Saturday, January 19, 2013

change is hard

Monday is MLK day, and I have utterly squandered this first day of the long weekend by getting up early and reading all 500+ comments on the Project Runway All Stars season 2 finale post at Tom & Lorenzo's.  I needed to be up early because we had an appliance maintenance appointment scheduled between 7-11AM; of course the guy didn't show up until 10:40, but the cat woke me up before 7AM anyway.

The quiet here is intense.  DH and DD are in Connecticut, a surprise visit for Papa's 85th birthday.  They'll be away until Tuesday, so it's just me and the boys until then.  The boys could conceivably be downstairs with me watching television, but the DVR died on Thursday night and the replacement won't be here until Tuesday the earliest.  So DS1 stays holed up in his room as usual, but DS2, who has picked up a so-far mild virus and is running a slight fever, is crashed on my bed watching television upstairs.

I have this vaguely unsettled feeling, as if something is not quite right.  Part of that is DH being away and the slight worry that always nags at me when any of my family is traveling without me.  Part of it is concern over DS2's illness, hoping it doesn't get worse.  I think he's just exhausted.  We are alike in that we disrupted our normal sleep patterns so thoroughly over winter break that even now, two weeks into the new semester, we're still not used to having to keep regular school hours.

The biggest part of my unease comes, I think, from my work situation.  I did not hear anything about the position I applied for in December, but it's just as well because I do not think I could have left my school mid-year.  I mean, obviously, I could give two weeks notice at any time, but I wouldn't do that. I have a strong feeling that it's simply not the right thing to do.  I won't do that.

At the beginning of December, my administration sent me (with very little notice) to a 3-day workshop run by the Flippen Group called Capturing Kids' Hearts.  While the name of the workshop is nausea-inducing, the content was not.  It was an educational and frustrating experience, because I learned a lot of valuable techniques but it took me out of my classroom for 3 days just as the semester was coming to a close.   Regardless, I was already using many of the techniques they recommend, and I really appreciate the concrete advice on how to help children grow into responsible adults.   When I returned to my classroom, I was able to use some of the things I learned immediately, but I put the majority of it on hold until the second semester.

So, what's unsettling me?  This new social curriculum I am implementing.  The first week back, my students in each class worked together to write a "social contract," an agreement on how we all wish to be treated by each other (including me, their teacher.)  The contract is now their standard for behavior in the class, and it closely models expectations for responsible behavior in any workplace.  So, the contract gives us a concrete definition of what the "practice for real life" that I'm always talking about, is. 

The problem is, enforcing the contract requires 100% commitment from me.   My students already know I care about them, but this is pushing me into an even closer relationship with all of them, and many of them don't want to go there.  On every single contract, the word "respect" is most prominent, but many of the students have no idea what that means in reality, so when they are disrespectful, I have to show them that.  I have had the "two wrongs don't make a right" (and it's corollary, "3 rights make a left") conversation more times than I can count.  We have a huge put-down culture on my school and every single contract says that they don't want to be treated that way, so now I get to police that and remind them that it does not come into my classroom.  I like that, because I have always hated the casual way they are constantly cutting each other down, but I get a lot of push back for making them apologize when they say mean things.  I even have a few holdouts who refuse to apologize because they won't acknowledge that what they did was wrong.

The worst discussions are the ones where the students are literally shouting at me, "What, someone tells me I'm ugly and I'm just supposed to say 'thanks' and take it?"  And I have to explain -- again, for the tenth time -- "No, you tell them that's not cool, that there was no reason to be rude.  And then you forget it and forget them and get on with whatever you need to do."  It is helpful to remind them that hitting people is, in fact, illegal and can land them in jail, but they don't see that as a consequence that can effect them yet. 

I have students who have so few social skills that the only response they have is violence, or threats of violence.  They have no idea how to deal with someone who is making unkind remarks other than to tell him to shut up or to make him shut up.  These are junior high students who should have been learning these skills their entire lives, but in their culture, what they learn is "give back what you got", which of course only escalates the unpleasantness. 

Then, when there is a fight on campus, all the students view that as "entertainment", a good thing. 

On the workshop page, under "additional considerations", it says:
Experience shows that the optimal outcome - an intentional culture shift - relies on the complete support and involvement of school administrators. Consequently, they are strongly encouraged to attend as early in the process as possible.
 Our dean of students has attended the workshop, but our principal has not, and he commonly violates many of the most important terms of every single one of my students' social contracts.  He manages with physical presence and intimidation, and affirmations are few and far between (although I did get one last week -- in the year and a half I have been working with him as my principal, I think this is the second compliment I've received. I can recall no instances of encouragement.)

In my six classes, the contract is making a difference already in 8th grade, because those students are just four months away from becoming high school students, and they want that, they want to succeed.  The seventh graders right now are quite frankly just a mess.  There are too many of them who simply do not respect anyone, including their peers, who will therefore continuously disrupt the class and get us off track.  It's exhausting continuously reminding them how we agree to treat each other -- it simply leads to other arguments: "I didn't sign that contract,"  "I didn't agree to those words," -- when, in fact, they did participate in writing the contract, or if they did not, is was because they chose not to. 

At the end of the first full week of using the contract I am so emotionally drained I'm questioning whether I have it in me to keep it going.  I don't want to give up the contracts, and I'm hoping that it will get easier with time, but over the course of this week it did not.  By Friday the seventh graders were as badly behaved as they have ever been, for no reason anyone could fathom.  It's up to me to make this work, but I cannot succeed if I can't get the students to buy into it also.  The majority of the students want it, I can see that they are tired of the way some of their peers act, too.  I reminded them Friday that they have tools to help make the contract work and that they need to step up, too.  If the class as whole lets the off-task students know they should get back on track, that's a much more powerful message than one delivered by the teacher alone.

Then I wonder, is there any point in me doing this, when as soon as the students leave my classroom they go right back to their dominant, machismo- and honor-based culture, where put-downs, threats, and violence are the norm? I am the only teacher on campus who has implemented this, although the other teacher who attended the workshop with me is using parts of it.  For this to really work, we need all of the teachers and all of the administrators to use it. Right now I'm dealing with students coming to me, every single day, with stories of other teachers and administrators who use sarcasm, dress them down in front of the class, gossip, yell, don't listen, immediately suspect the worst, and so on.  In trying to help my students I remind them that they can say to an adult, "Hey, that's not cool," but even as I do that, knowing it should be true, I'm hoping that if they follow my advice to stand up for themselves in a respectful way that it doesn't get them into even more trouble. 

I don't know whether the students tell me these things because they trust me or they're hoping that the teachers who are mean to them will get into trouble.  I do know that they want the teachers who are mean to them to stop being so mean, so I suppose that's something.

In the meantime, I feel like my heart is breaking for a thousand different reasons every day, and it's taking a lot of energy to keep it together.  I'm not giving up, I don't want to give up, but I'm praying that something will "click" and it will start to get easier, because God knows I can't keep this up for the rest of the year.  Time passing does help, because they're getting older and growing up whether or not they want to, but it will go much smoother if they'd get with the program.

On Thursday, one of my eighth grade sections was exemplary.  It was probably the best class I have ever had at my school: we reviewed how to balance chemical equations, and then the students worked independently on a worksheet.  Every single student worked diligently and got at least some points; most got 100%.  Every time I teach this, the classes usually split 50/50, with half the class "getting" it and getting full points, and the other half completely lost and earning zero.  There were no zeroes in Thursday's class, and that has never happened before.  I was so proud of them that I gushed at them on Friday.  One of the  boys told me, "Do you know why we worked?  Because we want to go to high school." I won't ever forget that moment, that at least with that one group of kids, they understood what they were capable of if they just tried.

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