I’m Not Acting as Role Model, I’m Serving as a Role Model: A Conversation with Authors Julie Kelly and Kirsten Howard

I’m Not Acting as Role Model, I’m Serving as a Role Model: A Conversation with Authors Julie Kelly and Kirsten Howard

Julie Kelly and Kirsten Howard are Responsive Classroom consulting teachers and contributing authors for the forthcoming Empowering Educators series (Julie worked on Empowering Educators for Grades 3, 4, 5; Kirsten worked on Empowering Educators for Grades K, 1, 2). For these new resources, both authors wrote about the importance of educators serving as role models for students and what that can look like in the classroom. Responsive Classroom sat down with them to learn more.

Equity is an important concept in the Empowering Educators series. How can educators and other adults in the classroom model equity for students?

KH: In a very basic sense, we need to be examining the perspective of “This is how we’ve always done it” because how we’ve always done it has historically disenfranchised a large number of our students. When the status quo isn’t beneficial to a huge part of our population, we need to be willing to examine that and think about things from an anti-bias, antiracist perspective and ask the question, “Is this going to support all of my students?” 

Another thought I had, too, was examining what teachers you connect with in the building and thinking about: Are we modeling respectful conversation with everyone in the building, or do we just have two friends that our students are always hearing us talk about and seeing us talk to? Are kids seeing that the adults all respect and care about each other no matter who they are and what their role is? 

JK: That’s a great point because our students are watching us all the time. They notice those interactions or lack of interactions, so it is hugely important to make sure that we’re modeling respect and dignity with all of the adults in the building. 

Equity also means making sure that there are ample opportunities for everyone to be heard, including those who might be a little more introverted. How can they share their point of view in a way that we all can hear it? 

KH: People who can explain their thinking by talking in front of a group of people can be valued a little bit more, and we don’t want to create that hierarchy. There are people who are much more comfortable writing their thoughts down and having someone else read it, or they’re much more comfortable communicating some other way. We want them to know: how you communicate is valid and valuable and we’re going to support that because you’re an important member of our community and we want to hear from you.


What does that look like in the classroom? How do you create space for those students’ voices in the conversation? 

JK: First of all, knowing our students and giving them a choice in how to express their voice. Sometimes, I’ll just say to a student, “What you’re writing is beautiful and I think it would benefit the whole class if everyone can hear this. Do you feel comfortable reading this? Would you like for me to read it, or would you like a classmate to read it?” I try to give them choices in how they want their perspective to be shared.  

KH: I also think in this world of iPads and phone cameras, it may be that a child is more comfortable saying something out loud without everybody looking. What if we offer them the opportunity to take the iPad to a quiet space to share their thoughts and then broadcast the video? 


What tools will be most effective for teachers in modeling behavior specific to the pandemic – such as maintaining six feet of distance or keeping masks on indoors? 

JK: Well, I think in this case the strategy of Interactive Modeling is effective because we are also modeling empathy with our teacher language: “Yeah, it’s difficult to wear a mask all day long, but in order for us to keep our communities safe we need to do it. During the day we will have those opportunities when we’re outside where we can take a break. But I empathize with you. It is hard to wear a mask all day.” And then modeling what it looks like to wear the mask correctly and creating opportunities for practice. 

KH: Building on Julie’s point, remembering that it’s a learning process just like academic skills and social and emotional skills. We don’t expect children to be experts at it the first time we teach it to them. Even if you have fifth graders, they’re going to make mistakes sometimes, and how we respond to their mistakes matters. Also, how we respond to our own mistakes: “Oops, I forgot to check my mask. Let me step back and fix my mask.” We need to give our students grace with mistakes and also treat ourselves with grace. 


What would you say is the number one tool in the educator’s toolkit when it comes to modeling behavior for students? 

KH: Interactive Modeling is so important, but I think the precursor to Interactive Modeling is taking the time to be crystal clear about what you expect — what you as a teacher want it to look like and sound like. Then, when you do your Interactive Modeling, you can be sure that you are being clear about it. Kids are not good at reading our minds, so if we can read and interpret it for them then it will help them be successful. 

JK: Teacher language is part of all the other things we do, so I would say that teacher language is the number one tool because that’s how we deliver directions that are clear and concise. 

KH: Julie, you were mentioning you finished your 21st year of teaching, and I’m going into my 21st, and I’m much more comfortable now with the language I use and with how I model, but when I’m learning something new, I write it down. I write myself a script, and sometimes I even have index cards with a few phrases or a few sentences I want to make sure I say. 


What is the first piece of advice you would give to a new teacher about acting as a role model for students?

KH: Mine connects to Julie’s point about how the most important tool in our toolbox is our teacher language. How we talk to students becomes their inner voice. It becomes the model for how they talk to each other. Being deliberate and intentional with our language helps model that for them. The language we use really becomes how they talk to themselves, how they talk to each other, and how they talk to us as teachers. 

JK: As I was thinking about this question, I thought, “Well, I’m not acting as a role model, I’m serving as a role model.” It’s about that authenticity: be authentic, share your passion for learning, and share your journey as a lifelong learner. One thing that I always remember with my own children are those dinnertime conversations. As a teacher, I remind myself that how I talk to my students – in my words, actions, and body language – that’s going to be a piece of that conversation when they go home and they’re having their own dinner conversations. 


If somebody is picking up a book from the Empowering Educators series for the first time, what piece of advice would you give them about how to approach the book?

JK: I think it depends on where you are in your Responsive Classroom journey. If you have been on the journey for a while, you might just want to dig right into your grade level. If you are newer, then I think the overview pieces are really helpful. 

KH: I think there are multiple ways to read these books, and it doesn’t begin with starting on page one. Let what your goals are right now guide how you approach the books. You may be setting up your classroom and it would be helpful to read the chapter on classroom organization for all three grade levels. Even if you happen to be teaching third or second, there are going to be nuggets that are useful to you in each of the grade levels. 


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.