For many of our students, school becomes a succession of damaging power struggles, so it is up to us - their teachers - to boldly step out of that pattern.
by Susan Rismiller
April 1, 2008
“I’m going to have a bad day! I’m going to get kicked out of this school! My mom says I’ve been kicked out of every school I’ve been in!”
Seven-year-old Jack sits at the desk in the counselor’s office, screaming at the top of his lungs. Tears flow, his face flushes red, and his fists pound hard. This isn’t his first angry outburst. In fact, he’d recently transferred to our special needs program because of his frequent out-of-control behavior. He’d suffered through a miserable year in a general education kindergarten classroom, yelling and hitting and crying through most of each day. At home, his mom and little sister face his erratic acting-out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, we hold out hope that our program’s smaller class size and specialized behavior management system will give Jack the consistency and support he needs.
So far, this blonde sprite of a boy has resisted our every effort. He wildly strikes out at classmates and teachers, rejecting any help or empathy. He clearly expects our rejection of him, and seems determined to do everything he can to make that happen. He’s developed a sad and destructive routine: he arrives at school, grumpy and uncommunicative, and then fusses mightily about completing any schoolwork. Finally, chairs go flying, desks topple, and fierce obscenities ring out. As each crisis peaks, he finally blurts out his worries. From that point we work to address his particular problem, but, oh, the tumult he creates getting to that point!
“If only he could tell us what’s wrong without all the hullabaloo,” laments our teacher intern.
This situation is a glaring reminder that his daily outbursts are really opportunities to show Jack we are “trust-worthy.” We canbe trusted to control our own feelings and tone of voice, no matter the provocation. We canbe trusted to treat him with respect, even as we are treated with contempt. We can be trusted to show Jack (and all our students) that even when we can’t accept his behavior, we certainly accept him, and believe in him.
“I won’t learn what you teach!” Jack yelled to me once, his fists tightly clinched at his sides, his face stony with defiance.
He’s right, of course. No one can make a child learn. Learning is a personal choice, no matter how much we want it to happen. For many of our students, school becomes a succession of damaging power struggles, so it is up to us - their teachers - to boldly step out of that pattern. To make any headway at all, we have to validate a child’s power position then work like crazy to make the learning irresistible.
For many teachers, honoring the child’s part in the learning process is unfamiliar territory. Nonetheless, we have to take responsibility for our own actions and reactions, no matter the provocation. Despite every barrier a child creates, we must keep right on being as fair, calm, and predictable as possible. It takes time, sometimes a very long time, but committing ourselves to being worthy of our students’ trust is absolutely key to their success in our classroom.
So when Jack takes my hand one morning, and calmly tells me that “Yesterday was the worstest day ever,” I am gratified. He’s come to a point in our teacher/student relationship where talking about his worries doesn’t have to come with a full-out tantrum. He’s found some way to trust, at least for today. And that means he might just learn what we teach.
Special educator Susan Rismiller has mentored 14 new and preservice teachers, some in conjunction with Fairfax County, Virginia’s Great Beginnings Teacher Induction Program, as well as George Mason University’s unique year long internship program.A1980 graduate of James Madison University, Susan completed her masters degree in 2001 through George Mason University’s Initiatives in Educational Transformation (IET), and was awarded its Program Award for outstanding achievement and academic excellence. Information about GMU’s IET program can be found at www.gmu.edu/departments/iet .