Confessions from the Classroom

March 8, 2018

I used to pride myself on being strict. I always told myself (and sometimes my students!) that I wasn’t there to be a friend. I was a disciplinarian. I was a teacher. I was in charge and I was in control. It’s a little ironic, actually. Because I preached democracy. I said it was “our” classroom. I believed firmly in positive social-emotional curriculum, social justice and youth empowerment through youth leadership. But I was a hard-ass and took no prisoners. And I always gravitated to the labeled “at-risk” youth. When I think about it now, I can’t even imagine those two things going together. How can a zero-tolerance educator work with disengaged youth? It’s like an oxymoron.

But in the 11th Hour, I saw the light.

In my 11th year as a public school educator, I really started to feel like it was my first year teaching with truth. With honesty and passion. With vulnerability. With my heart - all of it. No more faking it. No more loving parts of my profession, and hating the rest. And in all this honesty, vulnerability, and truth, I have discovered Five Critical Flaws in my past pedagogical approach. Let me tell you now, I’m not happy about this. These are not my most proud moments. But this is me allowing my past to become my wisdom. To be vulnerable with you allows me to reflect and learn from my past. So if some of these Critical Flaws sound familiar to you and may possibly hit home, I dare you to be vulnerable with me. Go ahead and judge me, but only if you do it while you’re looking in the mirror. Ready? Here we go...

Critical Flaw #1: Public Humiliation

What I used to do: I used to think that if I reamed a kid in front of his friends or classmates, then I would humiliate him enough to make him see the err of his ways. I had no idea it just made him totally loathe me. And even worse -  that I was potentially scarring him deeply. I could be the reason he not only hates coming to my class, but why he hates coming to school. I made him feel like he was less than, like he was not worthy, like he was wasted space and we’d be better off without him. I’ve had to really sit and think about how that would make me feel. So work with me here - imagine this situation: You are sitting in a staff meeting or professional development training at your school site or district office. You turn to the colleague on your right and make a comment. The comment turns into a quiet side conversation that may or may not be distracting to the people around you. You don’t notice though because you are really into the discussion. (I know you can imagine this easily because it happens during every staff meeting, doesn’t it!?) But picture this… The trainer is standing right next to you and had apparently stopped talking several moments ago. So everyone is now staring at you. He makes a rather rude and sarcastic comment to you about disrespect and demands that you leave. He continues to humiliate you until you pack your belongings and step out the door. Could you imagine that actually happening? Except it happens all the time in our classrooms. Why is it okay to treat our students differently than how we expect our administrators to treat us? Or the way we wish our OWN children to be treated inside their classrooms?

What I changed: Private conversations. I talk to the student one-on-one either after class, after school, or before class the next day. Or if they’re really lucky, I’ll hunt them down and go talk to them during my prep. They really trip out when I come to them! If it’s a conversation that can’t wait, I will kneel by their desk or quietly ask them to come to me. I was amazed at how much respect I gained. How much more legitimate I became to them. And I learned from them. I learned about the source of their frustration or sadness, why they were acting out or being rude. I developed relationships instead of nurturing disengagement. Nobody wants to hang their dirty laundry out to dry, so why do we expect our students to be okay with it?

Critical Flaw #2: Kicking Kids Out (3 Strikes!)

What I used to do: I thought it sounded logical, my 3 Strikes You’re Out! policy. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments when removing a student from my classroom is the best option. It happens. (And it’s usually emotionally stimulated, poor behavior choices that really just leads to a process of self-elimination.) For this Critical Flaw, I’m referring more to the “you’re really getting on my nerves and I’m not in the mood to deal” infractions. But guess what? It’s my job to deal, which means I need to find a way to make it work. I have to work through that challenge. What good does it do to send the kid out? It’s like another form of public humiliation, really. And thank god students have spoken honestly to me about how insulting it feels to be kicked out. It essentially reinforces the behaviors that got them kicked out in the first place! And aren’t we trying to changes those negative behaviors? And if you’re not not in the business to change the lives of our youth for the better, then what are you doing in a classroom? Antiquated are the thoughts of simply teaching content. Those days have left us and we need to recognize a teacher’s role for what it is: educator, parent, social worker, counselor, confidant. And again, imagine the situation painted in Flaw #1 - imagine you in a staff meeting or PD. Imagining yourself in the situation…now that’s compassion, right? And how do you feel, imagining yourself getting kicked out of the room?

What I changed: I made a firm decision to try everything before I resort to sending a student outside. Instead, I take a more restorative approach and focus on calming the aggression. If possible, I kneel down beside the student and have a quiet, compassionate conversation, reminding her how much I value her presence in my class. I calmly ask her to get it together so I can continue on with our lessons. I tell her how much her behavior affects me and my planning, prohibiting me from completing my job and the other students from learning. But here’s the trick - I have to really watch my tone of voice. I speak with sincerity. If I don’t, I definitely won’t get the results I’m really looking for. If a situation arises during a whole group discussion, then I have to improvise quickly. I have to cause a distraction. I’ll ask the students to do a quick share out with their partner, get them talking to each other so I can talk one-on-one without too much attention. If it continues, I may privately give her an option to stay at her desk, move to  the back of the room, or off to the side, somewhere non-threatening. Or I might even ask her to stand by the door, just not outside of it. And it’s got to be her decision to move - it can’t be forced. This gives her a few moments to calm down, which also gives me a minute to take a few breaths, recollect myself, and remind myself not to react emotionally or take it personally. Which leads me to my next Critical Flaw…

Critical Flaw #3: Taking Things Personally and Reacting Emotionally

What I used to do: I remember this one student I had. He was like no other. Man, he was rude! And so blatantly disrespectful. That kid did whatever he wanted and totally knew how to work it. I mean really, by the time most kids get to middle school, they’ve gotten so good at manipulating situations for their benefit. This can be a really positive and useful skill when given the right training. But it can also be deadly for teachers in the classroom. This kid was so fired up one day and I was quickly losing my cool. I eventually called for an escort and by the time the principal arrived to take my criminal away, I was more fired up than my student was. I went on and on (more public humiliation…) about his intolerable behavior until I was breathing fire. All the while, my principal stood there, calmly listening and nodding his head. He let me vent and then asked my student to stand off to the side, away from us. The principal looked at me and said “Don’t take this personally”. Of course, my immediate response was to defensively and loudly state, “OH, I’M NOT TAKING THIS PERSONALLY!!!” He then placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Okay, Tina. Just remember this has nothing to do with you.” I had to really think about this situation later. If I wasn’t taking it personally, then why was I shouting? And if I wasn’t reacting emotionally, then why was I so fired up? And in retrospect, I did this a lot. I took it personally and reacted emotionally. My students’ bad day turned into my bad day. And then I couldn’t get out of it. My bad day then affected every other student and every other class I had that day. It was really about me and my need for justice! What a crock! And how embarrassing now that I look back on it. This is my public apology to every one of my students who had a bad day and took it out on me. I’m sorry I took it personally and reacted emotionally. You deserved better than that.

What I changed: This one is pretty basic - I stopped taking things personally. DUH! I catch myself before I can react emotionally. I take a little step back to get a different perspective. I take 3 deep breaths. I realized that no one is going to die if I take a few breaths before I speak. Then I started to realize that when I am more calm, I can actually listen to what my student has to say. And when I listen, I can literally hear the fact that their bad mood has absolutely nothing to do with me. So why am I going to waste the energy on dramatizing the situation instead of diffusing it?

Critical Flaw #4: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

What I used to do: Some of us might even do this with our own children. There’s at least one “wrong-doer” in every family, right? His name is always followed by “Why’d you do that?” or “What’d you do this time?” Let’s take a minute to think about this child’s personal timeline. Since he was old enough to walk, every day at home he’s scolded about his wrongs and talking with him always requires a certain demeaning tone. Everyone at home, including all the aunties and siblings and cousins, inherit this tone as well. By the time he is 5 he has learned that he is guilty and everyone sees him as such. He’s never been innocent - doesn’t know what it’s like. So by the time he gets to school he’s prepared to uphold the stereotype and has come to understand his role in the community as the “wrong-doer”. This Critical Flaw is all about assumptions. And you know what you do when you ass-u-me! In our classrooms, this means we assume a kid’s guilt and she has to work to prove her innocence.

What I changed: I quit assuming. I started looking. You know what I mean, right? I started looking at a kid when he spoke to me, when he tried to defend himself. I looked at his expression. Now, I ask simple questions like “What happened?” and “What were you thinking about at the time?” - questions used in restorative conferencing. The Q & A allows me to look for a truth instead of accepting the assumption. I also really started remembering all those times when I was young and people assumed things about me. Just because I wore combat boots didn’t mean I wanted to kick your ass. And just because I shaved my head, didn’t mean I was a lesbian. I hated what people assumed about me. Remembering that really helped me stop doing the same thing to other people, and most especially my students. I then gained the ability to see the opportunity in every child. I know it sounds super corny, but it’s true! Everyone has potential and when we assume guilt, we strip them of that potential. We alter their course. And innocence is never something a kid should have to prove to their teacher. Especially when you think of some of the things we blame them for.

Critical Flaw #5: Punishing the group for the actions of a small few

What I used to do: Ahhhh, the standard there’s-no-i-in-team, which ultimately equates to you’re-being-rude-and-disruptive-so-now-everyone-has-to-stay-in-for-lunch scheme. I used to have a game called 2 for 1. Basically, if you waste a minute of my time, I take 2 of yours. (Yes, I was evil. I already said you could judge.) But all those years I played that game, I thought it was logical and fair. Genius, actually. So let’s think about this for a minute: One kid, ONE kid, won’t stop talking, or moving around, or won’t put her notebook away, or talks back, and what’s my response? Punish everyone? It’s common practice, though, isn’t it? We tally table points or team points, or use Edmodo, or we say things like, “No one leaves until everyone is ready”. Or sometimes  frustrations are way too high because maybe it’s not one kid but a few. And then we really lose our cool. And it’s understandable. We deal with a lot and sometimes impulse takes control. We do it as teachers, we do it as parents, we do it as children. But it’s really not fair when you sit down and think about it. Again, put yourself in the situation: you are following directions, staying on task, upholding the expectations set by your teacher, and you lost 10 minutes of your precious lunch because Jack and Jill couldn’t shut their traps. How do you feel? And who are you irritated with? And how do these feelings contribute to a positive classroom environment where everyone feels like they are valued?

What I changed: If the bell rings and everything is wrapped up, I dismiss my students. If someone needs a talking with then I ask him to come see me. I stay calm and take my breaths. I think about what I want to say. I use affective statements like “I feel irritated because…” in order to separate the doer from the deed. Affective statements allow the student to see how his actions affect others. It also really helps keep defenses low, which is key when you are actually trying to get the behavior to change.

Why am I telling you all of this? Why have I brought out the ghosts in my closet? Because it’s dark in there. And lonely. And I wanted to love what I was doing but I spent too much time being angry and frustrated. No doubt, teachers have a dirty job and the public is so quick to criticise. So try this - put yourself in their shoes. Remember what it was like to be them, sitting in a classroom. Teach with compassion. Stay connected. Learn about restorative practices. Foster relationships. Watch them blossom. And don’t be the reason their petals fall.

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