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Education Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 18, 2010

After 17 years at Lynnwood’s helm
Dillon wants to bring his work on self-regulation out to the world 

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Jim Dillon is a lot like Mister Rogers. He’s predictable and unassuming; he takes the time to explain things. Kids admire him the same way they did the late television icon.

“Mister Rogers would bore adults to death but kids loved him,” said Dillon, the long-time principal of Lynnwood Elementary School. “His genius was he looked at the world the way kids did. He explained things slowly. He’d talk about feelings.”

Being sent to the principal’s office is not something the kids in Dillon’s school fear. “I view discipline as learning,” he said. “I want kids to view me as someone who cares for them…In a lot of schools, the kids who get in trouble get a sense they’re less valued. Here, they know they’ll be listened to. If you don’t listen, kids learn to lie. Most of our kids, when they’re in trouble, aren’t afraid of getting yelled at, so they don’t lie. They are honest.”

On a recent Friday, a boy had made a mean comment at lunch and was sent to see Dillon. “Kids were laughing at him and he made a threatening statement that wasn’t appropriate. If I just reprimand him, how would that help him the next time?” asked Dillon.

Instead, he taught the boy a lesson about anger.  He asked the boy how he felt; when the boy said he felt angry, Dillon asked if it was OK to be angry. The boy said no.

“He thought it meant being mean. He didn’t get the difference,” said Dillon. “If you think being angry is unacceptable, you’re given an impossible task. You can’t help feeling anger. But it doesn’t have to translate into meanness.”

Dillon wrote on a board on his office wall, “All feelings are OK.” He wrote an equation with a slash through the equal sign, so the boy would see that being angry does not equal being mean. Dillon talked with the boy and listed behaviors that are “not OK,” like being rude, yelling, or putting someone down.

He explained that, when you feel angry, you can make a decision about what to do next. You can count to 10 to calm down. You can take a break and walk away.

“You have to learn strategies,” said Dillon. “If you just say, ‘Don’t be mean,’ he’ll keep doing it.”

Dillon believes that kids who are punished when they are young, but are not taught strategies to control themselves, are the ones who drop out. “School’s an unfriendly place for them,” he said. “In a lot of traditional educational settings, the emphasis is on compliance.”

Dillon, who has been the principal at Lynnwood for 17 years, started a Peaceful School Bus program there that is used now in places across the country. Bus rides, typically with little adult supervision, are often characterized by bullying and other bad behavior. Dillon created a program where students who ride a bus meet in small groups throughout the year and get to know each other and the driver. They learn to recognize bullying and assume responsibility for preventing it.

Behavior referrals from bus drivers, at a high of 58 for the 1998-99 school year, a decade later are virtually non-existent.

Lynnwood parents are involved in the Peaceful School Bus program and other programs as well.

“The parents learn how we discipline,” said Dillon. “We talk about skills and setting goals. For some, we set up contracts.”

When a parent is called in because, for example, a child is having trouble controlling anger, Dillon said, “We don’t say, ‘Your kid is misbehaving. You better do something about it.’ Once we get on the same page with the parent, we have the student come in. We do simple goal setting and write that up as a contract. We coach the kid and hold him accountable.”

Making learning meaningful

Dillon wants kids to be excited about learning, not just to follow what a teacher says.

“Learning is an intrinsically rewarding, exciting experience,” he said.

Dillon grew up on Staten Island in a working-class family in an Irish and Italian community. “Catholic education was very important,” he said. “My parents sacrificed to send me to 12 years of Catholic school.”

He was an honor-roll student but says, “I remember being scared all the time…A lot of my motivation was to avoid bad things.” He saw other students being hit with a ruler or shaken by the ear and did what he was told.

Dillon majored in English education at the University at Albany and went on there to earn a master’s degree in special education. Being in special education made him think about how different people learn.

Dillon refers to research frequently as he talks about ideas that have been put into practice at Lynnwood. One of those books is Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Dillon boils down the thesis to three elements — purpose, autonomy, and mastery. “Learning has to be meaningful, you have to take ownership of learning, and people have an innate tendency to want to get better at the things that intrigue them,” he said.

He was attracted to Guilderland in the first place because of the district’s approach to make learning meaningful, said Dillon. One of the approaches he has helped to further is cooperative learning.

“The district made a commitment to cooperative learning several years ago,” he said. Dillon and Nancy Andress, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction, now retired, visited a school district in Toronto that used cooperative learning and became trainers themselves.

“Cooperative learning is not group work,” Dillon stresses. “It’s a precise method of teaching. Instead of putting kids in rows and having them listen to the teacher, they sit in groups of three or four to work on tasks individually and as a group.”

He gives an example of teaching a high school class about the causes of the Civil War. Instead of having just a few students raise their hands, everyone is told to write down as many causes as they can think of. Then the group must discuss which three are the most important.

“They have to analyze and verbalize,” said Dillon. “Every one has to be able to explain…To make sure one student doesn’t dominate, you give out roles to each one.”

With this approach, he said, “A lot of learning takes place. It’s not just students’ taking notes and spitting it back to the teacher…Kids get used to having to talk as they learn. When I went to school, only the teachers talked.”

Retiring and reaching out

Dillon is 58 and will retire at the end of this school year. He feels confident his work at Lynnwood will move forward.

“I share leadership with the teachers,” he said. “The name of the game is not to please me. We figure out together what’s going to work.” The school has 450 students and about 100 staff members.

Dillon went on, “Lynnwood has a staff that, when a new idea comes up, they say, ‘Why not?’ …We’ve learned this together,” he said of the school’s innovative approaches. “If the new principal is open to learning, the staff can teach him or her a lot.”

After retiring, Dillon plans to continue work he and Andress have already done in bully prevention training. “That work energizes me,” he said.

“It’s not easy to leave,” he went on about his retirement from Lynnwood. “The people here are incredible. I feel passionate about making sure schools do the right thing. It hurts me to see kids suspended and punished.”

He referred to a child who came to Lynnwood from another school district after being suspended eight times in kindergarten. “What a tragedy. He was curious. He needed direction,” said Dillon.

Dillon plans to work on taking theories on self-regulation and putting them in a book with lesson plans for teachers.

“It would be an explanation of the theory, why it works, and how to do it,” he said. “There’s been a lot written on self-regulation, but nothing on teaching the language,” he said. “I want to bring it out to the world.”

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