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Teachers learn new approach to discipline
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Trainer Nancy Burns leads a lesson on non-verbal communications techniques for a group of teachers. (MPR photo/Jim Bickal)
The Minneapolis School District is hoping to improve academic achievement by reducing the number of students who get sent out of the classroom or suspended because of their behavior. The district is encouraging teachers to learn techniques that will help them prevent disruptions and manage discipline within the classroom. The training is being offered as part of a new compensation system for teachers.

Minneapolis, Minn. — About 100 teachers are practicing a technique designed to keep a disruption in the classroom from getting worse. The idea of this exercise is to demonstrate that a teacher's tone of voice is as important as what is said.

The teachers practice by repeating the phrase, "put the towel down."

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Image teachers practice Envoy techniques

The teachers also learn that how they move around in the classroom can affect student productivity.

Trainer Nancy Burns instructs the teachers "if the directions are given and the teacher starts to move... we know that 82 percent of communication is non-verbal... so that causes movement in our room as well."

The teachers are participating in a series of workshops that teach "Educational Non-Verbal Yardsticks" or ENVoy.

Nancy Burns, who is on leave from her job as an elementary school teacher in north Minneapolis, says Envoy teaches a new way to approach discipline.

"Philosophically we believe, that we should notice appropriate behavior and decrease our notice of inappropriate behavior and sometimes even decreasing it enough to be called ignore," says Burns. "And Michael Grinder will always say that ignore is the lost art of teaching."

Michael Grinder is the Seattle-based educator who developed Envoy. It's based on his own experiences as a teacher and his observations of other teachers. Grinder trained Nancy Burns on how to teach concepts like "the most important 20 seconds." The idea is that students will get started on an assignment more quickly if the teacher stops moving and talking for 20 seconds after telling the class what to do.

"When you're in the 20-second spot," Burns explains "you can have your hands like this or you can have your hands like this. You aren't going to make any eye contact; you're looking at shoulders, briefly looking at work. There's some things that you can do when you're in the spot, the only thing is no verbal."

After teachers attend the ENVoy workshops, Burns visits the teacher's school and observes how well the skills are being implemented.

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Image Minneapolis teacher Mary Ficzeri

When she visits the reading class of Mary Ficzeri at Lyndale Elementary in Minneapolis, Burns observes Ficzeri interact with her students for 20 minutes and then offers feedback on how effectively Ficzeri is using the Envoy techniques.

The feedback is generally very positive. Burns points out many instances in which Ficzeri has naturally incorporated effective non-verbal communication into her teaching. Burns also gives Ficzeri some advice on what she could have done differently when she explained the writing assignment.

"This is a place where you can add "most important 20 seconds," Burns says, "especially after, 'there was a difference, if you were in fourth grade you had to do so many sentences, if you were in fifth grade you had to do more.' After that ooooo, this is a great time because it allows them to oooo and for you to recover productivity quickly if you stay there right near your exit directions for 20 seconds until they're on task."

Ficzeri, who has been teaching for 30 years, says she has learned quite a bit from the Envoy training.

"I really wish it would taught more at the beginning of your career in colleges," Ficzeri says "because I think a lot of people are not aware of how you move your body and especially dealing with a large ESL population, you have to be aware that what you're doing with your hands to a non-English speaker is more important than what's coming out of your mouth a lot of times."

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Image teacher Anne LeDuc and students

The Envoy class is being offered by the Minneapolis teacher's union as part of a new compensation system which is an alternative to the traditional salary structure known as "steps and lanes." With steps and lanes, teachers get raises based on how long they've been teaching and how many additional college credits they've earned.

Anne LeDuc, who teaches fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary in Minneapolis, says with steps and lanes you don't have to take courses that necessarily make you a better teacher.

"I could take statistics for orange growers" says LeDuc "and it would be college credits and I could use it to increase my lane. And it wouldn't have anything to do with teaching fifth grade."

With the new system called the Professional Pay Plan, teachers take courses designed to teach skills that will have a direct impact on their effectiveness in the classroom.

Sandy Rader, who teaches music at Lyndale Elementary, will get a salary increase when she completes the Envoy requirements.

"My first motivation was the extra pay, that money speaks loudly," says Rader. "But I stuck with it because I found it to be very helpful."

In addition to learning practical skills, teachers must demonstrate they are using what they've learned in their classroom. Feedback sessions, peer review and self evaluation are required as part of the Professional Pay Plan. Envoy instructor Nancy Burns says the key to the process is to start trying the techniques soon after they're learned.

Research about actually implementing what you learn in a workshop," according to Burns "and this is not just for teachers but people in sales, and that you need to go back and try the skills within a certain, 48 hours they usually say, to actually make a change. And so Envoy has this commitment to reversing the trend of over-training teachers and under-implementing."

Many teachers, like Anne Leduc, say they've implemented Envoy and are finding that it works.

"I was really steamed yesterday," LeDuc explains. "A boy was doing something that was very inappropriate. It was on the playground. I was charging across the playground at him in my boots and my coat and I was 'oh boy you are just so busted and I'm just so gonna get you.' And I thought okay, lets take a couple of deep breaths and I practiced some of my Envoy techniques. By the time I got to him I was able to treat him with the respect that made a difference in how he responded to me."

Minneapolis is one of five Minnesota school districts that is receiving grant money from the state to offer courses as part of a Professional Pay Plan.

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