“Ms. O’Connell, at the beginning of the year, didn’t you say you were a naturalist?”
“Like, someone who studies nature?”
“No! Like, someone who doesn’t shave and stuff”
“I never said I was a naturalist, but it’s been a while since I shaved my legs, I guess.”
-Z and Ms. O in 7th period
Yesterday C pushed his luck pretty hard with our Principal. C is going into his fifth year of high school – his fifth year of ninth grade English – for an array of reasons. One of the big ones is his temper. C is proud. His pride is pretty much all he has to be proud of, so he guards his pride with terrible care. He makes mistakes and he doesn’t have many role models who can keep their pride and still say “sorry,” so he often winds up clashing with authority. That’s kind of an understatement. C is actually the only student I have ever felt physically threatened by. I once thought “this kid is about to slug me.” He didn’t, but he had that look in his eye.
The principal asked C, repeatedly, to remove his hood, and C ignored him. The principal asked to speak to him, and C ignored him. The principal asked for an apology, and C refused. The principal gave him three days of In School Suspension (ISS). C came in from lunch fuming. He’d been given ISS for an offense that he felt was minor. He argued that no other student would have received ISS for wearing a hood. I pointed out that no other student would have escalated the situation the way that he did. He didn’t give the principal any opportunity to not punish him and still save face. We talked about that: how you have to make it easy for people to do what you want. We discussed how he doesn’t let people see the good in him. I see it, but most adults don’t and it’s easy to punish a kid who you think is a jerk. I told him to go talk to our principal like the intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive and sensitive adult that I know as C, and, after taking out some of his nervous energy on cleaning my whiteboards, he did. The principal (as a favor to me – I’m all in for this kid) put his suspension on hold. He told me that C was well-spoken and respectful when he came to argue his case. I’m proud of C. That act represents a huge growth in self-control and maturity. He needs second (thousandth) chances more than anyone I’ve ever known, because if he doesn’t grow up here, he probably won’t grow up anywhere. It’s very reasonable to suppose that he’ll wind up in prison.
Our school doesn’t really focus on character development in a meaningful way. We don’t reward excellent character, and when we punish cheating or lying or violence, it’s always with the attitude that a child will learn to avoid the crime to avoid the punishment. I know that nine times out of ten, I don’t catch liars or cheaters. My classroom isn’t a police state, and I expect my students to be kind, honest and hardworking without surveillance. I try to use trust as a motivator, but I’m often disappointed. Cheating and lying have a low risk and a high reward for kids, and unless there’s something more than detention, loss of points, or a paddling hanging over their heads, they will not learn honesty. It’s easy to take your licks and move on. I learned to be honest out of fear of my parents’ and teachers’ disappointment and loss of trust. Guilt burned me up inside. I learned to be considerate by cleaning up after other people when I worked in the dining hall at Warren Wilson: When other people’s thoughtlessness impacted my life, I learned to be thoughtful to save other people discomfort or inconvenience. I can’t speak for others, but in my life, punishment was emotional and largely self-inflicted or relationships-based, and I think I have learned, as a young adult, to be honest and thoughtful to keep my pride and to maintain my relationships. How can we accomplish this in schools?
Note to self: Next Year …
- Hit PEMDAS hard and early
- Do an activity where you compare things’ weights: an apple is the same as an orange. Three oranges is a koala. Two snails is an orange. Two cakes make a koala. Make as many unique equations as you can.
- Open response competitions all the time