Podcast: Another Look At Educator Beliefs and Behaviors - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Another Look At Educator Beliefs and Behaviors

Stop Saying ‘These Kids Don’t Care About School’.” That’s the title of an op-ed piece written by podcast guest Laurie Putnam, superintendent in St Cloud, MN. Laurie identifies how this sentence buries the real challenges and daily struggles that many of her students’ face. That belief undermines our collective responsibilities to nurture future generations. Hear examples of some strategies that St. Cloud has implemented that have positively impacted student engagement. Consider how you create an environment for educators to safely explore beliefs that are often unconscious.

Read “Stop Saying ‘These Kids Don’t Care About School’” here.

E-mail Laurie: laurie.putnam@isd742.org

Find Laurie’s LinkedIn here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transript:

[00:00:00.270] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:22.060] – Steve

Another look at educator beliefs and behaviors. I recently posted a podcast with Dr. Kyle Coppes, a secondary school principal at the Metropolitan School in Frankfurt, Germany. He explored how the concept of student laziness has to be seen as a myth. Coppes shared that if an educator sees a child as lazy, they have a get out of jail free card. That means there’s no need for the educator to take action, inquire, poke, or prod to try and figure out what is standing in the way of the student’s learning. Today’s guest offered another belief that we have to question. Laurie Putnam, the superintendent of schools in St. Cloud, Minnesota, wrote an opinion piece for Education Week titled, “Stop Saying ‘These Kids Don’t Care About School’.” I’m excited that Laurie is joining us today to share her thinking. Welcome, Laurie.

[00:01:25.380] – Laurie

Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

[00:01:28.620] – Steve

Excited that you could join us.

[00:01:29.930] – Steve

So, Laurie, I’m wondering, for starters, if you just tell people a little bit about the St. Cloud school district.

[00:01:38.040] – Laurie

Absolutely. St. Cloud is about an hour west of Minneapolis, which is often what people might know from Minnesota if unfamiliar with the state. We are the 16th largest school district, and we are surrounded by very tiny districts. So we have much more in common with our urban partners. We’re about 25% ESL students, primarily Somali and Hispanic, and we are about 67% free reduced lunch, and about 25% students of color.

[00:02:14.510] – Steve

I know from your background, a little. Search that I did, that you’ve spent time as a school counselor, an assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent prior to your role as superintendent. And I’m wondering, what are some of the insights or understandings that you’ve reached across those roles concerning how beliefs influence our educator actions or behaviors?

[00:02:39.660] – Laurie

I’ve been blessed to, as you say, have a variety of different roles, and I am particularly grateful for starting out as a school counselor. I think that that perspective has allowed me time one on one with students, one on one with staff, in small groups, and in settings where people have the opportunity to feel safe, to share what it is that’s on their heart and their minds. And I’ve carried that approach to leadership in terms of starting with a relationship first. And so I’ve watched as, over the years, I’ve been in education, people have been able to and been willing to share their beliefs, their perspectives. And so as I watch that, I really come to understand that we lead, we teach, we counsel who we are as humans. So who I am as a human comes out in every leadership decision I make, the beliefs that I hold about kids, about adults, they come out, whether I know it or not, whether I’m being intentional about it or not.

[00:03:47.370] – Laurie

So that’s really what has resonated and really sunk in for me, is that we don’t get to separate those two things as much as we may want to, or think that when I show up as a professional in an education setting, I somehow become a different person because I’m being paid.

[00:04:07.250] – Laurie

That is absolutely not the case. So I believe it’s our responsibility as people who are paid to teach and care for the students, that we are very clear about who we are and that we are very clear about how those interactions impact those around us.

[00:04:26.300] – Steve

So the beliefs influence us either consciously or unconsciously.

[00:04:32.550] – Laurie


[00:04:35.150] – Laurie

And I would argue more unconsciously than not, unless we’re really thoughtful about it.

[00:04:39.750] – Steve

Which is really why reflection is so critical.

[00:04:46.400] – Laurie

It is. And we know that, especially as social media increases, as the busyness of our lives increases, we know the demands on our teachers are so high nowadays, we learned through the pandemic that schools are really a place where students get the majority of their – some students – get the majority of their needs met, and how little time we carve out in a workday, or even how little time, unless they’re super intentional about it, we have in our own personal lives for that amount of reflection to get really clear about who we are and what we believe.

[00:05:29.690] – Steve

In your article, you share several ways that kids don’t care narrative undermines the needed actions that educators in the community needs to take. I’m wondering if you’d share some of those mistakes that we make because of having that belief.

[00:05:46.420] – Laurie

Absolutely. The podcast that you did with your previous guests really resonated, and I very much see the interplay between the conversations. When we as adults, whether we’re educators or community leaders, or even as parents, when we are coming into situations, assuming that our students don’t care, or believing that, we put the onus onto the child, onto the people who have the very least control over their situation, and then when we are able to put the responsibility onto the other, onto the student, it does give us as adults, the opportunity to just say, well, I tried, and they don’t care. Oh, there’s another one. And so, again, I very much believe that the people who work in our schools are there because they love and care for kids. They’re motivated by success.

[00:06:46.930] – Laurie

That’s what we know from psychology research, is that people are motivated by success, autonomy, mastery, relationship. So I believe that our teachers want students to succeed. And I also believe that those sneaky thoughts, those unknowing beliefs come out and whether consciously or not, you know, there’s that, “well, they just don’t care. I’m just gonna, you know, I’ll go to the kids who do care,” and then we continue to bypass the kids who need us most.

[00:07:22.140] – Steve

And then when we go to the kids who do care, it tends to reinforce that belief that we cut the other kids short on.

[00:07:30.280] – Laurie


[00:07:31.230] – Steve


[00:07:32.120] – Laurie

Unknowingly. Right.

[00:07:34.390] – Laurie

And I think this may be a risky thing to say, depending on the perspective of our listeners. But I also believe that narrative gets overlaid on top of race and class, just like all of the interactions that we have, particularly in America are overlaid around those.

[00:07:53.890] – Laurie

And I’ll give you an example. My son is a senior. He’s white. He comes from a privileged household with highly educated parents. He’s in the district where I lead. And he has not done homework. He has told me very clearly he has not done homework outside of school since his junior year. Getting fine grades, going on to college next year. But if you had to ask me, does my son care about school? I would tell you no.

[00:08:33.250] – Laurie

But there is not a single teacher who would look past him, who if you ask somebody who in your class doesn’t care, they wouldn’t pick my child. But the kids who are showing up, and maybe their work isn’t done because they have worked all evening, they’re home taking care of kids because mom or dad or grandma, whoever, can’t let them go to school, those are the kids who are socioeconomically deprived, often overlaid with race, at least in St. Cloud.

[00:09:05.250] – Laurie

Our students of our collar and our pots, students living in poverty go hand in hand. Almost exactly. And I most spoke earlier. Our district is about 65% students of color. And those are the kids who our teachers are going to say they don’t care because those externalized behaviors show up in ways that are then coded as apathy. And then we just give them less and less attention and people assume harmful things or beneficial things, depending on who they’re looking at.

[00:09:37.950] – Steve

I thought of my upcoming conversation with you earlier today when I was reading through a set of comments that an administrator at secondary level had collected from teachers about things they needed to take into consideration. And one comment that came back was that they needed to move away from their 90 minutes periods because kids didn’t have a long attention span.

[00:10:03.140] – Steve

But that’s a nice, easy way to bypass the accountability for planning and directing learning by being able put that issue out there.

[00:10:21.530] – Laurie

That’s a great example.

[00:10:26.540] – Steve

So what are some things that schools can do to challenge that I don’t care narrative. And I’m wondering if there’s some examples of things you’ve had happen in your district that are doing that for you.

[00:10:37.670] – Laurie

I think the first thing that we can do it, just something that I can occasionally struggle with, I know about me is that I can be judgmental. I do know that. And I think one of the first things we need to do is to, what I started with is to create the space where it’s safe to acknowledge that we have those feelings, where we have those perceptions.

[00:10:56.990] – Laurie

And that’s not easy to do because vulnerability isn’t always something that we honor or create space for. And truly there are people who, it’s just not a safe space as an adult to say, this is what I believe about kids. But until we are able to create a space where people can acknowledge that and we can start to work through it and unpack that, it’s never going to change. I think first and foremost, as leaders especially, or even as colleagues, teacher to teacher, it’s our responsibility to be able to create a place where we can be forthright and know that our first thought doesn’t have to be our last thought and that we can listen to that first thought without judgment and then enter into a conversation about being curious. “I wonder if have you considered…”

[00:11:47.110] – Laurie

So I think that that’s the unadaptive piece that I continue to work on in our district and that I think would help. We’ve also done some technical work. A couple examples of success is at Lincoln Elementary School, which is about 99% students living in poverty. It is one of our racially isolated schools as identified by the Minnesota Department of Education, comes from a very high incarceration rate in the community. Our principal and her team noticed that there was an attendance issue as we are seeing nationally.

[00:12:26.980] – Laurie

And in the US after the pandemic, we’re struggling with attendance consistent attendance. And so she decided that she was going to start offering jobs. And so it’s a fourth and fifth grade school, and so students can apply for jobs. And we, the adults, teach students how to fill out applications, and there are jobs such as barista, morning news announcement anchor, computer technician, a custodian, botanist. And so the students are also paired with a mentor, which is that critical part about the relationship.

[00:13:03.160] – Laurie

And so the student knows that if they don’t come to school, their job doesn’t get done. Somebody notices, the community that depends on them is let down. And so then the kids learn the skill and they feel really good.

[00:13:17.410] – Laurie

It goes back to those relationship, mastery, autonomy. And so we’ve seen incredible success there. And in a place where it would be very easy to say, these kids just don’t care. They’re not coming to school. They just don’t care. They come, they have behaviors, they just don’t care. And that is absolutely not the case. And our students have proven it, the staff have proven it.

[00:13:37.610] – Steve

Added to it that the parents don’t care.

[00:13:41.460] – Laurie

Absolutely. I think we see that more at – I think that that’s more a narrative at elementary. You know, some of the. One of the principals gave me some feedback on the article and said exactly what your comment was.

[00:13:53.640] – Laurie

He’s a principal of a P-2 school. And he said, you know, here we see all the parents just don’t care. They don’t come to conferences. No wonder their kids failing again, shifting the blame to those who really. I firmly believe, one of my core beliefs is that people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, including our teachers, our parents, our kids, and it’s on us to remove those barriers to help them do better.

[00:14:20.090] – Steve

That’s the belief that has to drive our work.

[00:14:23.610] – Steve

You have another example of something that you implemented in the district?

[00:14:29.930] – Laurie

Yeah. We have an alternative learning center. It serves our students as well as seven other surrounding districts, and it’s for students who are behind in credits, pregnant, homeless, the kinds of barriers that really do get in the way of typical success in education. And our principal saw that over the course of the week, attendance was dropping off.

[00:14:55.040] – Laurie

So Fridays was the lowest attendance day. And so what he decided and his team decided to do was to put their core learning into Monday through Thursday and then with the students, design activities on Friday. And they’re based in the community right there, and they’re based around development of work skills. So some examples are students will go and the students get to choose where they go based on their career interest. So some students go to the VA, the veterans association that’s just right down the street from them, and they volunteer. They play cribbage, they talk to the veterans, build relationships there. Some people will go to the paramount. I have a gorgeous mural in my office where each student learned ceramics, and they made a different piece of a sign that spells out McKinley. And it’s so beautiful and heavy, the wall doesn’t even hold it up. So it just really gives the students an opportunity to engage in activities that most of them haven’t had the resources to be able to do.

[00:16:01.460] – Laurie

And it gives our community a chance to see typically marginalized, underserved students in a different light and see, oh, look at the brilliance that this child has. They just have never gotten the opportunity to show it to us before.

[00:16:16.520] – Steve

You’re impacting beliefs beyond the educators. And that kind of an opportunity – that’s powerful.

[00:16:23.340] – Laurie

And in St. Cloud, it’s very important. We are judged by our communities on our test scores, our graduation rates, our four year graduation rates for the district, which includes McKinley, level four settings, hospital programs, which is not anything that our neighbors experience. Our four year graduation rates are not where we want them to be. And I’m not making excuses for that. None of our team makes excuses for that. When you look at our seven year graduation rates, they’re above the state. We have students who have come to us with limited or interrupted formal education, and four years isn’t enough.

[00:17:03.580] – Laurie

When you look at our test scores, often, many of our schools have a 40% turnover rate in terms of students. So 40% of the students who start the year, totally different by the end. And so we’re judged on the standardized assessment that is taken once a year. They’re not where we need them to be.

[00:17:25.010] – Laurie

But they are not all that our kids are. It’s only a very bare fraction. I was reading an article this weekend is a study done by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and it looked at underprivileged students in the Baltimore public schools in 2021. And for a year, they did vision screening, and they got glasses for students and the test scores of those students through the roof.

[00:17:54.350] – Laurie

How easy would it have been to, say, look at their scores, they can’t do it. They don’t care. And to then disengage.

[00:18:07.860] – Steve

So a lot of the listeners to this podcast are instructional coaches and school administrators. And I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on best ways that they can support teachers who are struggling with that they don’t care thought. I think you’ve kind of labeled one already for us, which is creating the opportunity to listen and to voice it in a safe environment. I’m wondering if you have a couple other items you might add to that.

[00:18:43.160] – Laurie

A couple things that I would say is modeling. Modeling and setting the example that we’re in it, too. We understand the work that’s happening. I was a school counselor, I am not a teacher. I know that about myself. I know that what I need in a workplace is more autonomy in my day. I come from a family of teachers, and I respect their work so very much.

[00:19:12.480] – Laurie

So I think being able to model that we understand the challenges that teachers face, taking off their plates what we can, because truly we demand a lot from those who are serving, whether it’s 22 five year olds all day long or 160 17 year olds. That’s a phenomenal, nominal ask of any human. And to do it in a calm state of mind with, you know, positive frameworks of every child. That’s a lot to ask.

[00:19:45.810] – Laurie

So I think being in and modeling that expectation and then demanding nothing less than we’re going to change that first thought. And that takes a lot of courage. It’s not always a popular thing to do. And I think we have to do it, building those pockets of community and collaboration so that we aren’t standing there on the island all by ourselves shouting, this isn’t okay. But really being persistent and warmly demanding that we expect better and different from our adults. But that’s not an acceptable belief about kids.

[00:20:24.420] – Steve

There’s times that I know, working with coaches and administrators, that we can fall on the same thought about a teacher.

[00:20:31.300] – Laurie


[00:20:33.670] – Steve

That the teacher doesn’t care. And my finding is that that’s a very small amount of the time, so you’re just better off assuming it’s not the case. And so it’s the same kind of probing and problem solving that you’re having to address. So even though a teacher’s actions might look like they don’t care, 99.9% of the people that are showing up in the morning are looking to have the best result that they can.

[00:21:04.090] – Laurie

I just so appreciate that that’s your perspective and that you call that out, because I firmly believe that also. It is not an easy job and people could go get paid differently.

[00:21:17.780] – Laurie

In a different space. And so they’re coming because they care about kids. There are barriers getting in their way.  I always felt like, as a leader, my job is to remove, is to clear space. To clear space for teachers, for counselors, for families, for kids because I was gifted that positional authority or influence. It’s to really give them opportunity to shine. So what is it that we need to do for our teachers who are seeming disengaged or our kids or our families who are seeming disengaged because there’s something getting in their way?

[00:21:54.250] – Steve

Well, I saw that you work with a school slogan, a district slogan of “every kid, every day.” Wondered if you’d want to talk about that a little.

[00:22:02.780] – Laurie

Yeah, that was something that, when I was starting as superintendent two years ago, now this is year two for me, somebody asked me, well, what do you believe? And I was like, well, every kid, every day. And for me, that means that we, we give of ourselves to see each child, right, to see their strength, their brilliance. And it could be every adult, every day also. Really we are spending time in relationship, that that’s what we’re privileging and then out of that grows the things that we need for success for our kids and for our adults.

[00:22:42.190] – Steve

Well, Laurie, I valued reading the piece that you wrote and the conversation with you, I’ve really enjoyed. We will post the link to your article in the podcast lead-in. I’m wondering if there’s a way that people who have questions or comments they’d like to share back with you can get in touch with you?

[00:23:05.490] – Laurie

Absolutely. My email is just my first and last name, laurieputnam@isd742.org and easy to find on the St. Cloud area School’s website. I am on LinkedIn at Laurie Putnam and on X @LauriePutnam3. So lots of opportunities to connect  in a world that is both highly connected and not nearly as connected as we could be.

[00:23:32.430] – Steve

Thanks again for sharing this with us.

[00:23:33.690] – Laurie

Thank you. I appreciate the time to talk with you.

[00:23:36.780] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com

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