Aug 14, 2011

I Choose

Flickr Image Credit: Scintt
Since 1996 I have been teaching in alternative high school settings. Next week I will begin my 14th year in the same classroom, working with a group of kids who are deemed "at-risk" of dropping out. Even after all these years, I still get nervous and excited about the first day of school...but not for the reasons that many people think I do.

It's taken years for me to get used to the reactions I get from people after I tell them what I do for a living. Jaws drop, eyes get big, and shock registers. Some bless my heart and nominate me for sainthood. Others ask very direct questions, like: "Don't you fear for your life?" Here is what I tell them: I am not a saint. I try my best to help kids graduate and I care about them; but I am no miracle worker. They earn their diplomas through their own hard work. My job is to believe in them and to remind them that they are extremely capable of being successful. I do not fear for my life. My students are just kids. Many of them have suffered greatly due to a variety of life situations, and that suffering often creates a tough exterior, a hard shell of protection from hurt. But underneath that shell, they are all soft-hearted kids. They are the ones who should be seen as miracle workers! Many of them are survivors, who somehow manage to not only overcome the obstacles they've faced in their young lives, but also to thrive.

Flickr Image Credit:TimsStrategy 
I recently read this post at De Su Mama, written by a fellow Multicultural Familia contributor. Vanessa blogged about her career in social services working with "at-risk youth," and it really struck a chord with me because I work with the same kinds of kids. She wrote about the way some kids are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles (abuse, violence, addiction, etc.) but are able to overcome those struggles and do amazing things.  She beautifully discusses that quality, as well as how to instill it in our own children--the quality of resiliency. Vanessa's post was linked to another that discussed resiliency in greater detail, naming five characteristics that help develop a child's resilience. One of those characteristics really stuck out for me because it is one I find myself focusing on both with my students and with my own children: Internal Locus of Control.

I have three children between the ages of 7-11. Here's a common scenario in my house: a loud crash, a burst of tears, footsteps pounding up the stairs, a shrieking cry, "MOOOMMMMMMY!!!! A just pushed B and now she's crying!" I separate the brawlers and try to figure out what happened by asking questions. Almost every answer to my questions includes these words: "Yeah, but..." My kids see a chain of cause and effect that always leads to the notion that someone else is to blame for their actions.  "Yeah but if she hadn't grabbed the toy out of my hand, I wouldn't have hit her!" That is an example of external locus of control--it's not my fault I hit's hers!

Similar things happen in my classroom. My new students often come on the first day of school with huge burdens weighing them down--a history of pain, suffering, and failure. (No one comes to my alternative program because they have a history of success in a traditional high school setting--they are all there for a second chance.) Almost all of them start out by saying some variation of, "I can't": I can't do math because I failed it; I can't come to school every day because I have to help raise my younger siblings; I can't graduate because no one else in my family has ever done it.

They have some heart-rending stories about why they can't do things...but rarely do they see anything in their lives as the result of their own choices. They do not have that internal locus of control. "My mom says I have to;" "My friends will give me a hard time;""Yeah, but..." Rarely do they feel they have the power to make their own choices.

I get nervous on the first day of school because I worry about how effective I will be at helping students  students learn this powerful lesson: YOU HAVE A CHOICE. I worry about how many will choose to take responsibility for themselves and how many will blame me, their parents, or others for the things that happen in their lives. I wonder how many will end up strong enough to deal with both the positive and negative consequences of their own choices. (And I worry about how many negative consequences I will have to mete out before the choices-lead-to-consequences lesson is learned.) I get excited on the first day of school because when kids learn that they have the power to choose success, it is an amazing thing to watch! Some of my students start out as young, immature kids; but they leave as responsible young adults whom I admire greatly. I often start out the year feeling like a parent/disciplinarian and end it feeling like I have a new group of close friends. It is extremely exciting to watch kids transform!

To spur on this transformation, on the first day of school I like to let my students know: "You have a clean slate here. Starting today, it doesn't matter what classes you failed or how much trouble you've been in. Maybe you've suffered through a lot of pain because of what other people have done to you. Maybe you don't think you have what it takes to graduate. Well, starting today, you have a choice. You can keep worrying about your past, or you can start planning your future. You can let other people hold you back, or you can choose to break free. It doesn't matter to me who your parents are, why you are here, or what you've done in the past. Right now you are here, and if you choose to try to graduate I am going to help you in any way I can. You can do it if you make the choice to do so." Sometimes I play them this song by India Arie, "I Choose." It is a powerful message about everyone's internal locus of control. A reminder that I have the power to CHOOSE to be the best that I can be...

Resilience, the power of choice, and internal locus of control: that's what's on my lesson plan schedule for the school year. Let's hope they are lessons well-taught and well-learned...


  1. I go through this with my own son. I am having one heck of a time teaching him that his actions lead to consequences. If he decides to change his own actions, then the consequences will change. He practically gives me a head tilt like I'm talking to a dog. I will tell you that a big part of all of this is brain development. The frontal lobe doesn't finish developing until the early 20s for many people recent research has discovered. Some people are obviously slower than others, and that makes a differences. We just have to keep putting out the message so that when these adolescents are ready, the message has a place to take hold.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lonna! I have often wondered why we allow 18 year olds into the military when their brains aren't even fully developed yet. It is very problematic for me. Also, the notion that juveniles can be tried as adults. There are some consequences that are just so severe, I wish we could speed up that frontal lobe development just a little bit so that kids are physically capable of making better choices. Impulisivity is frustrating to watch! I hope the message takes root with all of the kids we work with. Some of your students are probably in the same boat...

  3. The lyrics to this song are beautiful and meaningful, Jen. Like empathy, I've often wondered, in the absence of role models/parents/environment, how some children are still able to develop resilience, while others completely fail? "I choose," and "the past doesn't matter," I believe are the two biggest lessons. Great post. I have the utmost respect in life's work. You save lives. 

  4. I love that song, Ezzy. It speaks to the kids who are willing to listen. Thank you for your comment, your respect, and most of all--your friendship. It means so much to me. xoxox


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