Nov 18, 2012

What Would You Do?

Sometimes people say and do the darndest things. Those things are the reason we have shortened responses to use on Twitter, like smh (short for shaking my head.) There comes a time when you start shaking your head so much that you wonder if you are the only one shaking your head. After a while of smh, if you're like me you realize that nothing is changing. Then you wonder--what can I do to change this? 

Here's an example:
In my old job, a student transferred in from another district. Within days of her entry into my classroom, we started having a lot of conflict. Girls were arguing with each other or not speaking to each other at all; school work was interrupted; every day there was a new battle erupting. When I took the girls aside, I discovered that all of the conflict was occurring due to comments made on Facebook or in text messages sent outside of school. A lot of gossip and hearsay was being spread through social media. The first opportunity for the girls to see each other face to face happened at school, when the fireworks would start...and those fireworks distracted EVERYONE from schoolwork. Keep in mind, none of these issues were occurring before our new student enrolled.

I contacted parents and tried to arrange a sort of mediation between the girls. When I spoke to the mother of our newest student, she told me, "This isn't the first time this has happened. Other girls are always picking on my daughter! She is always the target of bullies, and it doesn't matter where we go. We've moved six times and put her in six different schools, but the same thing keeps happening! Why can't any of you teachers stop those other girls from picking on my daughter?"

That's when I was smh.

Is it just me? Or does it make more sense to think that maybe, just maybe, since the woman's daughter has experienced the same problems in six different settings, that maybe it is the daughter who is instigating the issues with other girls? It is hard for parents to hear negative things about their kids, but after six different schools report the same issues, wouldn't you start to see a pattern? And if she doesn't see a pattern, then how do I change the situation to make it better for everyone involved?

In that situation, I tried to delicately let the mom know of my suspicion that her daughter was not just a victim. I encouraged the other girls involved to print out pictures of their Facebook walls, and save their text messages so that we would have concrete evidence. I didn't want to loudly accuse, but did want to calmly let the mom know that her daughter was a participant in the situation. When I carefully presented the evidence of her daughter's involvement, the mom promptly removed her daughter from our school and moved again. That was high school number seven for a 16 year-old junior who only had enough credits to be counted as a beginning freshman due to all of the moving around. I never had the chance to teach that girl how to deal with conflict in a more appropriate way because her mom removed her from the program.

Afterwards, I kept wondering, "Am I the only one who sees the pattern? Am I the only one shaking my head?" And then I realized that even if I was the only one who saw the reason behind the problem, it didn't change the fact that there was a problem. No one was getting any work done due to conflict, and every conflict included that girl. I needed to do something, and can only hope that gathering evidence  to show the parent that her daughter was involved in some negative behaviors was the right thing to do.

I am questioning myself again now because of more situations that have come up. I am a very "glass half full" kind of person, and it is hard for me to think that anyone is going to purposefully try to do something negative. 

With kids, I constantly think about the why of their negative behavior---I never accept that they are doing something just to be "evil." They are doing it because they don't know better, or they're upset about something--they're hungry, they're tired...there is always a reason for the behavior. I try to figure out what that reason is and do my best to either make the reason for their anger/frustration go away, or teach them a better way to deal with it.

With adults, I have always held the assumption that there will be a certain level of maturity involved. I assume that someone else already taught them how to not take their frustrations out on peers. I assume they know how to communicate effectively, and how to advocate for themselves in order to make their situations better. I am rapidly learning that this is not the case. Many adults also do negative things for a reason: they are upset, hungry, tired, in pain, or worried about issues beyond their control. Many adults struggle--just as much as kids do--to appropriately communicate their concerns. 

Recently, I have encountered three adults in three separate settings who are experiencing major struggles to be effective in their roles. In one case, the adult doesn't seem to know that she is struggling--just knows that none of her colleagues like her and wonders why. In another case, a program is at risk of being shut down because of the way the adult interacts with her students and colleagues. 

How do you help adults in those situations? I am a teacher of kids. Is it even my job to try to help them? Should I try to teach adults the same lessons that I teach kids? Is it appropriate to say to a colleague, "It seems like you're really struggling right now?" or is that something better left to an administrator? 

One thing I know is that if I don't want to spend my days smh, I need to do something differently. If things need to change, I can't just wait for someone else to change them. I need to do something. It is risky to step into another adult's problems, but it will also be risky to sit by and watch a colleague continue on a destructive path. 

What do you do when colleagues communicate inappropriately? What would you do? 

Nov 4, 2012

No Fail

"Y'all are askin' me to do too much! It's just too much fam, it's too much!" He sits next to me and is shutting down. His English assignment is basically untouched in front of him. A pen sits idly next to the blank page, waiting to prove its utilitarianism.

The end of the term is less than a week away, and at this moment he is failing English. One failed class means he is behind in credits. Will not graduate in May with his class. Probably won't return next year to be humiliated as a so-called "super senior." Thinks he'll just drop out.

It's a lot of stress and pressure for both him and for me, because his mom is sick and will be saddened if he can't make it; because my school is really pushing an agenda of "F reduction." We are told not to lower our standards, but to reduce the number of failing grades. That means a lot of work, for both him and for me. We sit at a small, round table. I am tired. He is tired. And he is frustrated by the amount of work that still needs to be done. "I ain't fittin' to do this much stuff! It just ain't worth it. I'm never gonna pass. I might as well just drop out."

"If you want to drop out, there's the door. You can go ahead and walk out. But while you're walking, I want you to think about the fact that I am still going to be sitting here. I am feeling your pressure and I know that we are almost out of time, but we can do this. I am going to help you. I want to help you pass this class and graduate on time. But if you're just going to sit here and complain, and fight with me, I'm not going to do it. In the time that you've been sitting here complaining, we could've had one assignment done already!"

Does that sound harsh? Sometimes it seems like a fine line between encouraging a student and challenging them to stop feeling sorry for themselves. Stop talking about how hard it is and just try...  But they've experienced such failure already...and received so little support...that sometimes it seems like they just need a  big nudge--like a mother bird nudging her fledglings out of the nest.

He didn't walk out the door. He didn't choose to drop out. He wrote a paragraph and got one step closer to passing  English. We made a plan: I will excuse him from all the classes he is passing so that he can sit with me and work on English every day until the end of the term. We didn't just shake on the deal--we hugged on it. For the next four days, I may have to be harsh again if he starts to doubt himself. But I can tell you this: no matter how much he doubts himself, I will continue to believe.


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