Sustainable Tigers? A response to the documentary, Paper Tigers
by Christopher L Daikos & Courtney V Daikos
In the compelling documentary Paper Tigers we follow the intimate story of several students at Lincoln High School (LHS) in Walla Walla, Washington. We see the students’ lives through their perspectives as they collaboratively construct the documentary via hand-held cameras. We are presented with their struggles first hand: neglect, conflict, drug addiction, domestic violence, abandonment and family illness, to name a few. We learn of these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) through student testimonials and conversations with adults they trust. Their stories are compelling and as viewers we are drawn in to feel alongside the students.
Many of the featured students arrive at Lincoln High School, an alternative school, after experiencing some form of adversity or alienation at traditional comprehensive high schools. For whatever reasons they were unsuccessful, disengaged or potentially no longer welcomed at their previous placements. LHS staff cultivate meaningful relationships with students, some of whom have learned to distrust adults and authority figures after years of neglect and disappointment. During key developmental phases these students likely experienced fragile or insecure attachments to adults. These insecure attachments can result in a plethora of maladaptive behaviors, e.g. oppositional defiance, disproportionate emotional outbursts, chronic eloping, just to name a few. In building trust with the students, the LHS staff are supporting these adolescent brains to develop new neural pathways for how healthy, supportive relationships can work. The trust they establish could be seen as healing to their continued neurological development and senses of selves. Teachers, counselors and administrators in the film embrace every student for who they are. Through persistence and dedication they model resilience for their students. They teach via relationship. There is a growing body of work that clearly indicates that the student-teacher relationship is a key element to student success.
Due to the uniquely small class sizes and staff to student ratio, Lincoln has been able to nurture relationships that are more intimate and dynamic than the typical teacher to student rapport at a comprehensive high school where the ratio could be 1:130+. As an alternative school, their class sizes are smaller than the most traditional high schools in Washington State, the film admits. We are not suggesting that teachers in larger comprehensive schools are unable to nurture strong relationships with their students, rather we are suggesting that larger, comprehensive schools would need systematic frameworks and supports to allow educators such time to develop such relationships.
Relationships are at the core of teaching and learning. The staff at Lincoln HS are extraordinary and they consistently demonstrate selfless work. After thoughtful viewing, many of us wonder how we might replicate such practices in our own systems and schools? We seek to understand how their work has been built behind the scenes. What about the systems and structures underlying their significant student success? Are they implementing a tiered system of interventions such as a trauma informed Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model? Viewers see a brief team meeting reviewing student academic and behavioral progress but it is not shared with the audience if there is any protocol or framework utilized to assess the success of any evidence-based interventions.
In order to build and sustain the success of a school like Lincoln over time schools would need to address core beliefs regarding behavior, relationships, and social learning. Professional Development in Adverse Child Experiences along with the neurological and physiological health implications should be prioritized and delivered over time. Social Emotional Learning curriculum should be interwoven into a school’s instruction. Disciplinary practices would shift towards an approach of restorative justice. The school would have a framework such as RTI or MTSS to measure and inform the interventions being provided. Ideally students would have access to mental and other health supports as they do at the LHS clinic in the film.
Paper Tigers inspires viewers with stories of students’ lives being transformed. Lincoln’s success should be celebrated and our hope is that over time it is sustainable. If key staff members leave, can Lincoln’s success can be replicated without intervention systems in place? A recent review of 100 teacher preparation programs revealed that pre-service teachers receive little to no training to address behavioral interventions and Social Emotional Learning isn’t yet on the radar of widely respected pre-service programs. If we believe in the message of Paper Tigers, and in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, then we must provide the structure and supports necessary to replicate and sustain the success of Lincoln High School.