I had several potential titles, a couple of which were: Why Are so Many Kids Growing up in Angry Homes? and Stressed out Adults=Stressed out Kids. This post is based on the idea that Our Classroom Ought to Feel Like an Extended Family, and though I still hold this belief close to my heart, I have needed to re-frame my philosophy in light of certain discoveries… which brings us full-circle to the reason for the chosen title.
Each new school year, on the very first day of class, I pitch my philosophy to my students. “Since we will be together nearly six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months, that makes us a family,” I begin, “Therefore, I expect us to treat one another as such.”
The first year I implemented this philosophy, it took me until March to realize why I was having trouble making it take hold the way I had hoped and imagined it would. In my mind, reminding the students that we should treat one another as a family ought to have motivated them to be kinder to one another.
Anytime I would overhear unkind words or witness mean actions amongst my students, I would say, “We are a family. We should be kind to each other. Try again. Make it right.” While many of my students reacted positively to this philosophy by either changing their tone of voice or by demonstrating greater respect towards their peers, with certain students, not only did their behavior not improve, but I even sensed a heightened level of agitation.
I finally understood the underlying problem when one afternoon, seven months into the school year, ten-year old Fred blurted out, “Miss Kathleen, what if screaming and yelling in a family is all you know?” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. Our eyes locked, and in that moment he knew he had just taught me an important lesson. The whole class fell silent, and Fred continued, “I have never heard my parents work out a problem without screaming at each other…I hate it!” His last words caught in his throat as he choked back his tears. His passionate confession echoed throughout the classroom.
“It’s the same thing in my home…” called out one of his peers.
“I feel you man,” offered another.
Suddenly, whatever issue it was that had prompted Fred’s outburst no longer seemed to matter. We had delved into a much deeper level of conversation, one that had to be handled delicately and compassionately. It is not for me to judge such a statement. Every family has their own story, their own baggage, their own set of values. Each family is on its own journey. Fred’s statement may have been true, but it was not my place to probe. Was the family under enormous stress? Had someone lost a job? Was the marriage suffering? The answers to any of these questions were none of my business. (Fred would perhaps decide to confide in me, but if so, it would need to be his own initiative. I’ll elaborate on why I feel this is important in a subsequent chapter). Ideally, my response needed to be phrased in such a way that acknowledged his statement as his truth and supported him on his journey without talking against his parents in any way since I could not pretend to know or understand the whole situation. I needed to resist making assumptions.
I allowed for a few moments to gather my thoughts in order to respond to Fred with the utmost respect and empathy possible. If we were to break it down into steps, the process would look something like this:
I needed to acknowledge his feelings without speaking against his parents. “Fred,” I said, “Clearly the arguing you hear in your home is very upsetting to you. I am sorry that’s your reality. For me, growing up, my parents never argued in front of me. I should have realized that when I’ve been saying ‘We must treat each other as a family,’ that experience is very different for each of us.”
Motivation to intervene/respond:
I needed to recognize that this claim, while true in Fred’s eyes, could very well have another dimension to it of which I was completely unaware. I needed to focus on reassuring Fred that in our classroom he should not have to deal with screaming and yelling. That that is a professional responsibility I take very seriously. (That is not to say that I never lose my patience or raise my voice. Any parent who has been pushed to the edge by his one child can surely comprehend that a group of 20-30 students can have a way of pushing anyone to the brink. Having said that, I am careful with my words, even as I lose my patience. No form of verbal abuse is ever acceptable.)
“I don’t think I have to tell you how strongly I feel about speaking to one another kindly. I can’t change what goes on at home for you, Fred, or any of you for that matter. The point I’ve been trying to make since August, is that there is always a way to solve our problems using kindness and respect. I should have realized that it can be different for each of you at home and that if you have not had this modeled for you, that it would be that much harder for you to know how to fix your problems peacefully.”
This is a delicate situation. While in my heart I wish that children could be spared from certain stressful realities of home life, I must acknowledge that this is out of my control. My responsibility towards my students is restricted to the relationship we create with one another, within the four walls of our classroom.
“Boys and girls, can I ask you something? When I’ve been saying, ‘We should feel like a family and treat each other as such’, have you understood what I’ve meant?”
“For sure, Miss Kathleen. We know that it has to do with getting along,” offered one student.
“It’s just that sometimes I find we get along better in the classroom than I do with my own family at home,” said another student.
“We’re really glad this is what you teach us, Miss Kathleen!” chimed in a handful of children.
Action & Desired Outcome:
The action I needed to take was abundantly clear. I had to continue insisting on these family values that I hold so dear, as the students were clearly showing their appreciation for this approach. However, there was a need for me to reframe it, so that I could be more sensitive to the variety of realities my students experienced outside of the classroom.
“I guess for some of you, screaming is just normal in your home,” I remarked.
“Oh ya!”, “You bet!”, “No kidding!” several students called out.
“Judging by what you’re telling me though, you would prefer to live with less of that type of behavior and you are glad I insist on speaking to each other kindly in the classroom. My goal has always been to develop our skills of communicating effectively with one another to solve our problems. If ever you find yourself teaching these lessons to your family and inspiring positive change in your home, that would be so wonderful.”
“I doubt it, Miss Kathleen,” interrupted Fred.
“Fair enough, Fred. That’s probably too much responsibility for a ten-year old, isn’t it? Can we at least use our experience in this classroom as proof that it’s possible to live peacefully with others, and that when conflicts arise, we can often solve them without yelling? It can allow you to dream of one day raising your own family in a peaceful environment. Do you like that idea?”
“That works for me,” replied Fred. Several more students spoke up to say they liked that idea as well. While I dare not claim that conversation was some kind of miracle that changed their behavior for the rest of year and that no more arguments or confrontations ever broke out again, it was certainly a significant moment for many of us in the class. My relationship with Fred, for one, took on a whole new dimension. He clearly felt a sense of relief that someone understood him on a whole new level, and while naturally conflicts still arose, it was clear that he desired a positive change in his life.
I no longer take the philosophy of treating one another as a family for granted. These days when I introduce the idea to my students, we discuss what that could mean and how we want it to look. When the children list less desirable aspects of family life, such as yelling, fighting, and rudeness, I ask them if they want it to include these as part of our classroom agreements on how we ought to treat one another. The resounding “No way!” that these eight-year-olds cry out is something to which we all should be paying closer attention.
Nowadays, I still believe that our classroom ought to feel like an extended family, but I emphasize the idea that we must create and/or reinforce the habit of treating each other the way we wish to be treated, anywhere and everywhere we go, because it always feels good to be treated with kindness.I find myself asking my students if they think it is possible to live harmoniously with one another, and we talk about what makes it challenging and how we can deal with those challenges. Fred’s bravery in speaking his mind and in sharing something so personal created a ripple effect that is ongoing to this day.
And the day came, when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud, was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom.
– Anais Nin & Alicia Keys