Holistic Educators and Resilient Teachers - Online
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The Holistic Educator - Fall 2016
We seek to support and learn from each other through community. We aim to have this be a community that focuses on the human challenges of the classroom, and addresses the whole teacher and the whole student. We strive to have it be more than a discussion group, but one that provides personal support and inspiration to its members, as well as personal and professional practices to improve our effectiveness.
Preparation for Our January 11th Meeting
The topic of our January 11th meeting will be learning from, and for the sake of, difficult students.
In the news and at recent educational conferences the topic of the School to Prison Pipeline has been prominent. Here is a brief excerpt from The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained by Libby Nelson & Dara Lind published by the Justice Policy Institute.**
Students who are suspended are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out than students who were not. A Texas study, considered the most thorough analysis of school discipline policies and their effects, looked at data from every seventh-grader in the state in 2000, 2001, and 2002, then tracked their academic and disciplinary records for six years. They found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled repeated a grade, compared with only 5 percent of students who weren’t.
The Texas study found that students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out compared to students with similar characteristics at similar schools who had not been suspended.
Students who are disciplined by schools are also more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. The Texas study found that, of students disciplined in middle or high school, 23 percent of them ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer. That figure stands at 2 percent among those not disciplined. And students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile probation system the following year than one who wasn’t.
These are troubling statistics and caring educators can find themselves at the center of very difficult decisions regarding students that regularly disrupt their classes. Holistic educators and resilient teachers seek to do everything they can to help a troubled student but also have a responsibility to all the students in the class.
Rather than focus on the behavior of difficult students, classroom management strategies, and methods for responding to difficult students, we'll usethis session to focus and reflect on ourselves and the personal and professional lessons that are available to us in the midst of these traumatic situations.
Over the years the image of Tim's face has faded from my memory, but he has not.
I count him as one of the great teachers I've had in my life.
Students like Tim have a lot to teach us if we're open to learning.
Tim was my student. No, in truth, I was his, for he taught me some of the deepest and important lessons I have learned in my life. Tim was a short boy, with shoulder length, tussled brown hair. He was a loner and his ninth grade teachers and classmates treated him like an outsider. Tim showed little interest in school. He came from a poor family and his clothes showed wear and a lack of washing.
I had a long relationship with Tim. He was stubborn about not following the rules. If there was homework, he ignored it. If there was reading or studying to be done, he usually left it undone. Grades didn’t motivate Tim. Punishment didn’t deter him. School held no interest. Most of us, including myself, I am ashamed to say, treated Tim like a lost cause. We stopped thinking of him as a 14 year old kid with a tough family life; but looked at him as an obstacle to be dealt with, an object to subjected to the rules, punished, to be taught lessons; lessons that he, in defiance, chose not to learn.
I never understood how Tim looked at the world. It was harder to be defiant and stubborn than to “go with the flow”. Whatever work he shirked he eventually ended up having to do. I never let that part slip. I’d make him do it for me after school sitting alone, silently, bent over a blank sheet of paper in my classroom.
“Tim, wouldn’t it be easier if you did this work the first time? You’d get the full credit for it and not have to stay after school. You always end up doing it anyhow.” I asked him half -heartedly. I knew my logic wouldn’t break through his stubborn behavior; and, sure enough, Tim would give me a half smile and shrug his shoulders.
The first lesson Tim taught me was the lesson of the limits of power. The school day was over. He hadn't read the chapter of Huck Finn that I had assigned the previous night for homework. I seated him in my classroom, gave him a stern lecture and ordered him to read the chapter he hadn't read for homework. Whenever I lectured him it made me feel good; like I was in control, I felt I had him; he couldn’t hide from me. He couldn’t defy me.
I walked out to the hallway and struck up a conversation with one of my colleagues. I deliberately stayed out in the hall to make Tim feel isolated in his punishment. When I eventually went to check on him, he was sitting back in his chair, legs outstretched…with…with… the book held publicly and defiantly, upside down. Upside Down!
I went ballistic and began to rush toward him in a rage. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there; but I had snapped. He had pushed me too far this time. I felt as if he were slapping me in the face.
I was half way to him, pushing desks and chairs out of my was as I went when he looked up at me just before I reached him. He showed no fear. In fact, his face had a childish, impish grin on it. It was a grin that Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer might have flashed when they were driving Miss Watson or Aunt Polly crazy with one of their adventures. The grin struck me in a way that disarmed me. It was at once innocent and impish. It was a boy’s grin; a real live, feeling, confused, 14 year old boy.
I stopped in my tracks and for a moment saw the humor in the scene…a red faced , sputtering teacher and this impish 14 year old holding his book upside down. For some strange reason, I smiled back. The moment that I smiled the two of us saw each other differently, not in our roles of angry teacher and problem student; but as human beings. I could see in his eyes that Tim was just as startled by this strange encounter, this strange feeling, as I was. We were looking at each other as if for the first time.
Shaking my head I said, “Tim, what am I going to do with you?” We both kept smiling. “Go on, Tim. Go home.”
Tim, popped up from his seat, and started towards the door. As he reached the threshold, he turned back for a brief moment. Our eyes met. “Mr. Reilly…”
I didn’t let him finish, “You’re free, Tim. Go on, get out of here!” I motioned as if pushing him away with my arm in feigned exasperation.
He turned and left.
After that day, Tim and I had a different relationship. I stopped looking on him as an obstacle. I stopped being so hard on him. My heart opened to him. Tim held a special place among my students. I would tease him in a good-natured, friendly way and he always returned the favor. Every now and then he did his homework. He even wrote a poem or two before the end of the year; but there were still many afternoons spent in my classroom after school making up assignments; only now I sat next to him and looked for openings to help him. He never shared much about his life outside of school. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
I wish I could say that Tim turned his life around and that everything turned out well for him. When the year ended he went on to other teachers. He was ground up by the system. Each year things got tougher for him. Because of his reputation, he rarely got a clean start with a new teacher. He had fewer friends. He was worn down; I could see it in his face. But he defiantly refused to quit school.
Whenever I passed him in the hall or got a chance to say hello to him I did. Looking back I can see he did his best to teach me how important having a big heart is for an educator. The kids who need the most love can make it awfully hard to love them. I wasn’t ready for his lesson then; but it was a seed that would blossom beautifully later in my life.
Tim was defiant because he felt powerless. He had been reaching out for me and for others his entire life. I didn’t understand it until decades later. He was a beautiful boy, and taught me many things about myself. He was a such delicate soul.
Tim’s father was a drunk. One night before he graduated, his father took after him in a fit of anger. Tim decided he wouldn’t submit to another vicious beating. He locked himself in the bathroom of the family trailer, and in a last act of defiance, took his own life.
I’m so glad I got to know Tim.
I miss him.
Excerpt from A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery, Pete Reilly