How we treat our best students shows our aspirations; how we treat our most challenging students shows our values. ~ Mendler and Curwin
This past Friday, an incident occurred at school that had me seeing red. While supervising in the cafeteria during the lunch period, I was asked by our one of our cafeteria staff members to address a group of boys who had been leaving trash on their table, and arguing with one of our lunchroom monitors when asked to clean up the mess.
When I caught up with the boys, near the center of campus, they immediately began to provide a litany of excuses, and one particular student began to argue that he had done nothing wrong. I asked the boys to go into the administrative building where we could speak privately. This is where things began to go wrong. One of the boys began moving in the direction of my office, while the other continued to chirp about his innocence stating, loud enough for all in the area to hear, that he didn’t need to go into the office. When I heard a few directed barbs of profanity, I lost it.
Those who know me would likely describe me as relatively calm and even keeled. It is unusual for me to become visibly upset, but this student had managed to push the right buttons. In spite of knowing better, I fired back, with a raised voice, demanding that the student get in the office or face a suspension. A few seconds, and several regretful statements, later (with some encouragement from our school resource officer) the student was in my office shouting about how I had “pissed” him off, while I angrily pulled up a copy of the student conduct referral, intent on sending him home for the remainder of the school year.
But as I sat at my desk, looking at the student sitting across from me – eyes down, refusing to face me – I realized that in spite of his disrespectful attitude and defiant behavior, I was the one who had made the mistake. I consider my ability to work with at-risk youth to be a strength, but on this particular day I failed. I allowed the issue to become personal and pride got in the way of effective decision-making. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that even at this point, I considered going ahead with the suspension. After all, the student had been disrespectful, had used profanity, and displayed open defiance in front of other students. I couldn’t allow that to happen. Right?
But then I made a decision to end the cycle of poor decisions (both mine and the students) and I apologized. It was not easy, but I think it was the right thing to do. Taking the first step, opened the door to a conversation, which lead to some reflection by the student, and eventually to a certain degree of contrition and a plan for handling things more appropriately in the future.
As relevance would have it, I have been reading Discipline with Dignity for Challenging Youth by Allen Mendler and Richard Curwin. Just today, I read the following passage related to the importance of helping our students develop a remorseful attitude (when appropriate).
In order for children to learn remorse, they must see others demonstrate it publicly and learn its value. In addition, remorse must be expected of them. One of the most effective lessons you can give is to show genuine remorse when you make a mistake.
It should come as no surprise that this is an incredible challenge for educators. It is difficult enough to own up to our mistakes with other adults, but to do so with children (especially when we feel they have contributed to the problem) requires an extraordinary degree of humility. Students need to see our human side. They need to understand that we are not superheros, that we make mistakes, and that we are willing to take ownership.
Mendler and Curwin go on to discuss ways in which educators can help students develop this sense of responsibility. They encourage teachers to “be a role model who shows remorse by apologizing and correcting yourself when you have done something you regret, even if it has not hurt someone else.” The authors make it clear that modeling how to behave in challenging circumstances is one of the most effective lessons we can teach students.
I can’t be certain that the way I handled this incident will have any lasting impact on the young man involved. But, I do know that if I had followed through on my initial inclinations (driven by pride), I would have destroyed any semblance of a relationship and I would have confirmed his notion of adults on our campus. Hopefully, he caught a glimpse of humanity and he will be better for it in the long run.
I am not a superhero. I have to keep my ego in check. I make mistakes. And I am ok with making that admission.