[Posted with permission]
As I continue my observation-fest, I find myself thinking that it wasn't too long ago that I was in the teaching trenches like many of you. It's such a difficult job to do right over a sustained period of time, let alone a single day. And I have a vivid memory of one of my earliest flops that I'd like to share. During my first year of teaching, I was faced with a very difficult class to manage. I tried everything I could remember from my methods classes but to no avail. As a last resort, I issued a collective consequence to the class stating in a most positive voice, "We will rise or fall together."
The next day, I walked into school and was summoned to a meeting with a very angry parent. The counselor (counselors at the time served in an administrative capacity) was there primarily to moderate the conversation. The parent, let's call her Mrs. X., looked pretty upset, and I had yet to learn the strategies I use today to first diffuse a situation. I asked what the meeting was about and Mrs. X. began riddling me with questions. I didn't know what hit me. In the end, she asked what specifically her daughter had done to contribute to the classroom misbehavior. In truth, she had a lovely daughter, who was engaged in our literature conversations and wouldn't hurt a soul. The meeting ended as she stood up and said, "Then since you can't tell me what she's done, she will not be serving the consequence you've created for the class."
I walked away from the meeting feeling lower than low. I was ashamed, revealed as a fraud, and the worst part was that I still had a very large problem on my hands. My choices were pretty simple: adapt, migrate or die. I went to my teammates individually (admitting my defeat to the group at once was too hard to contemplate) and sought advice. Most of the strategies they gave me I had already tried. One asked if I had found out who the chief instigator was. That sounded like a good place to start. I needed to fix the problem soon. My greatest fear was that my principal would find out, and he would see me as someone who couldn’t control his class. In other words, he would know the truth. I needed to change.
In the following days, I started paying more attention to the students and less to the content. There was a young lad, Student Y, who appeared to be the ring leader. As we read our novel out loud, I would watch as he purposely tried taking classmates off task, with jokes, disparaging comments, and other rude behaviors. I didn’t love Student Y that week but felt a sense of relief now knowing to whom the impending consequences belonged. But things really didn’t change much.
One day I was walking past the office when the principal called me in. I sat down and realized I had hardly ever stepped foot inside his office. I recognized a few books on his shelf and noted his diplomas on the wall. My leg was shaking out of nervousness, not a usual ADHD moment for me. My principal asked me if I had solved my problem yet. Two thoughts crossed my mind: someone had ratted me out, and the problem didn’t belong to me, it belonged to Student Y. I felt very defensive as I was asked to explain my problem-solving strategies. When I told him I had figured out who the main culprit was, he asked me if I had learned his story yet. “His story? I asked” “Yes, his story,” he said. “It’s hard not to like someone once you learn his story.” I thanked him for his suggestion, all the while thinking, “What does he know? He probably hasn’t taught for years.” As I was walking out of his office, he said, “Adam, if this job doesn’t change you, then I haven’t done my job.”
During one of his in-school suspensions, (apparently Student Y was having issues in other classes as well) I asked Student Y to join me in my room during my prep period. I asked a million soft questions of him, trying to make room for the big questions about his behavior. In my mind it made sense for Student Y to see me as an ally, so I gave him a copy of Light in the Forest, the book we had been reading and told him we could read together and catch up on some work as opposed to just sitting in the office all day. He resisted. The more I pushed for being productive, the more pushback I received. Finally he stood up and bellowed, “I can’t read!” Yes, here was a Bloomfield Hills student reaching 7th grade without the ability to read. Almost immediately, my anger towards Student Y turned to sympathy. I had learned his story and felt humbled by my findings.
I would like to say there was a Disney ending to this story, but there wasn’t. I’m reasonably sure, Mrs. X found me to be fairly incompetent. My relationship improved greatly with Student Y as I went out of my way to help him with reading, but unlike many that came after him, I never heard from Student Y again. I heard at one point that he dropped out of high school.
With just one incident in my classroom, three "teachers" taught me some very valuable lessons. Mrs. X. taught me that all students are individuals. Student Y taught me that each individual needs to be understood and not merely handled. And my principal taught me that relationships with students, parents, and the principal are everything in education. And I learned that there is so much grey area in what we do. It’s not about right and wrong, good and bad. It’s about the story we want to tell.
So why the long tale of past lessons learned? Primarily to acknowledge that we’re all on some kind of journey that requires help along the way, and the greatest mistake we can make is not reaching out for help when needed. I’ve asked you to make great changes from past practices, and will continue to ask you to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of education. My expectations are as high for you as they are for me. And when I stand in your shoes, I think you must feel at times as though you’re not appreciated for all the changes you’ve made instructionally, or how the office is run, or all the additional pieces of equipment you’ve had to move to make room for yet another school activity, or for the flexibility asked of you to cover a classroom or an additional recess coverage, or for taking on yet another technological initiative, or … And to make matters worse, you must think when will all this change end, knowing full well it never will as life is change. I want you to understand that I know how you feel and appreciate all your efforts with the understanding that if I don’t continue to promote change, I won’t be doing my job.
So as a small token of my appreciation, I am declaring Monday, February 18 as a Principal’s Appreciation for Staff at Way. That’s a fancy way of saying when you step into the lounge on Monday, there will be a nice selection of goodies for your enjoyment (although I can’t compete with a chocolate fountain). Please enjoy, and I thank you for being part of this journey we share.
... and what a magnificent selection of treats it was! Thank you!