Sunday, September 5, 2010

Don't React in Anger - Shelly's Aha Moment

This week's Aha Moment is shared by one of my favorite inspirational teachers; Shelly Sanchez Terrell is an English teacher living in Germany who began teaching inner city kids and homeless children in Texas. She is also the co-organizer and co-creator of the educational projects, Edchat and The Reform Symposium Conference. Find more of her challenges on her education blog, Teacher Reboot Camp or in her free e-book, The 30 Goals Challenge. Find her on Twitter, @ShellTerrell.

Teaching in Rough Schools

Teaching in Texas I chose to teach the kids who many have labeled as trouble makers and stupid. Too often in my teaching career, I heard teachers, counselors, and administrators tell me, "Glad I don't have to teach that kid," "he/she is trouble," "he/she won't amount to anything," and much worse. I worked as a high school English as a Second Language teacher and did creative writing and poetry programs for many inner city schools, homeless shelters, alternative schools, and juvenile detention centers. I will admit some of these schools were rough and if the teacher did not have a great relationship with the students it could be hell. I knew some teachers who had their tires slashed on a weekly basis and others who had purses, cell phones, and more stolen.

I don't tell you this to scare you, but to prepare you. At a point in any educator's career I believe the educator will have an encounter with a student that could escalate to violence. How an educator chooses to handle the situation makes a lasting impact on the future of that student. Ironically, this happened to me at one of the most prestigious schools I taught at and I learned a lot about the situation.

Let me premise this by saying I grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the largest cities in the US. I knew what it was like to have difficult home situations. When I was in the first grade I would often come home from school with black eyes because I would pick fights with the boys and play rough sports. At the time I lived with a relative who was an alcoholic and the violence had a heavy impact on my behavior inspite of the fact I made straight A's in elementary. My situation was quite tame to what my friends encountered and what later the kids I taught experienced. This is where my empathy for teaching students comes from and why I am so passionate about reaching them. Some day the kids I reach will become adults who can either contribute to their society or be locked in prisons, etc. How I choose to treat them can influence either situation. I take teaching very seriously.

He Threw A Chair At Me

We all get stressed and burdened by our schools. I remember one particularly stressful time when I slept 3 hours a day due to some extra work given to me by the school. Sound familiar? I let the stress impact my mood and this impacted the atmosphere of my classes. Xavier (Not his real name) was fooling around with another student as usual. Xavier had a boisterous personality so I was used to his behavior but that day I didn't handle it well. I angrily told him to behave, that he was being disrespectful. Saying this in the tone I did in front of all the students made Xavier explode. He threw his desk over and threw a chair towards me. I don't think he meant to hit me because really he would have hit me. The chair landed at my feet and with a red face I told him to go into the hallway. I played a movie for the rest of the class while I calmed down. I was red faced and angry at being disrespected.

I could have sent Xavier to the principal's office immediately. He would have been expelled and possibly sent to alternative school. Throwing a chair at a teacher is a serious offense. However, I have worked at alternative schools and found that many of the prison like facilities and the strict discipline usually doesn't reform the student. Instead, I believe that alternative schools get students used to jail cells. After calming down, I was able to reflect on the situation and realized what I did wrong. I started the events that lead to the escalation of Xavier's explosion with my mood and also by getting angry with him. Anger is no way to deal with students prone to violent behavior and I was aware of Xavier's behavior. I chose not to tell my principal and instead went outside and said something along the following lines, "I'm sorry for my behavior. I was stressed and I took it out on you and I apologize. I care about you and know you didn't mean to react that way. I'm not saying what you did is right at all. You should never throw anything at an adult. What's going on?"

Xavier then began to tell me about the situation with his father and the pressures he was receiving to either do well in this school or be sent to another one. His father was getting fed up with him. Here I was another adult getting fed up with Xavier as well. After I listened, I recommended Xavier talk with his father and told him I would talk with his dad and put in a good word about the work he was doing. Xavier had been doing well in some projects and I had not let his father know. From this point on, Xavier and I didn't have anymore incidents. Later, I recieved a thank you e-mail from Xavier who was doing very well at a university. He could have very well sent me an e-mail from prison.

When dealing with student outbursts, what do you choose to do? Do you immediately send them to the principal's office or do you try to find out what is bothering the student? I hope you try the last alternative, because this is what building relationships take. I believe that when we treat students like adults and talk with them they begin to respect us as adults. We can use these "teachable moments" to show them how to properly react. I think we are taught as educators to jump the gun on punishing students when the ones with the worst behavior problems are suffering with the most intolerable living situations.


Try not to send your students immediately to the principal or write them up. Instead, find a way to turn the situation into a teachable moment. Then blog about the outcome as an example for others.


gret said...

What a great Aha Moment, Shelly! I found your story really inspiring.
I believe that talking with your students, showing them how you feel and helping them reflect on their behavior leads to greater things... Not only does it encourage better behavior, but it also leads to a positive learning environment.
Thanks for sharing your powerful story and making me reflect on my teaching!

Cecilia said...

What a beautiful post Shelly! Truly inspiring, and it makes us reflect. Building a relationship and trust with the students (especially the ones who are labeled as problems) is key to meaningful teaching. Showing we care - because most of us do! - makes all the difference.

What you wrote reminded me of something. When I was pregnant of my oldest, as many other first-time parents, I bought a bunch of parenting books (even though I believe good parenting comes from trial and error, intuition and reflection, admiting mistakes and always finding room for improvement - much like teaching ;-). And I read something in one of them that I took by heart, not only when raising my children, but also when teaching my students, many of them teens: what you say to a kid has much more impact than you think. What you say to a kid will be reinforced in their hearts and minds. So if a kid keeps hearing people say he's a troublemaker, or stupic, HE WILL be a troublemaker, and not care about being smart. So reinforce the positive, always. Admit your shortcomings, your mistakes.

Just last week, as I took one of my groups to a computer lab for some work (after about 30 minutes of class) one the students stayed behind me and asked if she could ask me a question. I said sure she could. And then she said: "Are you PMSing?" I asked her why she was asking me that and she said I seemed less patient that day - I am always patient, cheerful in class. The fact is she was right. I was PMSing - I have it bad. But that was no excuse for treating tham any differently. So when we got to the lab I apologized if I had seemed different or impatient in class, and I made a real effort at pushing it away, and being the teacher they are used to. We have to do that.

Thanks for sharing such a personal and touching experience Shelly! And answering your question, I can't remember sending students to the coordinator (I teach at an English school) more than 3 or 4 times over the 17 years I've been teaching. And planning on keeping it that way ;-)

Shelly Terrell said...

Gret and Cecilia,

Thank you for your thoughts!


You summed it up pretty nicely. It is about creating positive learning environments!


Thanks for sharing your story. It is a great reminder for us to try and not let other factors get to us or maybe to communicate to the students when we are stressed or not feeling well. I understand life will throw things at us but we do our best to communicate or kids will think it's them. You're so right about the impact of our words to kids. I think it is so sad when I hear stories about kids in high school or middle school who are shocked when teachers tell them about their potential. I hear too many of these stories and although I'm so overjoyed an educator has reached that student, I just can't believe that students go through that many years of being told things that make them believe they have no potential.

One thing that used to help my mood after a similar incident when students asked me what was wrong, was meditation and yoga. I would arrive early to school and do this in my classroom so I could set my mood for the day and no matter how busy I got I did this. It brought some peace of mind to class and also helped energize me.

David Warr said...

Perfect. A wonderful story with a valuable moral.

Linda Barrow said...

In Oregon teachers can throw chairs. I finally complained outside the district to the state and I'm still waiting 4 months for some kind of resolution. These kids have been demoralized and abused as far as I'm concerned. They are screamed at and punished by head games from this teacher. Teacher/educator abuse is real and it's all over the Internet. While there are many wonderful educators this should be immediate suspension and problem fixed!!!!


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