I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have encountered a struggle and said, “They disrespected me”, or “He didn’t do what I needed them to do” or even “She hurt my feelings”. It’s not that these things are not true, but I have come to realize that too often, when someone else is doing something that makes us feel unhappy or disrespected, it is more likely about the other person than it ever is about ourselves. It is much more likely that the person that is exhibiting the behavior that we consider “unacceptable” is driven by their own needs that haven’t been met than that they are about wanting to “make” us feel a certain way, especially if we are dealing with children. Even more important is the idea that the way that we choose to respond can make the situation better or much, much worse.
This past week I have seen examples of handling just such events in completely opposite approaches. In the first situation, I was standing in my front hallway, greeting students as they arrived at school. I looked up to see one of our bus drivers marching in a group of boys from her bus. I could hear her in the office demanding to see either the assistant principal or myself because these boys “needed to be dealt with”. A few minutes later, one of my office staff came to me to let me know her request. I explained to my staff member that we would be unable to meet with the bus driver at this time. While both my assistant principal and I were busy greeting children and helping the school day get started, I could tell by the look in the bus driver’s eyes and the words she was already using, she was going to take the opportunity to “put these children in their place” in front of me. I didn’t feel it was right for these students to feel belittled in my presence, so I suggested to my office staff that the bus driver complete the necessary bus referral form and assure her that we would address her concern. Apparently, she didn’t even know the boys’ names and asked the staff for them. The bus driver also insisted they wait in the office. Of course when I saw them sit down, I went over and sent the boys to breakfast. I knew these boys probably hadn’t eaten, however before they could finish and get to class, the tardy bell rang.
As they rounded the corner coming back to the office for tardy passes, I could see that the day was only getting worse for them and it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet. One of the boys who I have spent two years building a relationship with, wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I am sure it was because of the fact that he was angry, he knew he might be disrespectful so he was trying to avoid that. One of the other boys smarted off to my counselor, which was very out of character given that she has provided him with snacks when he didn’t have them. I stopped the boys, told them I knew it had been a rough morning, but things were going to get better. They were here at school, they had eaten, and we needed to move forward. While we work hard not to have tardies, this one would be okay. Now was time to make the choices that would make it a better day in class.
I asked my assistant to intentionally choose a good time to visit with them that would not further escalate the bad feelings (i.e. not during their PE time). Later, I found out that three of the boys, who are brothers, including the one who didn’t want to make eye contact with me and the one who had responded disrespectfully to the counselor, had a hard morning before they had ever left the house. We knew their mother had been ill the night before at our Parent Orientation. Even so, this mother of four who comes from generational poverty, made her way to school to find out about what she needed to know about this upcoming year so she could support her boys in their education. During the early morning, she needed to go to the emergency room for a severe asthma attack. These three older elementary boys got themselves up, got themselves ready, and got themselves to the bus stop to get to school in spite of their worry for their mom. On the bus, the bus driver (who is new this year) had deemed it “no talking” on her bus. Several of the boys decided to play “silent tag” to entertain themselves. They were not up out of their seats or talking, but the game was not a good choice for the bus.
I shared this story with my staff. We have done a great deal of learning on poverty this past year to understand the quickly changing demographics of our school. We have gone from 8% economically disadvantaged to 52% of our student receiving free and reduced lunch in ten years’ time. Because we have seen some real needs for this demographic, and most of the staff comes from middle class, we have tried to learn from experts like Ruby Payne and Elia Moreno for insight. One of Ruby Payne’s action strategies is to build relationships as they are a critical driving force. People don’t care what you think or if they are following your rules if they don’t have a relationship with you. Elia Moreno talks about how we have to make people feel valued. I shared this story to help my staff not only see that this bus driver may have a difficult time repairing the damage done this morning, but that we have to remember that many of our students experience terrible difficulties before they ever step foot inside our building. We have to remember it is about them, not us, and that a few kind words, even despite some negative behavior is the key to turning things around.
Four days later, I heard another story as it shared with me be two completely different staff members who overheard the interaction between a teacher and one of her students. A commotion was heard inside a classroom and then the child who was still upset stepped into the hallway. A few minutes later his teacher followed. She asked him to explain what happened and why he threw an object in the classroom. He proceeded to tell her that the student he threw the object at had said something disrespectful to him and he was upset. And then….the most amazing thing happened. The teacher called the child by his name and said “I need to apologize to you.” (Did you take a breath? I did.)
The teacher went on to say that she was sorry that she didn’t give the child the opportunity to explain his side of the story before she asked him to receive the consequence of moving his clip. She said that she had only seen his reaction of throwing something and that she obviously needed to know there was more to this story. She said she had made a mistake. She told him that when he went back into the classroom, he could return his clip to its previous place. Then she said, “But now we need to talk about your actions.” She explained to the student that when something happens to upset him, he needs to report it to the adult and not respond in anger. She continued by recommending he use his words, instead his hands to solve his problems. Then she hugged him, told him how much she cared for him and escorted him back to class.
Here are two totally different approaches with two totally different results. One adult made it all about herself and had a goal of “putting those kids in their place.” Those boys left that situation with no respect for the bus driver and I’m hoping that we don’t have future incidents just to spite her for the way she treated them. The second adult made it all about the child and extended grace to him by modeling that one can bare the burden of a mistake and it doesn’t make you less of a person, it makes you more. She used the child’s name. She acknowledged her own mistake first, before talking about the child’s mistake. She used the calm adult voice of negotiation, and not a negative parent voice of criticism. She strengthened the relationship. That child will probably work harder to live up to this teacher’s expectations in the future.
Whether personally or professionally, whether working with children or adults, we can choose to give dignity or take it away. However, when we choose to give dignity and grace to those in need, we sow a path that allows the one in pain to grow beyond their current situation. For ourselves, we recognize that we don’t have to win by causing someone else to lose.