Is it all my failures at home that have given me this advantage when it comes to dealing with students bent on offending, rebelling, sassing, dissing, and being generally, in their own minds at least, free thinkers and nobody’s fool?
There was this girl in my class the other day, and she’s sitting with her friend at a new table during group work time. One of the boys at that table is attempting to explain to her why she and her friend can’t be in that group. They have already started the assignment, are on a different topic, and there can only be groups of up to four people and that would make five. The boy’s expression shows a mixture of determination and trepidation. He’s speaking hesitantly but reasonably. The other boy looks on, believing this may not turn out well.
The girl is sitting hunched, her back against the wall, glaring, red-faced (could be sun burn). I sense the need for intervention, and approach. What’s up, I ask. I hear the boy’s explanation. I ask the girl what her name is, because she’s not noted in my seating sketch yet. She turns her glare on me. “your name?” Yes, she has heard me, and she is giving me the silent treatment.
Glares? I can handle those. So I say, “Okay, just asking. I’m not going to do anything nasty with your name, only wanted to be able to address you properly to be polite. How can I help?”
“You can’t. I’m NOT moving.” She is not quite gritting her teeth, or holding her hands in fists, but there’s the feeling of it.
I look at her friend, a girl I’d previously spoken to, whose name had been offered then on request. She awaits the verdict–she is in a support role, willing to also look a little fierce, if not openly defiant. Trying this out, maybe under a thrall a little. I look around at the students at the table. “Okay, see what you can work out.” I move away, thinking, these boys are in over their head, and here’s an incident waiting to happen. I confer with the special ed teacher, who nods, looks determined, and says, I’ll deal with it.” I’m hoping she doesn’t have her back up at all, thinking she might, suspecting she thinks that as a sub I can only make things worse. Something has to give. I wonder if a call down to admin would be a good preventative. Still, I move off, act normal, continue to check in with other groups without any indication that there’s a problem anywhere in the room.
A few minutes later I see that the SpEd teacher has worked her magic and the girl is gone from the boys’ table. She’s working out in the commons with two other girls. Since there are three educators including the instructional assistant, I stroll out to check in on the three groups out there. The girl is looking relaxed. I offer a few thoughts on how each group might include indigenous peoples’ angles on their Washington state history research on transportation, women’s roles, child rearing, industry. Remind them that these social studies concepts were realities not invented by the colonists. They are all open, but prefer to consider the state history part from the twentieth century on. There are no kids with indigenous roots in this group, I think.
I am smiling at the girl, along with the others in turn as I ask questions, offer suggestions. Suddenly she says, “I’m sorry I yelled at you in there.” Which is not, strictly speaking, what happened, but that’s how it felt to her, apparently. So obviously she was all set to yell. “I was just mad at them for not letting us in their group.” I reassure her that I know she had nothing against me personally. “But thank you; that’s sweet–I forgive you.”
I try to be professional when I’m working with students. Try to convey an equal interest, equal warmth, equal approach to intervention or disciplinary actions, equal respect. But to admit the truth, I really look forward to the opportunity to interact with strong willed students. Yes, I have some strong willed children on my own, and am not as alert to the need for staying on my best game at home, in being patient, in holding my ground while being empathetic, in giving frustrated children space. But it seems I’ve learned a few things along the way even so. And so now I feel so responsible to use that, to offer that, to allowing myself to be in that challenging place where I handle things in a way that really does some good for students like this. They are students who offend, and no one thanks them for that. They have their reasons for being mean, rude, defiant, difficult, touchy, and so few adults have the inclination to ask them what those are, to come alongside and understand, then work to help these kids discover and practice ways to harness their strength in a direction that helps them succeed.