Using Positivity to Help Students Escape Negative Environments

A story from Michael Henry

Though Michael Henry grew up in the small town of Manchester-Shortsville, New York, he can’t picture himself working anywhere but an urban school district. He teaches 5th grade in Rochester, and believes that he can have the biggest impact in the inner city. “Too often, from my experience, the children don’t see outside of the city. They’ve got to realize that they can succeed. Where they are? They can get out of there if they want to. It’s our job as urban educators to get them to see that.”

In order to prepare them for the next steps in life, Michael emphasizes cooperative and productive behaviors. “It’s those little tiny teachable moments—please and thank you, opening the door for somebody, picking up somebody’s stuff when they dropped it—those little tiny added elements to their life are going to make them function in parts of society that not everybody gets. And I know it sounds so trivial, but it’s the honest truth.”

Michael uses ClassDojo, which he projects on a SMART board, to reinforce the sort of behaviors he wants to see. “I have my kids actually go up, and touch, and give themselves positive and negative points. Why are you taking away a point? Why are you giving yourself a point? Just revisiting the aspect of them being accountable for their actions.”

To help his students succeed, Michael feeds the supportive relationships in their lives. He sends printed ClassDojo reports home with students, which creates a dialog between them and their parents. “The report is a conversation starter. This is what’s going on in class. This is what I did this week. Instead of your difficult, ‘How was school today?’ ‘Good.’ ‘What did you do today?’ ‘Nothing.’” He gives his cell phone number to parents, so they can reach him with any concerns.

Not only does he keep parents involved in his students’ development, but he also involves himself in nontraditional ways. Every year, his students can request that he attend some type of event, be it a dance recital or a football game.

On top of that, he has an agreement with any student who will go on to graduate high school. “I made a promise to each one of my kids, ‘When you graduate high school, you find me wherever you are, and I will bring you out to dinner. I don’t care where it is; I don’t care how much it costs. We’re going to go out to dinner in celebration.’ And I actually had the first student contact me, saying, ‘I can’t wait ‘cause I’m graduating this year.’”

Michael’s students know how deeply he cares about them, so they respond to his feedback, whether he delivers it verbally or through ClassDojo. “Last year, one of my lunch monitors come up to me and say ‘Mr. Henry, I’ve got to tell you, your kids all say please and thank you when they go through the lunch line.’ It almost made me cry, thinking, Yeah, actually I’m making a difference.”

Michael Henry, 5th Grade Teacher

Michael teaches at an inner-city school in Rochester, NY.