Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Unleashed Emotions Spark Success in Middle School, Says Author Bernie Schein

As the new school year swiftly approaches, parents of sixth graders are bracing for their foray into the dreaded middle school years.  Veteran middle school parents have warned them that their obedient, pleasant children are about to morph into angst-ridden pre-teens, percolating with an explosive concoction of attitude, anxiety and hormones.  Parents are wondering how they’re going to facilitate the academic progress of their middle school children if merely talking to them poses a challenge.

In his book, “If Holden Caulfield Were in My Classroom: Inspiring Love, Creativity, and Intelligence in Middle School Kids” (Sentient Publications), esteemed educator Bernie Schein shows parents and teachers how he dismantled his students’ protective walls and fostered their intellectual and artistic abilities through his unconventional teaching style. 

The book focuses on the seventh and eighth grade students in Schein’s English and social studies classes at Paideia, a private school in Atlanta where he taught before retiring.  He was the principal of three different schools in Mississippi and South Carolina before joining the staff at Paideia, which he helped start.  He holds a Master of Education degree from Harvard University, with an emphasis in educational psychology.

By encouraging his students to acknowledge their emotions and embrace honesty, Schein fostered their appreciation and understanding of literature, and enabled them to craft rich and meaningful essays.  He conveys his process through detailed accounts of the interactions and discussions among the students in his classroom.  He relates the background of each student, describing the relationships and incidents in their past and present that have influenced their attitudes, outlooks, and social and emotional growth.

One of the many messages Schein imparts is that parental support benefited his students.  When discussing Betsy, Kathleen and Joseph, he writes, “They do have an advantage: their parents are supportive, or at least respectful, of their education, as are the parents of most of the students I teach.”

In a recent interview, I asked Schein what qualities characterize a supportive parent.  “They would listen to their children,” he says.

All children endure some type of trauma growing up, such as sibling rivalry or social rejection, which influences their behavior and attitudes, Schein says.  Children can learn and grow from these experiences, but only if they deal with them by opening up to their parents, he says.  The group “counseling sessions” that took place in his classroom helped his students discover their true feelings and muster the courage to share them with their parents.

Schein offers parents the following suggestions:

* Listen.  “Listening opens the child up,” he says.

* Refrain from lecturing.

* Allow children to express their anger openly.  “Truth is underneath it, and it can come flowing out,” he says.

* Refrain from trying to fix the problem.  “It denies his pain,” he says.

* Avoid cheerleading when the child is down, which also invalidates the pain.

A strong parent-child bond leads to greater academic and creative achievements, Schein says.  The notion that teens yearn to separate from their parents is a myth.  “They’re dying for a close, intimate relationship,” he says.  However, “a teenager doesn’t walk up to an adult—a parent or teacher—and say, ‘I need you, I love you, can you help me?’”  Instead, they act out and perform poorly in school.  “They passive aggressively just dynamite the entire household.  They’ll do little things.  They’ll do big things,” Schein says.  “They speak in opposites.  They act in opposites.”

In a section of the book intended for teachers, Schein discusses the importance of the parent-teacher relationship.  “Parents and I work very closely together,” Schein writes.  “I couldn’t do what I do without them, and I’m very grateful to them and honored that they would entrust their kids to me.  As long as I’m talking with them, we’re for the most part delighted with each other.”

To establish a connection with parents, Schein would meet with them individually at the beginning of the year “and take pains to explain what I was doing and why I was doing it,” he says.  In addition, his students got their parents involved by going home and talking about the class.  He also stressed to parents that they should contact him with any questions or concerns.  “If a parent calls me with a problem, the first thing they hear is, ‘I’m worried about this,’” he says.  “The biggest crime of all for a teacher, in my mind, is not what you do or what you see, but what you miss.”

In his “Letter from the Headmaster,” Paul Bianchi, head of Paideia, writes, “Over the years more than a few parents have asked me to intercede on their child’s behalf in the hopes that Bernie would be less demanding.  I do not accede to this request but instead insist that they talk directly to Bernie (which is where they should have gone in the first place.)” 

Schein says he responded to parents who complained he was too demanding by addressing the cause of the student’s problem with the workload.  “If the hysteria was real, then lets get to the root of the hysteria,” he says.  However, most of the time “the kid was being manipulative to get out of doing what he needed to do.  The kid didn’t know this most of the time.”   

Although Schein’s main goal was to help his students uncover the hidden truths and suppressed emotions that adversely affected their behavior and squelched their potential, he’s not opposed to discipline when necessary.  “Sometimes I’d give them calisthenics,” he says. 

If a student failed to hand in a homework assignment, he would tell the student not to return to school until he or she had the work.  He required the student to write the note home explaining the situation.

While Schein has retired from Paideia, he remains active in the education field through his workshops, talks and writing.  “When I retired I went nuts.  I wanted to go downtown and tackle people and ask them if they wanted to learn something.”

For more information about Bernie Schein, visit his website at

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