“Miss–can I talk to you?”
I hear this often. So often, in fact, that I have become very used to being on call–and the calls are fairly constant. I rarely (almost never) ask why a student might want to talk to me, because it doesn’t really matter. They all know that I’ll make time to hear them out, because it is important to me and saying so is a message I repeat, regularly. If a student needs me to be their person, I will go to whatever lengths necessary to make myself available. That’s a fact.
As teachers, we are naturally hard-wired with the compassion superpower, so I know that offering a kid a listening ear is not something anyone will find particularly unique.
But, this week, a student of mine had his head down on his desk. He has his head down on his desk, every. single. day. Some days, many days in fact, he falls asleep…
I have run out of ways to approach him or try to get him engaged in learning, and believe me, I have tried them all.
Every single day I ask him to pick his head up.
Every single week I have to fill out a behavior tracker explaining interventions I’ve tried and evaluate whether they have worked.
I do this faithfully. Neither the interventions, nor the tracking form are doing anything.
He tells me he’s that way in every class, so I wonder, are any of his other teachers feeling as confused, frustrated, powerless as I am?
When a student habitually has their head down, I think it’s normal to ask yourself, “What can I do?” “What haven’t I done?” “Why doesn’t this kid think my class is engaging?” “Does this kid just not like me?”
What we fail to do–what I needed a heart opening experience to remember–is consider the fact that a head down sometimes, just sometimes, isn’t as much about me as it is about them and their need for human connection.
It may be a hard truth to hear, but I’ve had conversations with so many children, and they definitely know how to recognize–from personal experience–when a person’s actions don’t match their words. Thus is a self-preservation/protection strategy for many. One thing growing up in an urban educational setting teaches kids is how to be shrewd observers of human behavior. Nobody is fooling anybody on this scene.
It is crucial, especially in schools like mine, that folks resist the temptation to forge deep connections exclusively with students who most closely resemble our styles of communication or personality type, those with whom it is easy to form a bond. I’ve found most humans naturally lean in to love. If, in a given situation, a person doesn’t, they typically have their reasons. It isn’t always that anyone is to blame, but there is constant subconscious and non-verbal communication about the value we place on a child’s feelings, on them as individuals, and how much (or how little) we value our relationships with them. It’s important to be conscious of these things.
Over the years, my classroom management style has gone through various stages. There was a time when I had a huge stack of office referrals, and relied on those to do my disciplining for me. Years later, I have learned that the two disciplinary strategies teachers in my setting rely most heavily upon (kicking kids out of class and/or writing them up for “non-compliance”) are the two WORST and LAST things one should ever do with a child who has been systematically and routinely sent messages that their feelings and lived experiences do…not…matter.
When it comes to discipline matrices, I usually live by the credo that more or better discipline isn’t the answer, better teaching is. I still, firmly believe that.
But, that’s an easy statement to make for someone who: teaches a class that routinely has only the “honors kids”, doesn’t have a first period class or the accompanying battle over excessive tardies, has over a decade of teaching experience, comes from the same cultural and ethnic background as many of my students, speaks their language, and for all of these reasons, plus several more, generally doesn’t deal with “behavior issues”.
Even saying this, every once in a while, I do have a conflict or power struggle with a student that needs to be addressed. After this long, I have been through many scenarios, some of them pretty awful, and I have a pretty hefty bag of tricks. Whenever these fail, we go outside for a hallway conversation. The folks left behind in the room do talk, so I do my best to handle minor issues in the classroom quickly, and quietly, so as to shield the person with whom I’m talking from the gossip or assumptions that they are in trouble. Nine times out of ten, that works for me–for us.
But this week, I ran out of tricks.
This week, it seemed clear that the hallway pep talk was the only solution.
I realized that my habitually sleepy student was not going to ask to talk to me. I was going to have to reach out to him.
What went down was what I call, “a true heart opening experience”. I’ll skip some of the particulars, but things took a turn when I asked him if he wanted to be in the class because all the signs showed me he was miserable. Part of this is due to counseling placing a vast number of students in AP classes to help boost the SPF (school performance framework) score–whether they want to be there or not.
He replied with, “I don’t know, Miss. You can do what you want.” I inferred this was him somehow receiving a message that he would be removed from the class if his behavior didn’t change. I have seen this before. Students will behave in a way that is deliberately against classroom norms–or just disengage due to lack of belief in themselves, then become distant or combative when challenged about their behavior which will precipitate situations where teachers remove them from the class, confirming their belief that the teacher really doesn’t want them in class any longer. The root cause of all this is that too many students–especially those with disciplinary records, or ways of communicating that are not socially normalized–do not believe their teachers value their presence in class in the first place.
I did not engage when he tried to place me in this role. Instead, I said, “I don’t know what your experiences have been with other teachers, but this really isn’t about what I want…this is about what YOU want. I am not in this gig to make kids miserable. I’m just here to help you achieve your dreams. What are they?”
He talked about removing, repairing, and replacing his first transmission (It can take 6 hours!!)–and a smile started to emerge. He spoke about how he used to run in the mornings before school, and that he wants to get back to that. We talked about his habit of sleeping in class, in a non-accusatory way, and eventually, we got down to the real reason why his sleep cycle has been disturbed lately. As it turns out, two of his uncles and a grandfather died last year–one of them was murdered. His best friend committed suicide in sixth grade–and he never talked about it–or received any type of counseling. It still haunts him today.
In return, I reassured him that I believed in him, that I wasn’t giving up on him, and that I would help him find a way to finish the year strong, but also that I couldn’t do it FOR him. I told him about some of the twists and turns of my life path. He reassured me that he does think I’m a good teacher, and that I haven’t failed him (as I insisted I would be doing if I let him sleep through class every day). In this exchange, we each sent a little boost in the direction of one another’s sails. Ironically, or perhaps it was one of those crazy synchronicities that happens so often in my life, this all took place after my most liked tweet ever:
I am not an expert in diagnosis or treatment of any condition. I won’t lie–these days I am absolutely exhausted, in every way imaginable, and at all points in the day. But, I know how important love is, and that it heals a lot of ills. I know that I love kids. I knew that in this event, lining up my actions with my beliefs meant taking the time to listen, offer a hug and some words of advice, empathy, encouragement, and then commit to taking things one day at a time. I have been called to consider, in these final few weeks of school, whether I am showing up as the same teacher for each one of my students, and ultimately whether that is important.
Perhaps, more than anything else, it means the most for me to be the teacher each child deserves and who has committed to see them through to the finish line. Being that teacher may mean being different things for different people at different moments, and maybe that’s okay. I am also pondering whether I’m taking the time in each of my daily interactions (which are so many) to get on a wavelength of communication that might be different from mine–and what it truly means to show up as we say we do, even when the well of compassion feels like it has run dry.