Alexs has had a diverse career bringing an innovative eye and heart to the areas of education, literature, business and race. He is an award winning author and a passionate proponent for the renovation of the American public education system by infusing our schools with a focus on the innocence and goodness of their marginalized students, especially students of color. This theme, above all others is interwoven in all of his literary works as well as his consultative efforts with public and private organizations.
Given an opportunity–one that few writers, scholars and intellectuals are given–to bring an idea that emanated from theoretical work into actual practice, he created the innovative and successful Innocent Classroom™. It brings common sense, empathy, redemptive energy and honesty together and into the classroom.
Daniel: It's really difficult to build relationships, to build trust, to create the type of environment where people flourish. If you have a hard heart, good news is that today's guest Alexs Pate, really his whole message about Innocent Classroom concerns, a softening of our hearts and how we can see our children, our students, our staff, maybe even for the first time. So we're going to talk about that throughout today's conversation, but we're going to start with an interesting story about Alexs and how he has pivoted over his career. Hey, it's Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back right after these messages. From our show's sponsors.
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Daniel: Hello, Ruckus Maker. I am so excited to be joined today with Alex Pate, an author and educator who launched Innocent Classroom in 2012 with a vision to eliminate power of racial stereotypes in our schools through authentic relationships between teacher and child, more than 8,000 educators in 300 schools are using the Innocent Classroom. Alexs' teacher by teacher, school by school approach shows results where other efforts have failed. You can check out all this great firstname.lastname@example.org. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alexs: My pleasure. I'm really happy to be here. Yeah. Thanks Dan, for having me appreciate it.
Daniel: Something we talked about in our intro call was just the amount of times you've pivoted and that's important because that's sort of the name of the game right now, especially for educators and school leaders. So can you, can you share one of those pivot moments for us and your thinking behind it and that experience?
Alexs: Well, If we're talking about Innocent Classrooms specifically, I think one of the great pivots was the recognition of what the challenges are. Public school teachers in general, educators in general are facing and how difficult it is to absorb new strategies that sort of innovate in the way of relationships. In other words, I think a lot of educators accept the relationship that children present to them as opposed to constructing new relationships. When we first started, I had to really back up and acknowledge the hard work and the challenges that teachers were confronted with and construct a new way of reaching out to educators on how to reach out to their children. In my life, of course we were talking about pivots and changes. They're myriad, right? So I'm a novelist by profession, so to speak. I was a professor when I started this program and my journey to find this concept of innocence, this theoretical approach that I wanted to try out, took me many years to sort of evolve into. I began, as I say to folks, I think I said to you, it started off as a meditation for me. It's like, what is the difficulties that I was confronted with in my journey as a young black man, and then moving into later stages of my life and still not feeling free. So the major pivot was this reconsideration of what I was carrying around was the kind of guilt, the cumulative impact of negative stereotypes and how that affected the way I opened myself to the world and realizing that our children are confronted with the same challenge. There've been a number of pivots, the pivot to understand this idea of freeing children to achieve and all on one hand, freeing them from the of negative stereotypes and then pivoting into a place where my conversation with educators was well-received.
Daniel: I like that phrase, you said, "freeing kids from the and negative stereotypes," and that's really, really important work. That's the work of a Ruckus Maker, you're making change happen in education. Talk to us about how you see schools and how you help schools do that. What are some practical things that they can do just from listening to our conversation today?
Alexs: I think first of all, it's recognizing that our children are burdened in an enormous way with the negative ideas, iconography, narrative, and images that they're confronted with. And that is bestowed on them as they walk out into the world all the time. One of the first things that we do with educators in our training is to ask them, what does America tell you about students of color, who are sitting in your class? And that list? I mean, we were just asking for one word adjectives at that point. And that list is a horrible, horrible list. Even the positive things don't look good in that list. Some of those words might be angry, confrontated, violent, uneducatable. I mean, these are just concepts that culture throws at the world about students of color. So when we get that list, we're saying this list of negative stereotypes about children of color exists and our cognitive capacity to separate our feelings from those stereotypes.
Alexs: It's very difficult. In other words, we may not have those feelings about the children we teach. Most educators, I don't think do, but in moments of crisis, in moments of conflict, those negative stereotypes rise up. But the more important thing is I say to teachers all the time, if you think that, what do you think your students think the world says about them in many cases? And in most cases, I would say the students know exactly what the teachers know. Know if the teachers are fending off and are impacted by negative stereotypes about the children they teach. The children, they teach are recognizing that this is what the world thinks about them and the dangerous thing and the scary thing is that many of our students believe the teachers believe what the world is saying about them. And so you have two groups of people who are meant to help to be in this complimentary interaction, this relationship in a classroom and they both have ideas about each other, which are derived from stereotypes.
Alexs: The challenge here is to first recognize that what you see is not necessarily what is true, that the students that in front of you, the behavior that you're witnessing, the energy and the attitudes coming from, many of the students is not a precise of who they actually are. Most of them are responding to a kind of script that has been constructed for them by popular culture. So how do you get past that and find the authentic basis for an interaction for the development of a relationship, and that's the work that we do. So if we say guilt is this reality that many of our children have involuntarily, internalized based on the way stereotypes have constructed their realities in the world, how do you get them to drop that?
Alexs: That what I would call it like a bondage to a script, it is heavy and many of our children don't even know this is what is happening to them. So they never get a chance to quote unquote "be" and being is a really important piece in this. So a teacher has to look as they experienced, whatever is head down on desks, frenetic movements, disruptive energies, whatever flavor the behavior is. A teacher has to experience that, that's real and they have to manage that the best they can and then they have to get past that very quickly and find the source for that behavior. So in the Innocent Classroom to go from guilt to innocence, that child has to pass through the relationship between the teacher and the student has to pass through a middle phase in which we challenge educators to find the good of a student.
Alexs: When a teacher finds and by good here, I think it deserves some explanation. I'm not talking good versus bad. I'm not talking about the way teachers might talk about a child could have done something really bad. And the teacher would say, "well, I know he has some good in him." That's not what we're talking about here. We're not talking about good versus bad. We're talking about good as defined by Aristotle in Aristotelian philosophy. Good is the thing for which all things are done. So when a teacher can identify the reason why a child is behaving in a particular way, no matter what, even if it's good behavior, find out the source of that behavior and develop strategies to embrace and engage that good. The child's capacity to hold on to negative energies and attitude begins to fade, and the relationship can grow from this.
Daniel: You mentioned something I find interesting that through your work, some educators have come to you and told you that they can see their children for the first time. It's powerful. They can see their kids. What,do they mean when they're telling you that?
Alexs: Well, I think for the first time or it's human, right? We are confronted with certain ways of being and we recoil, or we pull back or we make our own decisions about what we can accomplish in that, but you're not really looking. I'm saying in the case of young kids of color, you're not looking at the real problem. The real problem is in, almost wholly contained in that child's life. That child came to you with challenges, and then I'm suggesting the American culture has put on them and your job is to sort of sweep all that away and find that true child. So what happens is when a teacher sees a child's goodness, they're good. The thing for which all else has done, they see something different. They see a desire to be cared for. They'd see a desire to feel connected. They see a desire to feel like I belong somewhere to be seen or to be heard, to feel safe.
Alexs: A lot of times you'll be engaged with a child and the child is reacting in a way that might even be aggressive, but really what that child is saying, "I'm scared. I never don't feel scared. Can you help me not feel scared today?" An educator, unconscious of RN and sort of not being, having gone through this conversation, will interpret the behavior in an entirely different way. So all I'm saying is when you are confronted with behaviors that trouble you or generate an emotional response from the teacher, stop for a minute, take a deep breath, try to understand what that child's history is, what their world is like, their reality. And if it is, I don't feel safe, then your job for the next two weeks is to try to help that child feel safe.
Alexs: In return for that, that child will drop their guard and drop their resistance to you and begin the territory where a relationship can actually grow. One of the things that we discovered in our work over these 10 years, eight, nine years, I guess, is that our children are actually defenseless against love. In some ways, reaching a child with the thing that they need the most. For example, I'll ask educators, what is this child's good? After they've described the child's behavior, et cetera. And I think "he, she just needs love." And I'm like, even though I just used that word, I would say, that's not good enough because you don't know how that child defines love. You need to know who that child is and understand when that child needs love. When you're saying or they all they want is attention.
Alexs: These are common adult phrases aboout children. Well, "he's just trying to get more attention" or, well, "why is he trying to get attentio"n and "what is he trying to get attention?" And sometimes for example, that comes down to a child who never feels acknowledged in the world. Nope, he's in a house full of kids or a house or a family or a world in which nobody ever pays attention to him. He's always being told what to do and to develop strategic approach, to help that child feel connected to you or to change that reality in that child's life to respond to the need of that child in this way, opens the door for relationship because our children will also appreciate someone who is their ally, who shows up as their ally without talking about it. It's like sometimes this comes down to very little things like a hairbrush for a child coming out of gym, having a hairbrush around for this particular child. Little mirror, right. It having lunch with a child every now and then is a really small little thing. And yet for some children is the only way you can say to them, I'm seeing you, I'm hanging out with you. What's your life? Like how was the basketball game last night? Whatever the conversation was, or can be that opens the door for a full-on functional and effective relationship in a class.
Daniel: Yeah, you're doing the hard work to understand each of those individuals and showing that love in a way that they can receive it. What I heard you saying too, is don't fall for behaviors and these things that you see at face value, right? That's just kind of a symptom of a root cause. Get to that root and connect with the kid there, which paves the way for a relationship and then you can do anything from there.
Alexs: That's really the point. A lot of educators think that, well, "I don't have time, I've got 30 kids."
Daniel: I" got to teach the curriculum." Right.
Alexs: I'm saying to them, this is pre curricular. This is pre disciplinary because if the connections are made as quickly as possible with each child you can have your priorities of children you want to work with first. But if you begin to do that, what we also know is that the investment pays off relatively quickly.
Daniel: Yeah. And you'll get through everything and go deeper and further and that's great stuff. So thank you for that. So that was interesting when coming from like seeing kids for the first time. What about when some educators are maybe not connecting with the message right away, or they are sort of trying to let themselves off the hook because their experience is different than the kids that they face in front of you. Right. When it is that big of a gap experientially? What do you say to people like that?
Alexs: Well, the first thing is don't run away step forward. And then the next thing is we don't spend a lot of time trying to convince educators that what I'm saying has value. What we do is put them in the world, ask them to identify one or two children as a sort of case study, approach them with some of our ideas, identify their good and develop a strategy to engage. They're good. Even if you're disbelieving, because in some ways this is about disbelief, suspending disbelief. The secret. If there is a secret sauce of how people have these terms, but if there's a mysterious part to the Innocent Classroom, it comes from the fact that Aristotelian, the Aristotelian definition of good, which is that for which all other things are done. When you can identify that thing that is driving everything or driving this child's behavior, the first by-product is empathy.
Alexs: It's really a magical thing. I've had educators say, "I don't like this job. I can't relate." And I'm saying, well, I can help you do that. Find your good, just take the time to tell me what you think their goodness is. And so they may say, well, I just think they, maybe she wants to feel connected. And I'm like, well, then take five days and help her feel connected to class. Don't ask, don't talk about it. Do things have her do chores in class. Have her passout papers. Whatever it is that might connect her to this classroom. What happens is most educators in that process transform. My Innocent Classroom is not about transforming educators, but it happens anyway because as they remove the barriers this child is facing in that classroom, in her life, the child looks up at the edge at the teacher and is like, "Oh, I didn't know. You knew that about me"or "I didn't know you were watching me that closely." Why are you doing that? And then if that engagement continues along those lines, that empathetic relationship begins to flower. We overcome. I mean, there are teachers ,I'm fond of saying "the only valid resistance to Innocent Classroom is if you don't care. I've run into very few teachers who don't care.
Daniel: I'm really enjoying this conversation. We're going to pause here just for a moment, for a message from our sponsors. But when we get back, I'd love to talk about educators as liberator's and what action looks like. Today's show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder develops the skills and habits. All students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom, learn more @organizedbinder.com. Ruckus Maker, I want to tell you about a remote learning tool. Your school needs right now, SMART learning suite Online. As a teacher, you can create store and deliver lessons from anywhere, no smart board required and your students can access and engage with your content from any web browser on any device, no matter what your classroom looks like right now. SMART learning suite online offers many options for flexible learning, engaging students via collaborative workspaces in game based activities, SMART learning suite on nine integrates with tools like Google classroom and Microsoft teams making it an easy to use way to create engaging content and connect with students.
Daniel: Learn more and get email@example.com/learningsuite. That's SMARTtech.com/learningsuite. We're back with author and educator, Alexs Pate, who launched Innocent Classroom, and that's what we're talking about today. We're going to move to, what does it mean to you being a educator as a liberator?
Alexs: It's funny because in the beginning, I mean, I think this is one of those pivots where I didn't realize how on-point this conversation was for students and teachers that many teachers feel overwhelmed by realities. They can't control that gap of experience, racial distance, economic distance. Many teachers don't live in the neighborhoods and the communities they teach in and so there was just natural gap in this inability to know each other in a way that was positive and would nurture learning and engagement. When a teacher goes under, around or over the barriers that separate them from their students, when that happens, that empathy is created and the student begins to see the teacher differently. The teacher then can say to the child, "I care about you." We have proof of that.
Alexs: Look at what we've done together. Look at this, look at that. Now it's "I need something from you. I need you to do your homework. I need you to sit still. I'm going to come back to you, but I need you to sit still and be patient while I do other things." That's what you do. It's a rest. It's the issue of reciprocation. This is not sort of all down and no up, it's both ways. When a child begins to change their behavior, to fit the expectations of the teacher, that child is breaking away from the negative stereotypes, which have controlled their behavior for much of their lives, maybe in a classroom and we're only talking about in a classroom. I'm not out to change the world right now, and I'm not trying to change the school even. Unless, the whole school is going through Innocent Classroom training.
Alexs: And then we have something major that can take place, but in a classroom with a teacher, when that child opens their eyes and sees you as an ally, as somebody who was working with them to help them get through this journey, that child has been freed in a way to be a student. So then I started looking at teachers like, wow, that power, you will not just to educate, not just to bring this child along in their life, but to also teach them something really profound about human relationships, between educators, racial differences, gender differences, all of that stuff starts to crumble away and children and educators both feel freed. I see educators in a really functional way as liberator's helping our children break from the bondage the world around them that wants to describe them and project them as a specific thing, which is stereotypical and not true about them.
Daniel: I know it's important to you to engage in ideas. I'm definitely a person of action as well. How can the Ruckus Maker who's listening today engage? How would you like to see them engage?
Alexs: Reading the book, challenging, engaging with me and with the ideas and the theories that I present is a very small book and the whole idea of it is to stimulate thought about relationships. There are a lot of examples of how our trainers work with teachers to find good and develop strategies around that and what the outcomes have been. And then I think it's to bring it into the classroom. I think it is to say to the students in front of you, say to yourself, "I don't maybe, I don't know them as well as I thought I did." And to begin taking that journey inward into their world, this is very much a strategy of engagement that puts the child first not the teacher. And so it asks the teacher to take that step into that child's life and to risk being caught up in that child's reality in such a way that you help that child grow.
Daniel: Well, if you could, for just a day, put a single message on all school, marquees around the world, what would you put on the marquee?
Alexs: I guess I've already said it, it's free children to achieve.
Daniel: Let's say you're building your dream school. You're not limited by anything, any resources you're only limitations, actually your imagination. How would you build your dream school, Alexs? What would be your top three priorities?
Alexs: I've thought about that little bit. I guess the first thing I would do is construct the environment the way that allows the concept of free and innocent to exist. I mean, security is what it is. We all know that that has to be there. But beyond that, to create an environment where schools are not just safe places, but places where children can let go of the outside world, come into and be embraced by the teachers. I tell teachers all the time, you don't have to make this a fair and balanced engagement. Our children go through so much. You don't have to keep it real. What I want you to do. What I want educators to do is create an environment where their children have a chance to learn peace where they have a chance to learn comradery, engagement, caring for each other.
Alexs: So there's a physical aspect to that in the construction of the building and the classrooms that I think is really, I know a lot of teachers already attempt to do that and the other place, the other thing, or another thing is too, I would make my school again, the core of it has to do with empowering children to manifest themselves authentically and that requires both physical and intellectual engagement. I haven't really thought much about if I had an opportunity to build a school beyond what I'm saying to you today, my focus is only about rescuing. If you think about the urban school environment, many of our children are just trampled by the system and they don't know they're being trampled. And so the environment, I think, I guess in the third piece would be that there is a leadership here that is focused on this authentic relationship between the children of that community and there, and the folks who are there to educate them and support them and to support teachers who are taking this next step.
Alexs: I just think the Innocent Classroom concepts like this are the future of public education. The times are different. Our children don't just naturally trust teachers anymore. You have to sort of earn that trust. You have to walk into the classroom and build a relationship with each of those children in such a way that they can be free. They can perform, and they can be curious and engaged learners.
Daniel: Thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we've talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember
Alexs: That what you see that many of our children have surrendered, unconsciously ,surrendered or have been overwhelmed by negative stereotypes. What you see in your classroom is not necessarily an representation of that child and it's worth the fight. It's worth it to go through the journey to find who that child is.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel at better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using the #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.
His dynamic approach to working with teachers, an approach that enables us to ultimately understand and empathize more effectively with our students, has been honed through more than fifteen years as a energetic and passionate professor. And the professional and effective presentation of his work belies experience in the private sector.
But at the core of this work is a deep belief that our children can be given a quality education in spite of the dire realities both within schools and in the world around them.
- Eliminate racial stereotypes in schools through authentic relationships
- Powerful Pivot moments that matter
- Practical changes to make help to “free” your learning community
- Get children to drop involuntary stereotypes that construct their realities
- Find the source of behavior with strategies to embrace and engage the child
- Alexs provides a powerful way to “see your children for the first time.”
- Avoid common adult phrase that misrepresent a child
- “The only valid resistance to Innocent Classroom is if you don’t care.”
“I think first of all, it’s recognizing that our children are burdened in an enormous way with the negative ideas, iconography, narrative, and images that they’re confronted with. And that is bestowed on them as they walk out into the world all the time. One of the first things that we do with educators in our training is to ask them, what does America tell you about students of color, who are sitting in your class? And that list? I mean, we were just asking for one word adjectives at that point. And that list is a horrible, horrible list. Even the positive things don’t look good in that list.”
“I’m saying in the case of young kids of color, you’re not looking at the real problem. The real problem is almost wholly contained in that child’s life. That child came to you with challenges, and then I’m suggesting the American culture has put on them. Your job is to sort of sweep all that away and find that true child. What happens is when a teacher sees a child’s goodness, they’re good. The thing for which all else has done, they see something different. They see a desire to be cared for. They’d see a desire to feel connected. They see a desire to feel like I belong somewhere to be seen or to be heard, to feel safe.”
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