Teachers Can't Find the Nurturer in TPS's Classroom Management System
No-Nonsense Nurturer has been criticized as being robotic, stifling and under-researched.
Editor’s Note: Current TPS employees who were interviewed for this article did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from the district. I contacted principals and teachers at two schools, but did not get a response.
No Nonsense Nurturer, a classroom management program meant to create district-wide consistency at Tulsa Public Schools, has many teachers and administrators seeing a lot of nonsense and not much nurturing. Many are simply not using the expensive package, or they’re choosing to leave the district. Some veteran educators say they feel “pushed out” for not complying.
A product of the Center for Transformative Teacher Training (CT3), a company based in San Francisco, California, No-Nonsense Nurturer (NNN) can be purchased as a package for school districts, or educators can buy online training. At TPS, the program was presented to teachers at a district-wide training session before school began in August 2016. A “Teacher Institute” was held at Cox Business Center where CT3 representatives trained teachers on the classroom management strategies of NNN. According to an article in the Tulsa World, the cost for the two-day Teacher Institute was $308,000, with $285,600 from the Foundation for Tulsa Schools, and TPS paying $22,400.
No-Nonsense Nurturer teachers, according to CT3 documents, do the following: give precise directions; narrate, consistently take corrective action; and build relationships with students. Teachers are expected to use a non-emotional voice, and to use “positive narration” (“Tim has his book out”) with two or three students on task, while ignoring students who are not on task. Directions are restated to the off-task students. Teachers are instructed not to use “please” or “thank-you” when narrating or giving directions. CT3 suggests using a hierarchy of colored cards (blue, green, purple, yellow, orange, red) for student behavior with blue being “exceptional” and red meaning “office referral.” Directions and narrations are scripted and discussed with teachers in advance. Coaches trained in the management system will sit at the back of a classroom and give corrective instructions on how to use the script to a teacher who is wearing an earpiece.
Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent for TPS, explained that NNN aligns with the goals of the district’s strategic plan, Destination Excellence (www.tulsaschools.org/plan). She outlined that two “big goals” of the plan are that “we are contributors, and that we want safe, supported and joyful learning environments. We believe in supported learning,” Shannon added. “This is kind of an aspirational vision of what we want to achieve. At the heart of it is building strong relationships because we believe that’s the building block to creating those safe, supported, joyful learning environments. That’s where No-Nonsense Nurturing came from.”
Shannon went on to describe how NNN’s “strong practices” create a consistent discipline system for the district where teachers use “precise directions,” “positive narration” with “some positive incentives attached to it.”
While she could not recall the exact cost of NNN to the district, she did say that most was covered by “philanthropic” dollars, and some schools were using some of their Title I funds.
According to many professionals, NNN classrooms are anything but “joyful” or nurturing. In fact, some current and former teachers and support personnel view NNN as part of a larger issue of top-down control from the district. Rather than feeling supported, they feel disrespected, and are looking for teaching jobs outside TPS. As one teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “It’s never been about money. Teachers leave TPS because of the hostile work environment.” She pointed to the 600 teacher vacancies last summer as being just as much a work environment issue as a pay issue, especially for veteran teachers. “They’re not all going out of state,” she said. “Some are just looking for jobs in nearby districts.”
Another currently employed educator, who also wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by the district, said, “The district rolled out a brand-new classroom management program [NNN]; a reading program called CKLA, which is Common Core revamped, and Eureka Math. Teachers just bolted.”
While educators agree that precise, clear directions are important to classroom management, many balk at the scripted, emotionless nature of NNN. Linda Gier, who left TPS as a Student Engagement Coordinator in the office of Student and Family Support Services, said that the four components of NNN are good. Gier, who has worked in schools and in educational psychology for over 40 years, was hired by TPS in 2009. Prior to that she had been a teacher in Kansas, a behavior interventionist for the district, owned her own business working with challenging children, and was the Positive Behavioral Intervention Services coordinator for the Kansas State Department of Education. She was supposed to begin implementing Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), an evidence-based school management model, in TPS, but when Paula Shannon became deputy superintendent, she made the decision to drop PBIS and implement NNN. Gier was then trained in NNN.
Building relationships, precise directions, positive narration and consequences are “all researched and highly effective,” Gier said. “The problem is that No-Nonsense Nurturing turns teachers into robots. Teachers don’t say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’. Where will kids learn respectful asking? It seems to take the feeling of a classroom family and turn the whole day into a structured experience where everyone looks and acts the same. Kids are recognized for looking and acting like everyone else.
“Here’s what I worry about,” Gier continued. “I taught second grade, and I had a highly impulsive kid in class. But my approval drove him. If he never heard a nice word or joy or excitement from me, he would not keep working on his behavior. Not all children look alike and sound alike.”
Another employee who observed and was trained to implement NNN and asked to be quoted anonymously, responded, “It is very scripted. Every model they have adopted is scripted. With NNN, coaches listen to teachers and tell them what kind of praise you can say to students (can’t say things like ‘good job’ ‘thank you for ...’). Teachers are supposed to praise kids by stating the obvious (‘John picked up his pencil,’ ‘Sally started her math,’ ‘Jose finished page 10’), and they are expected to do this continuously throughout their instruction. NNN has an element for developing relationships with students. Any relationships being developed are because teachers are going above and beyond, and doing this on their own.”
“No-Nonsense Nurturing makes neither neurodevelopmental nor psychological sense and is in no way nurturing,” said Dr. Robert Hudson, recently retired clinical professor of pediatrics, OU-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, and co-director for the Center for Resilience. Dr. Hudson led a research project to study executive function in young children in at-risk TPS schools. “No-Nonsense Nurturing makes the students with the greatest need for help with behaving and learning, or ‘self-regulation,’ worse.”
Dr. Hudson said that low-performing schools have a “higher proportion of disruptive students” who have difficulty with impulse control, flexibility, problem-solving and social/emotional development.” The NNN belief structure of “earning respect,” “100 percent compliance 100 percent of the time,” and expecting all students to behave in the same way is “built on false assumptions, disproved with neuroscience research over the past 25 years. No-Nonsense Nurturing is founded on the belief that all students are alike and capable of the same response to correction, which also flies in the face of well-established neuroscience,” he said.
Gier echoes Hudson’s concerns about NNN’s impact on highly stressed children. “In TPS, the district recognizes the numbers of students coming into classrooms every day from traumatized backgrounds. A lot of kids don’t know what they’re going to eat. That’s traumatic,” Gier said. “Then they put in something that has no nurturing, kids coming in with trauma and the district using this 100 percent compliance – it doesn’t match up.”
Paula Shannon said that she has “colleagues in different places shooting for 100 percent. That works in some places better than other places,” Shannon said. “We’re by far not perfect, but through data we can track…we know that generally across the board, teachers are feeling more supported and things are getting a little better. I can see where folks might think that it’s robotic. What I would say is that the teacher is very central to making this theirs. If teachers don’t use it, that’s fine.”
Shannon said that NNN is one tool of many that teachers can use, stressing that NNN is a set of “strategies,” not a “program”; although, the CT3 website refers to NNN as a “program” for classroom management. When asked to name other strategies available to teachers, Shannon couldn’t think of others, but named “resolution,” which is also a piece of NNN relating to suspensions.
“When we look at the decrease in the number of referrals we’re getting from schools, we’re seeing good results,” Shannon said.
A behavior specialist who is currently employed by TPS and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that referrals and suspensions are down because the district isn’t counting long-term suspensions, nor do teachers or administrators feel that they can suspend. “Eight teachers walked out at Hale Junior High,” she said. “You have to ask why. Social/emotional practices are being pushed out. Teachers are feeling that if a kid blows up at them and spits at them, they go to a restorative conference, and then right back in the same room. You do not suspend, and you can say ‘suspensions are down’. That’s just smoke and mirrors.”
The same employee said that her background is in special education. “No-Nonsense Nurturing is not good for a stressed population of kids. It’s supposed to have an emphasis on building relationships with kids,” she said, “but teachers don’t see that; they just see this as robotic. Our kids are not all the same.”
When this administrator was asked to coach teachers, she said she saw them “in tears all the time.’ I was told ‘I want you to go coach these five teachers.’ It [NNN] just devalued them. It made them feel like kindergartners. They said, ‘I don’t want to be humiliated. I quit.’”
She added that she doesn’t see NNN being used. “They [the district] rolled it out, and rolled it out poorly. This year, they targeted schools, cohort schools, and they have backed off on the other schools. I don’t see it being used when I go in to observe.”
Linda Gier said, “Last year, the people I supervised were forced to become Coaches. They spent a semester coaching teachers under the supervision from NNN trainers. Teachers did not like the model. It was too scripted, for one thing. The coaching process was extremely time intensive. Even if the model did have research to back it up, the model is not being implemented as designed and is, thus, invalid even by NNN standards. Teachers would say they would use it when they were being supervised, but not otherwise.”
Teachers also did not have the necessary on-site support to make them successful.
“The NNN model is set up to train coaches to support the school building,” Gier said. “There’s supposed to be a coach in every building to support teachers. You can develop a relationship with the on-site coach. In Tulsa, we had four behavior coaches and seven social service specialists and a number of 20 to 25 coaches, tops. So for the NNN model, this is completely off the mark. The training is extremely expensive. There was no continued training this year as far as I know.”
Dr. Hudson said that programs such as NNN may work in the short term, but adults should be thinking about what kind of person they are building. “Children with impulse control issues are not acting out intentionally. These kids are in desperate need of help developing skills of self-regulation, not the type of directive approach I witnessed in a TPS hallway where a teacher was telling 5-year-olds, “Stand up straight, arms crossed over your chest, eyes on the head of the student in front of you, now march, silently, not talking, straight line... The theory that more force is necessary to control the student creates an environment of more force. Spanking and duct tape work, too, but is that what we want? There are better ways to help get at the long-term problem and to design a better solution to help.”
Evidence-Based vs. Research
According to teachers and administrators, better solutions do exist, but, they say, Superintendent Gist and other administrators are not listening to educators, but, rather, pursuing a “business, teacher-proof” model for education.
One veteran third-grade teacher with some of the highest test scores in the district, who also spoke anonymously for fear of retribution by the district, said that she was fortunate to have a principal who let her teach and manage her classroom the way she wanted. “Otherwise, I would leave,” she said. “We call No-Nonsense Nurturing ‘Nonsense Nurturing.’ ‘Positive Narration’? There’s nothing positive about it. It was driving us crazy. A new teacher was so frustrated by it, she was in tears. My class is fantastic because I don’t have a neutral voice! It’s gotten worse with Gist rather than better. She has money for highly paid people, not us. The whole thing is condescending. I’m a successful, seasoned teacher. I want to improve. I want good professional development. And I’m being set up to fail.”
“I was hired at TPS to implement Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS),” Gier said. “I’m good at what I do, and I have a lot of respect in this district. PBIS was going to be the most exciting thing. It wasn’t because of me or my lack of ability that this [PBIS] was dropped. I’ve never been chased out of a place. PBIS is a beautiful system to provide support to schools, and uses data to do that. NNN is simply a compliance program, a classroom management program, but it doesn’t get into all the points of good classroom management.”
Gier said that PBIS is a site-based school environment strategy, which is evidence-based and used in school systems throughout the world. Teachers and administrators at each school make decisions for their site with subsequent buy-in from students and parents.
“There’s a child development piece where kids are supposed to start growing their own wings,” she said. “With my second-graders, we talked about what we were going to do, what was going well, and what we needed to change. I turned over problems to them, and they came up with solutions. Class meetings are a big part of PBIS. A PBIS school is going to teach school-wide expectations. When Paula Shannon said [the district] was going to be using NNN, tiered support [of the PBIS model] went to the wayside. We sacrificed a whole system that could have helped every school.”
Moreover, PBIS is an evidence-based model. “Evidence-based” practices and procedures are supported by rigorous research. Evidence-based practices have been demonstrated in formal research studies to be related to valued outcomes for children and their families. According to research by Bob H. Horner, George Sugai and Timothy Lewis, “PBIS is not a packaged curriculum, but an approach that defines core elements that can be achieved through a variety of strategies.” There is a system in place to identify and monitor progress of at-risk students as well as a team-based approach for comprehensive assessment. It also looks at ways to link behavior and academic supports for the best outcomes for the student.
No-Nonsense Nurturer is not an evidence-based program under this definition. The CT3 website has anecdotal evidence as well as claims made by CT3, but no external, rigorous, third-party research to support its claims.
“No-Nonsense Nurturer has not one peer-reviewed research paper saying that this approach is helpful to students,” Dr. Hudson said. “I personally called the company and asked. NNN is a ‘ready, fire, aim’ program that is a knee-jerk reaction to a need, but an ill- advised and very costly reaction to help.”
“If you look at TPS’s mission statement,” Gier said, “as educators, we’re supposed to be thinking beyond today, beyond this classroom to a kid’s future.”
Other veteran educators worry that ultimately NNN stifles teachers’ ability to do their jobs, and the students’ ability to learn.
A past administrator summed it up this way: “TPS Destination Excellence has ‘Joy’ as a focus in the classrooms. ‘Stifling’ is a descriptor that sums up No Nonsense Nurturer, not ‘Joy.’ The problem with this program is the love doesn’t feel authentic and students feel it.”
To read responses on this article from Tulsa Public Schools, CT3 and others, go here.