“You, in this room, are the best social change agents” -Dr. George Sugai to Southbridge educators
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – Local educators gathered at the Southbridge High School auditorium Tues, Aug. 21 for a convocation to launch the academic year. The building was full of excitement as teachers and staff from all schools in the district gathered before the formal schedule for the day’s activites began.
At 8 a.m. receiver Jeffrey Villar greeted both new and returning teachers for what will be his first full academic year leading the district. Villar spoke about his own early experiences as a teacher in both rural and urban districts and the challenges of being an educator. While he said that he lacked support in his early career teaching at a troubled urban district, he indicated to staff that they could expect plenty of support in their day to day work as educators.
“It is an exciting day for us. We are starting to do the important work of being teachers,” Villar told the group. “Working in a turnaround district is as hard as education gets. It is also the most rewarding,” he continued.
Villar introduced the featured speaker at the convocation, Dr. George Sugai, who Villar referred to as “the guru of climate and culture” in educational settings.
Sugai is a leading expert in education and behavioral interventions and is based at The University of Connecticut. He is co-director of the National Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS is used in school systems, including Southbridge Schools, to promote behavior that supports academic and social-emotional learning. Sugai is also a research scientist at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research at the UConn Neag School of Education, the Carole J. Neag Endowed Chair professor and the co-director of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs’ Early Childhood Personnel Center. His areas of expertise include systems change, personnel preparation and behavior management in schools.
Dr. Sugai urged Southbridge educators to ask themselves, “What is the smallest thing I can do to make the largest difference?” in the lives of their students.
“You, in this room, are the best social change agents,” Sugai remarked, noting that teachers spend 180 days per year, six hours a day, for 12 years or more with children as they grow into adulthood and as a result, they have tremendous power to make an impact – negative or positive.
A recurring theme in his presentation was that the adults in a child’s life play a large role in that child’s behavior and educational outcomes. The manner in which challenging behavior is met by adults can reinforce the behavior, or it can move in a more the student in a more positive direction, according to Sugai. He asked educators to assess their own biases and what experiences have contributed to their personal social and academic learning, including the assumptions that they may make about individual students without realizing it.
The auditorium of educators and administrators started the 2018- 2019 school year with three “homework assignments” of their own from Sugai, which were designed to self-assess their learning and background as they approached the task of teaching in the troubled district. One of the assignments asked educators to think back to key experiences, good or bad, in their formal education or personal lives that could influence their outlook and approach to education.
He noted that students who have at least one adult at a school who they feel confident approaching and confiding in are more likely to thrive academically and psycho-socially. Students with this important resource are also statistically more likely to consider school a safe place, according to Sugai.
“How do we, in Southbridge, make every student feel that they have an adult they can feel safe with?” he asked the audience.
Sugai also offered what he referred to as “low cost, high yield” proactive strategies to assure that students were engaged and felt recognized at the start of the day or the school year. He recommended personal greetings and interactions at the start of the day or school year, positive reinforcement and other strategies to engage students and to establish a climate of trust.
Sugai wove anecdotes about his own family life and learning into the presentation, lending a sense of familiarity and humor to his message. He included tales of his family’s experience as Japanese prisoners of American internment camps in Poston, AZ and how the family adjusted to discrimination.
Following Sugai’s presentation, DESE commissioner Jeff Riley addressed the teachers and staff before the educators continued with further professional development and preparation for the 2018- 2019 school year. The first day of school for Southbridge students is Mon., Aug. 27 except for kindergarten, which starts on Thurs. Aug. 30.