CHANGING SCHOOLS - ONE CHALLENGE AT A TIME
It’s Thursday afternoon, 3:20 pm. Electricity is coursing through the air at Bloom. My ‘Teacher’s 6th Sense’ is on high alert. The children are a little too intense, a little too restless. My colleagues are on high alert too. We just know a storm is about to unleash in the classroom.
Is it the weather? Is it that time of the week? Is it pre-teen hormones? Is it all of the above, or something else altogether?
So many things affect a child’s behavior over the course of a day. We can’t always explain what ‘it’ is, but we teachers know when ‘it’ infiltrates the classroom.
This particular day, ironically named for the god of thunder, we felt it slowly
build up as the hours passed, but we did our best to keep the children focused and productive.
Snack time finally arrives, and it’s Ena’s birthday. We gather all 51 children from the 4th, 5th and 6th grades into one classroom and sing happy birthday to her before sharing birthday cake.
There’s just no way this day is going to end well.
Five minutes into the celebration, All. Hell. Breaks. Loose. The children start running around, throwing slippers at each other, shouting, dancing, singing, and even knocking chairs over.
The noise level is so high that the calm children can’t hear themselves think.
I try to quiet things down. I kindly ask the children to stop. I remind them it is time to get ready to go home. My voice doesn’t carry over the noise, and the children remain oblivious to my intervention.
And then, I snap.
My face is red and I’m angry. I don’t say anything mean, rude, hurtful, or out of place. But I raise my voice very, very loud.
I ask them: “What is this? Who are we? Where are we? Are we children at school? Or are we wild beasts in the forest?!!”
Now they’re quiet. But I’m not done yet. I ask them to have a seat.
“I think of Bloom as a family, and as a family, we need sit and talk. We have a few simple ground rules: keep a quiet voice, take responsibility for our work, and respect our classroom environment for what it is. If we can’t respect these rules, then how can I trust you when I’m not with you?
I became a teacher here because I fell in love with the privileges we have here as teachers and students. We are given freedom to move, exchange, explore, ask questions, be creative, and learn about ourselves. But when we behave like this, it feels like we don’t appreciate our freedom. Today’s behaviour is not acceptable,” I declare.
Now I’m done, literally and figuratively, but the storm hasn’t passed. I must have slept through How to Manage Tempestuous Thursday Afternoons at Teacher’s College.
At university we were told that most teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. Despite spending 3- or 4-years training to become a teacher, it is the 18 or so years you observe teaching that tends to leave the biggest impression on you.
When the children leave school, I make my way to the office to talk to the director and school psychologist. Together we agree that this situation should be addressed again first thing in the morning with these children.
At Bloom we believe that sometimes unpleasant events can lead to meaningful discussion that ultimately strengthens the bonds of trust. I hope that this will be one of those times.
Friday morning, 8:10am.
We gather all 51 of our 9-to-12 year olds into one classroom again.
We are all sitting in a circle on the floor: students, teachers, the psychologist, the pedagogue, and the director. We may be setting ourselves up for another disaster, but we don’t have much choice but to come to terms with the previous days’ events.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m here to have a meaningful and peaceful conversation with you that I hope will be honest, fair, and constructive,” says our director. “I want everyone to have the time to express themselves if they feel the need to, but I ask that we all remain mindful of the time. Can someone volunteer to be our timekeeper?”
She recruits a volunteer, notes that it is 8:15am, and proposes that the conversation last for 30 minutes.
She asks the children if they agree with the time restriction and guidelines for the discussion, and they do.
“What do you think this meeting is about?” she asks. The children are eager to talk, and many hands pop up.
One child asks if it is about the classroom iPad that has disappeared. A
few other children say the same thing. (Wait, what?!) “No,” she says, “we have the iPad in the office.” (Whew.)
Then one child raises his hand and says: “It’s about the incident, the one that happened yesterday.”
“Which incident are you referring to?” asks the director. Several children start to speak all at once, so she asks them to raise their hands. The children then start to explain how the class had “gone crazy” the previous day, and they begin to honestly recount the events while taking full responsibility for their behaviour.
We did this, we did that, they say.
Interestingly, no one accuses anyone else of being inappropriate, or claims total innocence.
They also tell the director that I shouted very strongly. Many students were surprised because I don’t usually behave that way. They agree that I’m usually kind and chilled out.
Three children even say that they would have shouted even louder had they been in charge of the class, because “we were really naughty.”
She assures them that some days can’t be predicted.
“We are not robots: some days we are more tired, feel more stress, we’re sensitive to the changes in weather, to the food we eat, we feel unsettled, or we are grappling with big emotions inside. It’s perfectly normal and none of us can be expected to behave reasonably, intelligently, calmly, or responsibly all the
time. Sometimes we just need to be silly.
But yesterday, some children went too far. Your teacher didn’t have much choice but to shout in order to be heard. You know, your teacher was not happy with himself for shouting because he doesn’t want to have that sort of relationship with you.”
The children agree and many apologize for their behavior.
A small girl stands up and says she understands why I shouted, but that she was very afraid of me at that moment.
I explain: “I’m sad to hear that I scared you. I did not enjoy being angry, and I didn’t like behaving in a way which was out of character for me. But I’m not used to you behaving in such an extreme way, because you usually show me so many wonderful aspects of your personalities. These extreme examples of behaviour do not define us. What happened yesterday is not Bloom’s culture. And I don’t want that kind of behaviour to become part of our culture, since it’s never been that way before.”
One student asked whether the recess clubs were cancelled due to the incident.
“No,” said the school psychologist.
“Only an individual’s behaviour will determine the amount of freedom he or she is given at school. If the club rules are respected and the club runs smoothly, there is no reason for the club not to continue.”
Toward end of the meeting the director asked the children if they were happy with the conversation and if we could agree on doing our best to avoid such situations in the future. When asked if they would like to continue the conversation another time, the children all agreed.
By then, it was 8:45 and our timekeeper reminded us that we needed to keep our end of the deal.
A few decades ago when I was an adolescent, it’s very possible that a teacher asked me if I was ‘a wild beast in the forest,’ but it’s unlikely that they then engaged me in a reflection about how I should behave as a respectful member of a family.
With some luck, I hope to leave an entirely different impression on my students by showing them how to turn a Crazy Thursday into a chance to learn and grow.