So this past quarter, only one teacher failed my advisee with an IEP. That teacher was me. And I didn't just fail this student I like....super failed my advisee (we're talking less than 50%). I didn't realize I was the only teacher to fail my advisee until I saw his report card during parent teacher conferences this past week.
My advisee (who I'll call Nick) walked into my room and nervously asked "Ms. Tsai, can I talk to you?"
What? A student actually decided to approach me after school to ask for help? This is UNHEARD of !
"Yeah, what's going on Nick" We sit next to each other and I watch as Nick nervously looks around, trying to figure out where to start.
"Well, I'm failing your class. And...it's kind of ironic because...I mean me and my friends we agree...your class isn't super comfortable to be in. Like...there isn't enough space and I don't have enough time to do the warm ups. That's why I'm failing and... I just wanted to let you know that I'm not comfortable in your class"
Internally I'm screaming with excitement This kid had the guts to actually look me in the eye and say 'I don't feel comfortable in class. I need help'
Parents, adults, and teachers are constantly reminding teenagers to speak up and ask for help. You're failing geometry? Ask more questions! You're failing math? Did you ask the teacher for help? You're struggling in science? Ask the teacher what you can do to be better!
But how often do teenagers actually admit that they're struggling, let alone admit their struggles to a superior and ask for help? How often do teenagers speak up? Not as often as I would like.
I was so proud of Nick in that moment. I thanked him for being brave enough to be vulnerable with me and admit he needed help. Together we came up with a plan for changes that would help Nick and his classmates feel more comfortable.
Speaking up- it's a skill that not everybody has the privilege of practicing . Our society uses power to silence......
Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist, writes about the three conditions required for somebody to speak up.
1. A feeling of Expertise
2. Moral Conviction
When people have a feeling of expertise, moral conviction, and allies...they are in a safe place to speak up. Unfortunately, for many people, and especially young children of color, it's not safe to speak up, especially in situations where shame is used to silence students in school.
In fact, Galinsky describes what he calls a "range of acceptable behavior". When faced with an unjust or difficult situation, a student has two options. They can be silent, or they can speak up. Depending on the amount of power that student has, they will experience those two options at different ratios.
On one hand, teachers need to set boundaries with students, and we need to hold students accountable for their actions. We need to teach boundaries, expectations, responsibility, and accountability. At the same time, a classroom where students feel silenced is no good either.
So the question becomes...how can I get more of my students to be like Nick? To be brave enough to respectfully speak up for themselves when they need help. To have the courage to approach a superior and advocate for their own needs.
As the teacher, I have the power to shift the ratio of acceptable behaviors to create a culture where students are empowered to speak up with more frequency. Here are some ideas for how to do that.
1. Grow Moral Conviction for Speaking Up
As a woman of color in a workplace where I'm among the youngest on the staff, speaking up is something I am continuing to practice. I hope to practice this skill alongside my students. A culture where students feel empowered and safe to use their voice suddenly doesn't seem so far-fetched or threatening. It's time that we stop silencing students in schools with shame and instead work towards creating a sense of safety for speaking up. And if we start with schools, the students we graduate will become adults who will continue to empower others and themselves to speak up.
In doing so, we disrupt power and create a more equal culture.
My yoga teacher shared something with me last weekend that really got me thinking....
Approach problem solving like two detectives on the same team, not like two lawyers fighting over a settlement
When it comes to relationships, and especially relationships between teachers and students, power struggles get in the way of productive communication. They say the most powerful strategy for building a positive classroom culture is to cultivate positive relationships with students.
That makes sense....if you respect me and I respect you, I'll be more likely to take risks, push my comfort zone, and feel empowered to learn as a student in your class
Before I became a full time classroom teacher, I spent a lot of time observing other teachers. How did they manage their classrooms? How did they approach conflict? How did they work with (and sometimes even fuel) the inevitable power struggle that comes when students have bad days in class. It turns out that classrooms are incredibly emotional, vulnerable places for both students and their teachers. The more I observed other teachers, the more I saw the same scenarios of power struggle play out. A student feels bullied by the teacher, so she becomes even more sensitive to acting out. That teacher feels threatened by the student, so she becomes more likely to struggle against that student. Yelling, physical fighting, cutting class, calling home, calling the student out on their failures....even worse....addressing problem students in resentful and condescending ways. No wonder why high school felt awkward and unsafe for so many of us growing up. No wonder why teenagers are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and contemplate suicide. So the question becomes, instead of acting on our own frustration/anger and yelling at the kids to sit down/put their phone away/stop talking....what are we doing as teachers to address the feelings of failure and vulnerability that underly those behavior issues?
This brings me back to my detective/lawyer analogy. So often, I'm tempted to be the lawyer. Sit down because I told you to. Put away your phone because you're holding everybody else up. It's your fault your grade is bad, you didn't even study when I told you you should. What would happen if I sat next to my student instead of across from her, like we were two detectives working on the same case. What would it be like to navigate my own feelings about the situation, help the student navigate her feelings about the situation, and approach situations from a place of mutual respect and empathy. This could play out in a few different ways.
I know you had a game yesterday and it's normal to feel overwhelmed with juggling being an athlete and a student at the same time. While I can't give you late credit on this missed homework this time, now we know for next time what to do.
It's totally OK to feel angry....if I were in your situation I would feel angry too. But it's never okay to put your hands on another student. Now we know for next time, if we feel angry, we leave the situation. I care about you.
I can see how much you care about school through the fact that you came for extra tutoring during your lunch. While you didn't pass the test this time, and I can't give you extra credit, I know you did your best and there will be a second chance later on.
Approaching problem solving with empathy means normalizing and validating the feelings while staying true to the consequences of the student's actions. Help the student navigate the feelings but don't let the student take advantage of your boundaries as a teacher. Note that I'm not trying to be "nice" or "understanding". I'm trying to help the students navigate how their feelings shape their mindsets/behaviors. I sure wish my teachers did that with me when I was in high school.
What I've come to learn is students act out when they're feeling overwhelmed. Emotions relate to behaviors. What would it be like to sit next to the student with empathy, on the same team like detectives?
Or maybe the image of an angry student comes to mind - I'm DONE! I'm dropping out! **storms out of the classroom** I'm so f****ing done!
Or maybe the image of an angry school comes to mind- I can't believe that parent- what on earth does this parent even want from me?? The district won't send us a plumber to fix our toilets this week, can you BELIEVE it?? That's the system, that's the School District of Philadelphia for you!
Anger is a powerful, scary, intimidating emotion. We spend lots of time in "teacher school" learning to manage anger in the classroom. You've got an angry kid? Approach the kid calmly and individually, don't make the kid lose face in front of the class, but deescalate and problem solve. You've got an angry parent? Acknowledge and validate the feelings, then jump to problem solving together as a team.
So why did my grad school classes spend so much time teaching me how to manage anger in the classroom? Because anger makes me feel hot, sweaty, and scared? Because anger is a threat to my authority as a teacher? Because angry kids, angry parents, and angry administrators undermine my power as the teacher? Well, yes, but also....maybe there's more to think about here.
As a society, we shame and discourage anger. We socialize students and teachers to restrain and minimize responses to anger. We tell students to go for a walk or leave the classroom when they're feeling angry. We socialize teachers to use anger as a tool for controlling kids. We teach teachers to shut down angry students before they create chaos.
What's worse is...we don't teach our kids (or our adults) how to cope with anger or how to use their anger productively. We're too busy shutting anger down.
But...what would happen if we started to embrace anger as an emotionally intelligent response?
Anger is a powerful emotion. It signals to us when something needs to change. It signals to us when we're facing an injustice. It's a motivating emotion. When used respectfully, anger gets shit done. Too often when we're feeling angry, we are taught to express the anger as sadness. But sadness is a different thing. What would happen if we gave our students permission to actually feel anger at its full force and practice expressing anger in respectful and productive ways?
This week I'm wondering- how can I nurture anger in my students rather than contain or control it. Here are some ideas for what nurturing anger could look like.
1. Practice talking about and identifying emotions
2. Practice mindfulness
3. Validate feelings of anger and help students process that feeling
4. Teach respectful and productive coping skills for responding to anger
5. Acknowledge anger as a motivating emotion