Hats off

Somewhere in the middle of the assembly, I realized that I had become someone I didn’t want to be. I was fuming, so angry I couldn’t appreciate the talented students that I was supposedly watching. I had spent more minutes than I care to count glaring at the back of my students’ heads, wishing that there was some way I could get them in trouble.

Oh, I had every right to be angry: their behaviour was terrible. This was the first big assembly of the year – at our Arts School we have four talent shows each year – and I was responsible for bringing my class. In the precious moments before we were called down to the auditorium, I had quickly tried to review assembly etiquette: we sit together as a class, no hats, no catcalls or whistling, no phones, leave your bags in the classroom. The rules seemed so simple to me that I hadn’t even bothered to plan how to introduce them. I just sort of reeled them off. That’s when the trouble began.

Or, wait. The trouble had begun the day before. Thursday. That was the day that one of the students in this class had been at his worst – disruptive and angry, almost trying to get himself sent out. But I had expected this from him because… well, maybe the trouble had begun the day before. Wednesday. 

On Wednesday during reading time, I began using an informal version of Collaborative Problem Solving to talk with him about why he hadn’t been reading for the past week. I ignored the other students (all reading quietly!) and focused on him. Nine minutes and thirty seconds into our conversation, he said, “Why do you keep asking me questions? I feel like you know the answers already.” I assured him that I was asking the questions because I really had no idea what his answers might be. He asked if we could talk in the hall. There, much to my surprise, he opened up – briefly – about reading and school and how much he hates it all. At one point I thought I saw his eyes well up. He looked away and said he needed to get some water. He was quiet(er) for the rest of class.

We’ve been together for over a month now, so I knew what to expect next: Thursday’s angry outbursts were no surprise. Every breakthrough is followed by a day or two of bad behaviour. Which I guess means that this all started well before last week because he and I have been in this cycle since the second week of school. And from what I have gathered, he’s been in this cycle since, well, forever. He says he has never read a chapter book. His school records are full of drama and bad grades. It’s not a pretty picture.

In so many ways, then, Friday is on me. I thought he would have settled down, but he is nothing if not mercurial. Why on earth did I think I could just list off a bunch of rules and have him comply? Why didn’t it occur to me that I was asking him (and others) to do something hard? These assemblies are effectively theatre. Students sit for an hour and we ask them to adhere to social norms that may not be familiar. I didn’t introduce these ideas ahead of time. I didn’t  explain why we take off our hats or why we can’t use phones or whistle. I just said this is how it is and expected compliance.

In case you are wondering, he did not comply. He wore his hat. He tried – twice! – to sit with others in another part of the auditorium. He talked during every act. He used his phone. Worse, his behaviour and charisma were such that other students followed suit. My class, right in the middle front section of the auditorium, was terrible. (Moment of recognition: not all of them. Not even most of them. But enough to be noticeable. Plus, did I mention that I was angry?)

I know I know – my expectations were reasonable in many ways. If nothing else, we expect students to do what teachers ask. But, here’s the thing: I know better. I know these expectations are cultural. I know that some students need to understand the reasons behind rules. I know that our students are children who need to practice – and that an assembly is a great place to practice. And I tell the students that I value their engagement over their compliance, that I want them to ask questions, that we’re all here to learn. I also tell them that they are responsible for their own emotions. If I had really thought about this particular student’s needs, I would have realized that I needed to let this go. That the young women behind him who told him to be quiet were far more effective than I could ever be.

Instead, I was angry for most of the assembly. About a hat and some talking. That’s not what it felt like – I felt *very* justified – but that’s what it was. My emotions are on me. He just wanted to know the parameters and to have some control. He wasn’t angry. He had a great time. I think he actually enjoyed the show. 

On Monday he was his normal ebullient self – too loud, too active, too much. But he had forgiven me. And he will forgive me over and over if I can keep *seeing* him. By the end of the year, he probably won’t wear his hat to assemblies, especially if I remember that I am the kind of teacher who cares more about the student than the hat. Sometimes that is incredibly hard, but I can get better.

PS – Over the weekend I re-acquainted myself with strategies for dealing with ODD in the classroom. No diagnosis here, but I’m betting the strategies won’t hurt. Number one strategy? Don’t get into power struggles; ignore unwanted behaviour whenever you can. I’m on it.

 

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17 thoughts on “Hats off

    1. ODD is really really hard for me. In the classroom, I struggle to balance the needs of the individual child, the needs of the other students and my own needs. A work in progress, for sure.

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  1. I appreciate the way you unpack the origins, one day at a time. Of course our reactions are often rooted in past events, previous states of frustration and what we see in front of us becomes an unwitting culmination. Thank you for your honesty, for letting us in on your process and rethinking. It helps to have this explicitly modeled because it’s much easier to forget; to stay angry and hold that grudge hard. Your long game is strong and that matters.

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    1. Thanks, Sherri. I was startled by my anger (I almost wrote “frustration” but that was a lie.) I really wanted to work through what had happened because these behaviors aren’t going away anytime soon & I need to find my own path in this situation. Gonna be a long semester, I think, and my learning curve may be steep.

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  2. When I “see” the kid as a person instead of another name on a too-full roster, it helps me so much more to empathize and forgive. The same goes for when they can see me as a human and not just a teacher. For me it takes about a month of school to do this at the high school level though. The more I hear their voices and learn who they are, the better it is. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! I absolutely agree with you: getting to know our students is incredibly important. I’m really lucky that I have small classes so I can pay attention to my at-risk kiddos, but SHEESH they can be tough. Your line “The more I hear their voices and learn who they are, the better it is” is 100% true.

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  3. I love how you structured this going back in time each step giving us more information. This sounds tough for sure AND I have no doubt you will continue to build trust with this student. You are human and it is ok for him to know that and see you show up for him again day after day. Thank you for sharing your story -so many need to connect with it.

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    1. I think he and I will have a semester of this dance, forward and back again. I also think we will make progress, but I know it’s going to be hard. I really needed to reflect on this so that I could see my own role in it.

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  4. There are always those days when you don’t do what you should because, well, do I have to go over this, again? I had one of those kind of days today. I teach gifted kids and sometimes I just expect that they are absorbing and comprehending everything. I need to remember that they are just children, and I need to relax and let them fail occasionally. And let me fail them. Ugh! Why can’t every day be golden?

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  5. Love conquers all – you’re right, he’ll stop when he understands it (while you keep reminding yourself -!) I heard an educator say he was “that kid” growing up – until he let this or that teacher “in.” These teachers disrupted his life with their expectations of him, and he rose not to meet but surpass them. What a vital role you’ve been given in this young man’s life story! Hope we get to hear more of it. 🙂

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  6. You are inspirational, Amanda. It sounds like your determination to empathize with these kids, and to help them, allows you approach each relationship with genuine humility. I think your understanding that your students’ difficult behaviours aren’t personal, aren’t really about you or your classroom, gives you the space to step back and keep seeing them and approaching them as people. For them, this must be a breath of fresh air strong enough to permeate their strong defensive membranes, allowing your students to absorb your caring and respect. Of course, you may not reap the rewards right away, but you will get them in the long run!

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  7. Kudos for recognizing your part in this “dance” we do with our students! Dealing with oppositional behavior is hard and draining due to the restraint we use to remain effective teachers. Students like your hat-wearing boy can be our best teachers of classroom management, adding to our toolboxes! I hope the breakthroughs continue.

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