Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Disciplining the Whole Room

When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Morris routinely disciplined our class by having us put our heads down on our desks to "think about" what "we" had "done."  I was a painfully compliant child, so these punishments felt mystifying and deeply, deeply wrong.  I would clench my eyes and breathe deeply, smelling the sweat on my arms as my nose compressed into my skin.  I'd listen to the tick-tick-tick of the clock, betting against myself on how many minutes it would take for our sentence to end.  Meanwhile, in the back of the room, Doug Webb and Shane O'Leary snickered and spit, infuriating Mrs. Morris ever more. 

Which explains my huge, gigantic pet peeve:  When a whole group of innocent kids gets punished for the choices of a few.  Or one.

I’ve seen this happen on buses, in classrooms, on sports teams, and, most prominently of all, in the cafeteria at lunch.  Especially older kids.  One or two of them, usually leaders and usually gleeful in their search for trouble, will gather a couple followers in the hunt for ways to get themselves in trouble.  They don’t seem bothered when the grownup in charge resorts to all-group discipline; in fact, it seems to make it all the more fun.

Many years ago, I worked in a middle school where the person in charge of lunch duty would routinely grow infuriated at a group of kids, or a specific table, and she’d lose her mind on the whole room.  She’d shout and holler and work herself into such fury that she had to culminate in a big ol’ consequence.  “For the rest of the period, it will be silent lunch,” she’d hurl out.  “I don’t want to hear a single word.  A single sound.  For the rest of the period.” 

In her defense, lunch duty was a terrible gig, and after years and years, she was sick of it.  There were several hundred students in the room, all packed in with their hunger and hormones and teenaged drama.  It was hard, hard work.  Infuriating work.  Which is why her temper and frustration routinely overwhelmed her and grew too big for her to manage. 

Unfortunately, she’d made herself a target by being so easily provoked into a tizzy; some students found it downright funny to get her. Some even found glee in being punished with silent lunch; after all, it opened up a whole new game:  If they giggled  or snorted while her back was turned, and then wiped their faces clean while she whirled around, it was pretty much impossible to ever get caught.  She’d get madder and madder, watching her beloved silent lunch being chipped away, one too-loud sneeze at a time, until finally everyone would be (literally) saved by the bell and, with the loudest whoops, flee the cafeteria on their way back to class. 

But while a handful of students were playing cat-and-mouse with the teacher, there were of several hundred students who were trying to lie low and do everything right.  They’d come into the room and done precisely what they were told to do.  Get lunch.  Sit.  Eat.  Talk quietly.  Throw trash away.  Wait for the bell. 

It just wasn’t fair.

At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it; I was in no position to intervene or offer solutions.  I couldn’t have done anything anyway; I wouldn’t have any clue how to do it differently or better.  After all, at the time, I was still trying to develop my own articulated beliefs about why the whole thing felt so wrong. 

Now, though, I can; I try to reinforce how deeply unfair it is to punish whole groups of students for the behaviors of one.  I explain how we lose respect from students when we can’t delineate between problem and non-problem behaviors.  I suggest how much easier it is to find the root of the problem and deal with that, specifically, rather than a whole mass of students at once. 

Here’s the thing.  If one kid throws a tater tot across the room, that’s the kid who should have some consequences.  If one kid mouths back, it is that mouth we should deal with.  If three kids start an inappropriate and nasty chant, it is those three kids who should be pulled and dealt with.  Focusing on the kids who did the deed—and letting the others proceed with a peaceful day—will garner far more respect from the larger group that if we spit and snarl our way to all-group discipline. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Too Tired to Learn

In college, I pulled exactly one all-nighter.  My freshman year, I stayed up to study for a final calculus exam.  I’d never been one to stay up late, so by midnight I was a sloppy, slurry mess; by three a.m. I couldn’t have articulated the difference between an asymptote and a derivative; and by the time I fell into bed for a catnap before the exam, I’d forgotten all the math I’d ever known.  I bombed the exam, and were it not for a compassionate professor, I’d still have a failing grade on my final transcript. 

Thinking clearly is virtually impossible if we are tired.

Several years ago, a student enrolled in our school after an indescribable and difficult journey that led her and her mother to an apartment in our attendance area.  On her first day, Alysia was ghost-like, all dark circles and blank eyes.  She was fierce, though, in everything she did—in her glare as I met her at the front doors, in her combative reaction to peers, in her rude eye-roll to her teacher, in her stomping and flouncing around.  When I stopped by to check in mid-morning, the teacher, a wildly patient and loving soul, looked like she’d been through a tornado.

“Why don’t you let me talk to her,” I told the teacher.  “I’ll sit down with her and see if I can get some ideas for handling the few days while she gets used to being here.”  The teacher nodded, and told me Alysia would come to the office after lunch.

Alas, just as the teacher sent Alysia to my office, I got called to help in another classroom.  My secretary got her settled in a seat until I could get back.   Soon afterwards, I turned into my office and was stopped in my tracks by Alysia, sprawled awkwardly on a chair, sound asleep.
I tiptoed out and let her be.

Several hours later, I heard her rustle around and went in.  She was sheepish and sullen as her eyes fluttered open and met mine.

“You were pretty tired,” I said.

She nodded. 

“I don’t blame you one little bit,” I told her.  “I’m glad you found a way to get some rest.”  We chatted awhile, and when I felt she was relaxing a bit, I showed her the picture I’d snapped at her as she slept.  “This is what a tired kid looks like.”  We both smiled.  “You don’t look comfortable there in that chair, but something must have worked for you.”

“I’m pretty tired,” she admitted. 

After school the teacher and I talked about it.  “She’s a sweet kid,” I said.  “She’s just worn out, I think.” 

“What should I do?” the teacher asked. 

“I don’t see that we have a choice,” I told her.  “She is exhausted… and her body needs to heal.  I think we should find a way for her to get some rest.” 

The next morning, the teacher moved a few seats around, making room for a big and fluffy beanbag chair in the dark, calm corner beside the bookshelves.  She told Alysia it was all right for her to rest there anytime.  “Whenever your eyes get heavy, or your mind doesn’t know what to do next, go take a seat on this chair.  It’s a good place to rest,” she said.

For several days, Alysia spent more time asleep at school than she did awake.  By week’s end, though, the teacher felt she was waking up, both figuratively and literally.  She started to participate.  She tentatively found herself among books, learned some characters she loved.  Over time, she recovered from whatever ordeal had worn her out, and started to show interest and willingness to join the class activities.  Day by day, her stamina increased and she revealed herself to be a whip-smart student with creative ideas and a mind like a sponge.

If we are tired—the kind of tired that can only be healed with sleep and time—there really is no sense in trying to push through.  I’m not talking about the typical kid-tired thing, where a little challenge and adrenalin can help them get up and moving; I’m talking about the kind of tired where it’s impossible to think clearly.  The kind of tired that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep or a weekend nap.  When the body is ready to shut down, we need to listen and provide a way to give it what it needs. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...