Climbing in Skin

At nearly every professional development session I have been to since beginning to teach four years ago, someone mentions the importance of “behavior management.” Now, this phrase could mean many different things depending upon your personal experience as a student, teacher, or even camp counselor. But, no matter what, when facilitators lead a professional development on managing behavior, the question that is always posed is: what constitutes excellent behavior management?

It has been my experience as an educator serving low income youth of color in Providence, and now Philadelphia, that when the person leading the PD on behavior management refers to “best practice” or teachers who excel in this category, they often describe an educator who is strict and holds the bar high. This is not a criticism, per se, because I do think holding the bar high for students sends the message that you believe they are capable of achieving at the highest level, whether that be academically or behaviorally. And in order to facilitate the highest level of learning for kids, teachers must have routines and expectations that ensure students are held accountable. That way, all members of a classroom can feel safe, respected, and motivated to succeed. But what if those systems are actually leading to students feeling disempowered and disrespected by those who are supposed to be the leaders in the room – the educators?

Far too often, as teachers, we deliver consequences and fail to provide rationale. Even worse, we provide consequences and fail to ask students why? We fail to ask them anything at all.  And when kids try to explain themselves, we sometimes don’t listen, especially if they are expressing their discontent in a way that we deem “disrespectful.” Well, I recently had an eye-opening conversation with a student that challenged me to think about the importance of doing one simple thing before delivering a consequence to a student: listening.

I have a brilliant student. In fact, I have many. This student, in particular, is not only incredibly bright, but he also has a laugh that is infectious, and would do anything for his best friends. His penmanship is font-like, and the words he chooses to put on the page reveal that he was made to stand out. And yet, in spite of all of this, he is repeating seventh grade for the second time. He is also in danger of repeating it for a third. Because he isn’t smart enough? Absolutely not. Because he doesn’t care? Also incorrect. So what is it? What has led this incredible young man to a place where he may have to do this grade for the third time? Well, like any middle school relationship on Facebook – it’s complicated.

Currently, this young man is my mentee. He sees me for office hours to complete work for his classes (I selfishly prioritize Literature work, as that is the subject I teach). Each week, he comes to me and we spend time focusing on making up missed assignments, and he asks me questions to clarify what we have talked about in class. Every afternoon he spends with me I think the same thing: why is a kid so brilliant on the verge of failing seventh grade for the second time? What are we doing wrong? Well, that is also complicated.

This child was in my classroom alone and working when I walked in with another student – a tenth grader. I know this student from interactions in the hallway, and, for whatever reason, he has been willing to share some of his struggles at school with me throughout the year. Bound for AP English and History next year, this young man is filled with potential. And, yet, he is one of the students identified as “high risk” based on the amount of consequences he has received over the past school year. How can that be?

In the fifteen minutes or so that we spoke, he opened up about feeling like his teachers are hyper-focused on him, and are often expecting him to do the wrong thing. When asked if he has voiced these concerns to his teachers, themselves, he replied: “They aren’t going to listen, Ms. Kelly. I have tried. It’s not even worth it.” I proceeded to tell him how mature and impressive he comes off to me every time we have a conversation, and that I am confident that if he approaches his teachers to share that he feels targeted and seen as a “problem,” there is no way they won’t be receptive. “I don’t even want to do that. They just don’t listen.”

Well, after wrapping up the conversation, and sending him on his way home, I still had my seventh grader sitting in his seat, writing away. Not even five minutes later, he began to share with me information about his personal life – the fact that he feels a constant sense of pressure to pass because he already messed up once, the fact that he misses seeing his mom as much as he used to, the fact that he feels like sometimes school is the only place he gets to play and be a kid. In five minutes, I went from knowing surface-level information about this student, to beginning to understand who he is, and how I can better support him in and out of my classroom. He opened up – for the first time this year.

There is no doubt in my mind that the conversation I had with that tenth grade student helped my seventh grader come to a realization: the realization that I, his teacher, just might actually listen. That, for once, rather than give him a demerit, or call home, or call the Dean, I might actually be willing to hear him out – to see the world from his point of view. And, in the words of one of my literary heroes, Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Today I attempted to climb into the skin of a seventh grader and walk around in it. And, in doing so, I came to the conclusion that I would be a much better educator, and human being, if I tried to do this more often.

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