By Tricia Halonen
I work as Dean of Students at a high-risk high-needs middle school. I came to this school because I want to make a difference. But what does that look like? For the last three months I’ve had students cuss me out on a daily basis. I’ve had parents yell at me. I do at least one investigation a day into troubling behavior. I coach my colleagues to keep their emotions in check during difficult encounters with students and parents. I’ve done a drug bust or two. I’ve even had to go on a few bus rides to investigate and respond to an assault.
And I increasingly find myself wondering, why do I choose to do this?
Maybe it’s that desire for a challenge? Nope.
Maybe it is because I was called to do it? Nope.
Maybe I have hope that change can occur? Okay…maybe.
And I wonder– Is there a secret recipe to engage students, especially those students who come to school bent double from the emotional weight of their outside lives? I don’t think there is a magic recipe, but to do this type of work it helps to reflect on what is working.
Here is what I’ve learned so far…
Lesson 1) Be nauseatingly consistent.
Kids need to know what to expect. Read any book by Bruce Perry on trauma and kids and there is a consistent theme – kids need structure, love and the ability to know when something is going to happen. Kids in my school don’t have that. They are living with uncertainty, volatile parents, and inconsistent emotional responses from the adults in their lives. As a result they are in a hyper state of wondering what will happen next. I’ve learned to be consistent to the point that my kids can almost complete my statements. As a result they know exactly what happens when they push the boundaries (which are clearly set).
An interesting by-product of being consistent is respect.
Lesson 2) You have to respect the kids.
This seems like an obvious one but I think that we sometimes forget that these are humans we are working with. They have intense emotions and feelings when it comes to their lives. And adults need to remember that being respectful to kids is not the same as being a friend – there is an important distinction between these two. Listening to what has occurred, not providing an opinion at every turn because I am the adult in power, admitting when I am wrong, holding them accountable to their actions, giving them choice in their decisions – these are all ways I show my students that they are important and matter to me. But that doesn’t mean their poor decisions will be overlooked.
Which leads directly into…
Lesson 3) I am no one’s friend, and don’t take anything personally.
This has been my hardest lesson. In my role I get a lot of push back. Some colleagues complain I’m not doing my job fast enough or I am not being flexible to the parents. To be clear, I am all about accountability to the kids and I don’t take excuses from anyone, especially myself. But when you become everyone’s punching bag it really makes you second guess your career choice. I don’t know many people who thrive in an environment that consistently puts them into a trauma response. The idea of growing thick-skin or checking my emotions at the front door are great concepts, but much harder, if not, impossible, to put into play. I have never wanted to be everyone’s friend, but being no one’s is hard to maintain.
This is not my first rodeo; I learned long ago that one person can make an immediate change. But it is systemic change I seek now. One person can slowly change the behaviors around them, but I find myself wondering, when they leave does that change stay in place?
This leads me to my last lesson:
Lesson 4) There has to be intrinsic motivation for change to take root within a school.
In order to create an environment in which teachers, parents and students all believe that they deserve and can have a better school climate, it will take a significant shift in student behavior to make the change systemic. I recognize that we need a true grassroots movement to impact the long lasting change our school needs. And I wonder, can just a few of us be the catalyst?
I am not sure.
But in the short time I’ve been there, we are seeing students try to make better choices and react in a positive manner to accountability. So maybe that’s enough for now. There are glimmers of hope…but then there is the weight of the issues I face each day.
I don’t deserve to be anyone’s punching bag.
But I just might be willing to take the hits if it means lasting change in the long run.
Interested in more Field Notes From Educators? Read Field Notes: 5 Things I Wish I Knew As a First-Year-Teacher.