The sixth graders are not very nice people. We aren’t a community, we’re definitely not a “family,” the word of choice for describing the kind of school we want to have, we’re not all on board the same boat exploring the same territory with the same mission. And surely this is idealistic, but it’s something I want. Possibly even more than I want them to know about levers or pulleys or weather or water.
Case in point: Friday. Four (five?) teachers out again, coverages like crazy, teachers and administrators at the end of our ropes, an atmosphere of tension pervading the school. That’s something we need to work on…. we get pushed until we model some of the bullying behaviors that we want the kids to stop.
The day starts with a sixth grade first marking period awards ceremony. Not only are the kids not quiet while we hand out the awards, the way they are not quiet really gets to me because they are giggling at other students’ names, whispering about the kids who receive more than one award, expressing their opinion about kids who receive awards that they don’t think are valid, just a whole lot of not-niceness. I respond by quietly addressing the behavior I see, but not yelling or punishing (except to remove a few of the ringleaders… which is hard because it’s really almost all of them). I want something positive to stay positive.
Throughout the day we have: one theft revealed, a million little incidents of name calling, kids picking at each other quietly during class, pushing and shoving in the halls, an almost-fight that starts at lunch and escalates from there despite the involvement of several teachers.
I go down to pick up my class at recess and the kids blatantly ignore the whistle that signals that they should line up. Horseplay and ridiculousness ensues. I’m pushed to my limit and give the whole sixth grade detention for all of next week. In the next breath, I regret that decision: 50% of the kids were in line doing the right thing, and always are, and over-punishment always, always backfires. I lecture the kids for a few minutes, describing some of the behaviors that I saw, explaining the reason for my expectation that they line up quickly (we have work to do! learning! state tests in just over two months!). Then I backpedal in the only way I see out of the over-punishment situation: everyone will serve detention on Monday, but teachers will observe hall and class behavior and recommend kids to allow out of the detention on Wednesday (Tuesday, I recall, is a half-day, no lunch, no lunch detention). I begin to formulate a vision of the detention being a lot of active practicing of the behaviors we expect to see in the halls. I kind of hate myself after this whole episode, for not being the positive, peaceful person I aspire to be, but the other teachers feel it was well within professionalism and certainly called for.
And I find myself after school in the principal’s office, dealing with a situation where one student threatened to have her brother come and stab another student, and then just kind of letting loose on how overwhelmed I feel about my role as sixth grade team leader. We’ve thrown a ton of time and attention at the most at-risk kids and so little has changed – the chronic absences are, if anything, worse, the chronic disorganization has barely changed, the poor work habits haven’t improved – but the school social worker points out that we can’t expect change in a few weeks, maybe not in a whole year, maybe never, these things take time. And it’s true, but how badly I want these kids’ lives to turn around. I try to remember that overall, the kids are behaving well in class and doing their work and that aside from a few tough cases, the grade has made progress in many areas. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that they don’t feel like nice people or a positive learning community. Who is going to give me the tools to fashion something powerful out of a classroom full of needy individuals? No one in the office has an answer.
I hate whining. You either feel yourself an effective person who can take action to improve your own situation, or you’re a victim buffeted by the winds blowing around you. We all have moments of both, but at least in my professional life, I brook no whining. I have three new books as of yesterday: The Bully Free Classroom, by Allan L. Beane, which is like a workbook for creating a more positive, safe, conflict-free school environment, teaching friendship skills, conflict resolution and peer mediation skills, and raising awareness about bullying. Also Waging Peace in Our Schools, by Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti, and finally, How to Thrive as a Teacher Leader, by John G. Gabriel, which I hope will help me with the area of my professional life in which I most feel like I need mentoring… Nothing is different and change takes time, but reading these books feels like an act of renewed commitment.