Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The culture of "why can't you just...?!"

Over the years I have observed a phenomena that I didn't understand at first. I observed teachers yelling at students and I didn't understand why. My first teaching year was in kindergarten and it seemed harsh to hear teachers yelling at those oh-so-adorable five year olds, but as I progressed through the years and grade levels, I not only heard it more and more often but occasionally found myself doing it. It wasn't until recently, however, that I realized the tone, frustration and meaning behind the yelling; it's undertones pleaded "why can't you just...?!". It begged of the students, "why can't you just sit still?" or "why can't you just stop making noise?" or "why can't you just do the work?". The yelling wasn't just out of anger or annoyance, many times, but of a deeper frustration that teachers weren't running the classroom that they'd desired. I suspect that this frustration stemmed from culture shock on the teacher's part (something I've written about before) but even veteran teachers and those born, raised and educated in this city have fallen into the pit of yelling at their students.


A recent article by The Cult of Pedagogy explores those moments of breakdown that we all experience and gives some great suggestions to how to manage them.

The article  doesn't, however, address the frustration that comes with the "why can't you just" yell. It is a feeling of despair and momentary hopelessness; it is a feeling of loss of control; it is a feeling of 'maybe I'm not cut out to do this' or even a feeling of not understanding the current experience of the student (s).

The first stage is to know and understand the backgrounds of your students. This isn't something that is often expressed to new teachers or even veteran teachers who transfer to new schools, districts or states. A very good friend of mine had a solid seven years of teaching English in another state under her belt and still experienced this culture shock when she moved to New Orleans. She astutely observed a difference: "In Wisconsin, you have the students' trust the minute that you walk into the room and have to really work hard and screw up to lose it but here, you have to earn the students trust and work hard to get it and keep it".  Many students in this area have unstable home AND school lives, sometimes moving from place to place to stay with various family members and also having a revolving door of teachers over the years, some of whom care and some don't and some who are knowledgeable and some who aren't.  Many time this leads students to push teachers in an attempt to test them and determine if they can trust them. For the teacher, this looks like defiance and disrespect.

Knowing the big picture background is very helpful in developing patience when students are testing limits. Knowing students' individual backgrounds is even more helpful for knowing how to manage the behaviors. A student who is testing their trust in you will need a different approach than a child who may be defiant because his home life is in chaos and he needs to feel like he has some autonomy.
It is super helpful when feeling that "why can't you just" bubbling up to finish the sentence. Give a second to think "why can't you just keep your hands to yourself? Because your brother moved out to live with his father and you are lonely and want someone to engage with." "Why can't you just do the work? Because you didn't understand the directions or the modeling and you're lost and would rather talk to someone than sit alone, unable to work".  It can also help to ask the student these questions and help them be self aware and luckily, the younger they are, the easier it is to help them adjust.

The second stage is for you to be self aware. Much like the article from Cult of Pedagogy, being in tune with out own feelings makes a big difference not only in our work but in our personal lives as well. It is helpful to notice that you are more likely to yell out when you're hungry, or the student has done it four times, or you might be insecure about how a new lesson might go, or if you feel an illness coming on. Occasionally we are triggered more easily at these times and can send a confusing and upsetting message to kids: 'this behavior was acceptable yesterday or last week but now it's not, so I need to work to figure out where the limit of acceptable behavior is'. This can cause even more trouble in the long run.

I have come to know when I am more prone to being easily frustrated and am getting much better at heading it off by telling students how I feel (and this works because of the relationships that I develop with students and the empathy that we have for each other) and they tend to manage themselves even more strictly than I typically do. I have also learned to distinguish between loud voice and yelling.  Sometimes students need to hear a loud, stern voice- this is a voice that asserts your expectations. A yell, however, is loud and asserts that you are frustrated and maxed out and, for some students, that they've won the battle of control over the classroom. We never want the students to win control. Even on our worst days.

Finding ways to keep our patience in tact and still manage students is a tiring but important task that, thankfully, many of us have support in doing.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How is the loss of the neighborhood schools affecting children's social growth?

 On a sunny, breezy afternoon at the neighborhood playground, my small son walked over to me, dejected, and expressed his sadness that he could not play with anyone because he didn't know their names. He is usually very good about playing with new kids, but on this day it was too much for him to try to befriend children that he would never meet again. Meeting new people is taxing but the only respite is moving into a comfortable relationship after multiple meetings-yet, for my son, that never happens.

My son goes to a Catholic school a few miles away from our home. With the Jefferson Parish and New Orleans schools a mess of failures, his early education could not be chanced. This is the case for all too many families, as New Orleans has the highest percentage of students in private schools in the U.S.; however, the relocation of students from their neighborhood schools isn't due to the mass move to private schools. The growth of the charter management organizations in New Orleans as well as the reinstatement of the Dandridge Order in Jefferson parish meant the dissolution of the neighborhood school in the New Orleans metro area.

In New Orleans there is no unified district in place. The Orleans Parish School Board manages only a small portion of the highest performing schools in the city; the rest are charter run. The majority of the charters, sprinkled around the city, are open enrollment, which means that any child in the parish can attend any school.  The purpose of this is to allow children the opportunities to attend the best schools even if the best schools aren't nearby.

In Jefferson parish the commute exists for a different reason: The Dandridge order. As district leaders noticed the racial imbalance in the schools, they decided to forcefully intergrate them. For students this means that if you live in a primarily white neighborhood, you may not attend your neighborhood school because there's already too many white people so you will be bused to another school which needs more white diversity. To some, this sounded like a reasonable solution but in reality it began to destroy the neighborhood schools.
The playground where I bring my son is next to an elementary and middle school that is less than a mile from where we live- but if he went to a Jefferson parish school he would actually go to a school about three miles away. I began to think of how this impacted his ability to make and maintain friends with children he doesn't go to school with.

My wheels began to turn as I considered the bigger picture. How does this school commute affect the social development of children? How does it affect the social development of my high school students? It seemed quite obvious. Children have to work harder to develop relationships that may not last because of the distance.
Anyone who has maintained a long distance friendship or relationship can attest that it can be difficult to stay connected when you are living two different lives. You tell stories that involve different groups of friends; you recount mundane details of day to day life because the other person isn't witness or participant to them; conversations may drag out of desperation for something to talk about. For adults, we may prune away these relationships but for children these social connections are crucial to their growth.

Children spend anywhere from nine to ten hours a day at school (not accounting for after school activities) so they develop their strongest bonds with the children that they are with the most. Yet, they go home and may have friendships with the children in their neighborhood who do not attend the same school. With my high schoolers, this often causes problems. The neighborhood friends see the closeness to school friends as disloyal and rifts occur. It is especially significant for Freshman. Which friend wins out? How do children cope with these rifts? Can they learn to overcome them? It seems as though students frequently choose to cut ties with the neighborhood friends rather than overcome the conflict. Is this move affecting their conflict resolution? Does this commute affect teens need for social interaction via their phones?

In the younger children, are school friendships seen as valuable? If children are not interacting with their classmates outside of school, is there any value in the classroom interactions and if not, do children care less about their conflicts and relationships with their classmates?

Another dimension to this issue is the burden placed on parents in an attempt to maintain out of school relationships. Phone calls, text messages, scheduling outings and even driving across town now become a part of social development. Parents are also responsible for developing relationships with each other in order to do these things. We take on an extra responsibility to get to know people who are not around us; we don't shop at the same grocery stores or attend the same churches or play at the same playground-so parental socialization becomes another task all of its own. Do our children get appropriate socialization when it is the parent's responsibility to make it happen?

There is little discussion or information about this impact on children. The U.S. has been on a mad dash to charter and privatize the school entity without regard for the impact. Education reform has become a beast which feeds on children instead of the superhero who was supposed to save them. The social impact may be small; children will make friends one way or another-but it is worth questioning all of the ways that the destruction of neighborhood schools is adversely affecting children's lifelong success.