all contribute to a writer's idea box, which led me to consider: what might a similar practice of listening do for a teacher?
And in replacing my writer hat with my teacher one now that school is back in session, I’ve realized that if the noises are parsed properly, the results can be quite similar. By filtering out the gossip and latest trends in pop culture while hearing what students think of other classes and other subjects, the teacher gains insight on a surface level. I form a sense of what projects are making the rounds, and I gauge stress to some small extent, all from the boisterous echoes and half-yelled speech during a passing period.
Unfortunately, a common refrain I hear is "teacher X hates me." I could disregard this as a student being overly dramatic. Conversely, I could assume the worst in that the student’s belief is true. As hard as it is for me to believe a teacher can hate a student, I felt this myself during my own high school years. Therefore, in preparation for this year, I asked myself: How can I prevent this idea from even forming in the first place?
In my college writing classes, one professor used the phrase "social contract" to emphasize the importance of collaborative work. The essence of this phrase rests on the idea that if we could not be respectful in our feedback of others’ work, why then would others be respectful of us? I carried this over into teaching my creative writing class, couching it as "the purpose is not to tear one down but to build one up." Considering how I could extend this into my senior English classes, I researched the actual philosophy and theories behind social contracts, and I couldn't help but oversimplify what I learned using the context of the television show "The Good Place." Simply put, "what do we owe each other?"
Our school, like many others, requires students to sign policy sheets under the assumption that they and their parents read said policies. With these policy sheets, schools and teachers dictate the rules and expectations to the students. The signatures act as the supposed promise of agreement to the contract. The implication is that these policies put in place by administrators and teachers will provide the necessary boundaries and help the students to be their best selves.
However, this type of agreement feels one-sided to me in some regards. I try to convey to my students that "class is what you make it,” yet, the emphasis on "you" seems too much like a buzzword in this instance. Students tend to still feel that the teacher decides everything in the class regardless. The pronoun becomes "I" instead of "you" when the teacher speaks, making the exercise rote. Is there a way for all players in the classroom, teacher and students, to invest the same energy and take the same amount of responsibility for the class’ success? Maybe the idea should be "class is what we make it."
The policy sheets on a bureaucratic level are fine. They represent a greater set of guidelines for the school and the department. But what can the teacher do beyond these general policies? What is the teacher promising to deliver to the students beyond the content? What is the other side of the social contract?
That last question is what pushed me to try something different this year. Mind you, I'm saying different and not new. A recent session with author and educational consultant George Couros during our in-service confirmed what I was thinking about was not wholly fresh. Still, these ideas are new to me, and my endeavor to try a new social contract is with hope that I can empower my students from the onset of the new school year. Therefore, on day one of class, I began by listing out my own set of promises as a part of this would-be agreement:
1. The most important word is "yet." I picked this phrase up from a professional development course through One Schoolhouse, and it remains the most resonant statement from that time. If a student says they are not a good writer, I will counter by saying they are not a good writer "yet." If they say they do not understand, I will reply that they do not understand “yet.” Optimistic as I can be at times, many of my former students eventually came to recognize that I wasn’t content to cover the subject and move on. Paired with the needed flexibility during the pandemic, students realized they would have time and space to grow. Including this facet in the contract seemed a natural path to take.
2. "Bell to Bell" includes time to process and work. In my earliest days of teaching, I remember feeling like a failure if I couldn’t fill every minute of class with content or activity. Thankfully, teachers in my department helped me to see beyond this hurdle. More so, COVID-19 and all its distractions necessitated more time to process the content at hand. However, even more important than what I already knew as the teacher, it would be my students, in all their brutal honesty, who would say they liked the time to work in class. Many of their other classes entailed non-stop lectures every day, and that fact only piled on to their stress. The work I assigned was by no means less rigorous than what was expected in these other, more traditional, classes, but they once again felt they had the time they needed to breathe. I am also in no way trying to be critical of teachers who are able to or feel the need to lead the learning from start to finish in their own classrooms; this is just not my method. Letting my students know that fact seems reasonable.
3. The class is for extroverts and introverts alike. I am an unabashed introvert with extreme anxiety about large group discussions or even being told to form a group for that matter. Despite the presence of students who feel comfortable taking over most group discussions, the voices of the introverts are just as important, even if they prefer to remain silent. Similarly, there are others who only speak as a matter of duty to the class, adding to their own real stress. The promise then becomes finding a way everyone can be heard and acknowledge each person's contribution. Wanting to know my students’ personality types and their learning styles empowers me to modify where needed.
4. Creativity will not be the enemy. Instead, it will be one of many tools. I’ve written about this before in my post “First Year Epiphanies: A Spring of Wellness.” As a self-proclaimed creative person, I thrive on projects that allow for innovative intellectual and artistic freedom. Naturally, I become fearful of anything geared to be more clinical and academic. Not every student is like me, however, and their preferences for more concrete or logical types of assignments can also be accomodated. Neither end of the spectrum should be wielded like a hammer, but both should be tools a student can pull out when needed with some level of comfort.
5. Respect is to be shared. Teachers expect respect in the classroom, and it should go without saying that teachers should respect the intelligence and agency of their students. To paraphrase my colleague Kirsten Lindsay-Hudak, sometimes the second part of that respect equation can be forgotten. If one side of the equation does not feel respected, why then would respect be returned? This promise could be perceived as the most simple, but its inclusion on this list demonstrates how common it is for students to feel like they’re an afterthought.
6. I want to hear the student’s voice. If I’m wanting a student to participate, then I want to hear what they have to say. I may not agree with their argument, but I don’t see that as important in comparison to helping them make that argument with proper evidence and analysis. Some students are surprised to see how far I let them go with their points, but eventually they realize that for their point to land, it needs the substance to back it up. Hearing their voice also plays into the point of reciprocating respect. Both feed into empowerment.
7. The teacher will help the student to know enough to ask. I like to tell my students a story from when I was in high school. While driving to work, I was pulled over by a police officer and given a ticket for an expired registration. I had no idea what the registration sticker was, what it was for, or that it was even there. My father was upset about the ticket, but my mother pointed out to him that I “didn’t know enough to ask.” I share that story with my students with my goal of giving them a foundation in which they can form their own questions and direct them appropriately. Building research skills and establishing a knowledge base both feed into this particular promise.
I expected more than a few looks of skepticism when I first presented this to my classes. If any of them knew me prior to my being their teacher, it was through my still relatively young reputation as a teacher or through personal experiences from my time working in technology. Save for a select few, they had no idea if I was being serious with this whole concept. I am very aware that to say and to do are two different things; one needs the other to work. At the suggestion of another colleague, Dr. Corby Baxter, I created my own policy sheet to sign, one that specifically stated I agreed to adhere to the promises I laid out. Further, this policy sheet specifically states that students are given permission to hold me accountable to the times when I am not fulfilling my obligations. I knew that some would take the symbolism of this signed sheet seriously, and I knew that some would only view it as performative. For a social contract to work, both sides need to live up to the standards. Both sides need to trust the other.
Alas, this is an experiment. I have a general idea of what some of the above promises may lead to, but others will have to play out throughout the year. To tell you all that I’ve reached these conclusions based on a hypothesis without examining the data would be folly as well. My introduction here is only the first of what I anticipate to be a series. The next in this series entails a survey I issued to my students about their expectations of the social contract and what they felt they needed to be successful. The data is dense, but I’ve already seen interesting trends in my unpacking of the information.
Additionally, I’ve shared my contract experiment with a few other teachers at my school, and some have found ways they’d like to integrate the idea into their own classes. The interest is not simply within our English department as it has found life with teachers from both science and social studies as well. My hope is that future posts from myself or guest writers to the blog will share the good and bad of this idea.
Ultimately, my work with social contracts this year and in the future is intended to be malleable, just like the ever evolving concepts of well-being. Should the experiment prove fruitful, then the well-being of both student and teacher will be improved. Ultimately, both parties should feel empowered.
Kyle Lee is also known as our Literary Hephaestion and Occasional Vocational Tumbleweed