I’ve been reading this book, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog,” and although the title seems a bit extreme, it’s a book about how these clinicians have worked with kids who have been impacted by trauma. As I read it last night, I made a note; the author highlighted how the brain develops a sense of normalcy during its infant stages and determines what is appropriate and what isn’t during those early years. This means those kids who experience extreme, harmful circumstances while they are young may have a cognitive inkling to think that something extreme by most of our standards would be normal. I’ve kept that on my mind as I’ve dealt with kids. Why do they think the way they do? Why do they think it’s okay to talk back to grown people? Why do they make a big deal out of something trivial? It goes back to experiences. And some of those experiences are far from what we’ve ever had to encounter as educators. It’s important to remember that.
I had a student in my office today. He was there because the teacher wanted him to leave his bookbag at the door, a simple task for most. Yet, he wouldn’t do it, and of course if the teacher allowed him to have his bookbag, everyone else would get the idea that they needed theirs as well- something trivial that could become a huge problem. I took the student to my office. I admit that I was frustrated because I was working on gathering some data for the faculty meeting, and here I was having to deal with a 14-year-old who wouldn’t put away a bookbag. I asked, “What’s the problem? Why can’t you put this bookbag up like the teacher told you to do? ” He replied, “I just don’t feel like it. This bookbag ain’t bothering nobody.” I took a deep breath and said a quick prayer….God, guide my words…and I replied, “You know what, it sure isn’t. But the procedure is for students to put their bookbags at the door in that class, and you are no exception to that rule. So what now?” He said, “I don’t know. You the principal, ain’t you? You tell me.” I smiled and told him, “You know what, you’re absolutely right. And one of the things you and I have talked about before is following directions and respecting adults. So where are your parents? Who’s going to come get you?” Suddenly, he began to think of his parents having to leave work. I could see his brain thinking of the consequences associated with it. I’m no psychic, but one thing I learned as a child was that if my mom got phone calls to leave work for any school issue, there would be a HUGE price to pay.
The student continued by telling me that his mother was at work. I said, “So, you want your mom, who works hard to keep the bills paid, keep you fed, and probably is super tired by the time she gets home, to come to this school to pick you up all because you can’t comply with leaving your bookbag at the door?” I shook my head. I continued and said, “Brother, that ain’t normal. What if she gets fired for having to leave work? Where are you going to stay then? Who’s going to pay the bills then? How will you eat then? She’s doing her part by taking care of you, and you mean to tell me that your 14-year-old self can’t comply and leave a bookbag at the door?” Tears started to well in his eyes. Then, I gave him a choice. I asked him if he wanted to leave the bookbag in my office or if he was ready to leave it at the door of the classroom. He said he’d leave it in my office. Our next conversation circulated around grades. He was having difficulty there too. I said, “Well, one thing is for sure; I don’t know what you’re going through or what the problem is, but if you plan to go to high school you better get those grades up. I can’t give you a sympathy pass because the world won’t give you a sympathy pass. You have work to do. So you need to go see all of your teachers and get some work to help you get caught up for the rest of the day.” He rolled his eyes. He was irritated at this point. I ignored it. I’ve learned to choose my battles. I said, “Are you ready to go back to class?” He replied, “Yeah.” I said, “Excuse me?” He corrected himself, “Yes, sir.” I said, “See. You’ve got it in you if you just use it.” I led the way back to class and opened the door. He walked in, and I left.
Later, one of his teachers came and asked what I’d said to the student. I told her, “I just had a conversation with him. Some of these kids just need to know we care, and I tell you it’s tough to show them sometimes.” She said, ” Yeah, that’s for sure, Dr. G.” I smiled and walked off. I still had work to do myself.
Hindsight always gives us a clear view. As I’ve gone through each day, I’ve continued to try my best to stay connected to a higher power. Little ole me can’t accomplish what I’ve set out to accomplish this year, so I’ve continued to pray for days full of miracles. That’s what I’m expecting…miracles…something that others will look at and say, “Wow. What happened over at that school?” I smile now, even typing it. It’s a goal, not because I want any of the glory out of the situation, because I’ll surely send it where it’s due, but because we have other kids in this world who encounter the same things that the young man I spoke with was going through. Most of the students encounter something trivial and make it about who’s the biggest and baddest. At the school where I’m the principal, I’ve tried to make it known that I’m both of those things…the biggest…AND the baddest. My approach may be different, and I’ve faced some challenges along the way from the kids and from some adults, but I know how to leverage the tools that I have within the walls of the school building. There are some great teachers that make connections with kids, and the benefit of building relationships is undoubtedly immeasurable.
Every day, I try to find some nugget of wisdom to take home with me, something I can reflect on to improve my own practice. Today, it was an interaction that I had that I didn’t think would be positive. The crazy thing is the student got all of his work from his teachers, and when he saw me, he said, “Dr. G., I got my work so I can stay caught up.” I said, “Good deal. Let’s get it done then!” The students are listening. They really are. We get frustrated with them, and they make it hard to work through some of the situations every day, but they are listening. It’s a good feeling. When students act out and are noncompliant, we just have to keep letting the students know, “That ain’t normal…by any means.” We have to give them the tools they need to correct it and be consistent. That’s the only way change occurs, especially when their sense of what’s normal is different from ours. Sometimes, we have to meet in the middle, but ultimately the goal is to get them over to our side. It can be done….one step at a time.
Be great. Be accountable.