One might wonder what business a university professor could possibly have in a sixth-grade classroom.
For Juliana Lilly, it's the business of education.
Lilly, associate professor of management in the College of Business Administration at Sam Houston State University, has been co-teaching a “Teen Leadership” curriculum at Spring ISD's Wells Middle School in Houston twice a week.
Lilly said the idea was born from a conversation with a friend who is a seventh-grade teacher, although not at Wells.
"She was saying how awful her day had been because the kids were acting crazy," Lilly said. "I wondered if we could teach children that age how to better manage their behavior."
As an expert in motivating employees and managers to perform at their personal and professional best, Lilly wondered if the same principles could be applied to middle-school students.
"At SHSU, we talk about motivation, leadership and behavior management," Lilly said. "We don't really care why somebody hates their mother, but we don't want them to act out on it at work."
Lilly said that if they can teach adolescents the analytical and critical thinking skills it takes to realize that the way they behave has a direct influence on the way they are treated, positive changes will follow. This, in turn, gives them a sense of control at a time when everything seems to be out of control—a common feeling in the chaos of pending teenage-dom, never mind adulthood.
"I want them to see, if I do X, then that person will do Y. And I'm the one causing that person to do Y," Lilly said. "If they say 'the teacher is always yelling at me,' and we say 'well, yeah, because you disrupted the class four times in the last five minutes,' they begin to realize that they had control overthat situation from the beginning."
The same analogy applies at home with family interactions, on the field with sports teams, or at the mall hanging out with friends.
Lilly's curriculum is at the university level and deals with the business world. But with some help from Rex Malixi, a sixth-grade teacher at Wells Middle School, the content has been hand-tailored to fit the needs of a sixth-grade classroom.
"We can take a case study from the business level that deals with management, employees and payroll and turn it around to say the classroom is where you work, the teachers are your boss, and your grades are your paycheck," Malixi said. "These aren't just words and numbers we're throwing at the students. These are tried-and-true case studies. It's real. And if they apply these principals in their lives, good things will start to happen."
Reaction from the students has been positive overall, Malixi said. In fact, to the occasional surprise of both Malixi and Lilly, once in a while the students refer back to a previous lesson.
"They say things like 'well, isn't that the same as emotional contagion?' So, they know the concepts," Lilly said. "Even my college students don't always throw things back at me that they learned weeks earlier, so it's very rewarding."
There are other things the sixth-graders do that college students don't though, things that Lilly has had to learn to work with.
"They'll just get up and move around the room," she said, with a laugh.
Ever the business-minded woman, Lilly thought of a way to turn their restlessness into something positive. Why not bring them to SHSU, where they can see firsthand how today's behavior impacts tomorrow's prospects?
That's when Bernice Strauss, director of academic support programs at the SHSU Student Advising and Mentoring Center, stepped in. Strauss is also in charge of SHSU ELITE, a freshman minority program for males that stands for "Establishing Leadership In and Through Education."
As a result, more than 100 Wells Middle School students were matched with 50 SHSU ELITE leaders, who showed them the SHSU campus, took them to a university-level class and sat down with them for lunch and leadership.
"A piece of this for the middle-school students was the impact of seeing college students who look like them and who are successful in higher education," Strauss said, adding that faculty across campus were very supportive by allowing ELITE students to bring Wells Middle School students into a variety of classes, including Spanish, political science, music, biology, math, chemistry and so forth.
Now that the school year is almost over, it's time to gather data from Wells Middle School and see if Lilly and Malixi's efforts have, in fact, made a difference.
"The seeds have been planted," Malixi said. "Whether it bears fruit next week, next semester or three years down the road…we will see."