Sunday, March 29, 2009

I respectfully disagree

On our second-to-last neighborhood field trip a few weeks ago, my students embarrassed me. Some of them (not all, but some) were disrespectful, defiant, and rude, both to me and to our hosts at a community organization. One of our hosts was a community organizer who had been a founder of our school. I was humiliated when I would ask of a student a simple request, such as to move over, and he would respond with "No!" or "Why?," both mono-syllabic responses delivered in a hostile tone of voice.

I realized that I have an assumption that when you are out in public, you are on your best behavior. How many times, as a teacher, will I have to learn not to assume anything? I remembered that last year we used to talk about what kind of impression we wanted to make when we were out in public, but we hadn't revisited the topic this year. My third realization was that some of my students talk to me in this way, somewhat contemptuously, on a regular basis, and that if they talk to me that way at school, why wouldn't they talk to me that way in public?

Now, I may temporarily forget things I've learned before as a teacher, and make the same mistakes over and over again, but I usually eventually remember important lessons from years past. So I remembered that, as all first-grade teachers know, it is important to teach everything. We don't assume, when first grade begins, that students know how to knock on the bathroom stall doors, or stand in line, or sit in a circle, or walk across the classroom quietly. We teach our expectations for each of these things, and millions others, very explicitly.

So, I began to teach my students how to respectfully disagree. I went to a meeting, and I watched how adults disagreed with each other, and I took some notes. We made a list on the board. Our list included phrases such as:
  • I object.
  • Can I suggest an alternative?
  • I disagree.
  • Can we talk about this?
And many more. Then we practiced. Students pretended to be me; I pretended to be them; they pretended to be the principal while I pretended to be me.

It then occurred to me that they might start to think that if they respectfully disagreed with me, they would get exactly what they wanted. And while these words, delivered in a mild tone of voice, certainly make me more amenable to listening, I knew that there would be times when I simply could not engage in the conversation. When seventy things are going on around you, sometimes you need to just be able to say, "Go do that," and have someone do it, no questions asked.

So, our next list was, "How to respectfully express disappointment." It included things like, "I would rather not, but if you really need me to, I can." Or, it offered a deep but calm sigh as a way to accept disappointing turns of events. We talked about how the teacher might say, "I can't talk to you about this now, but we can discuss it later." And we practiced with more role plays.

Of course, things did not change magically overnight. I realized that when students had spoken disrespectfully to me before, as long as it wasn't super out of line, I hadn't been sure of how to respond. In my desire not to have a strong emotional response, I would often simply ignore them. I wouldn't give them what they wanted, but I wouldn't let them know that their words or tone were unacceptable. Or, I would get frustrated and annoyed by how they spoke to me, and I would snap back, or give them a swift consequence.

So I began a slow process of trying to change patterns long ago established. "Jarad," I said the other day, "Nice job on the science work. Now turn it over and practice it once more."

"Awwwwwwwwwww," he moaned loudly and angrily as I turned away. I walked back over to his desk.

"Jarad," I said quietly, "that was not a respectful way to respond to me, and it didn't make me want to listen to you, or even be around you. Why don't we try that again?" Again, I told him to practice the science work. This time, he responded calmly and reasonably: "Ms. Swamp, I don't think I need to practice it again. I think I already know it."

I thought about it, and realized he was probably right. "You're right," I answered. "I think you do know it. Okay, you can put it away and get a book to read."

I had known that I didn't want my students to speak to me that way. What I had not anticipated was how powerful their revised tones and words would be. I myself had taught them to talk this way, but I still found myself strongly affected by these calm, reasonable phrases. Instead of being annoyed, I was willing to take a minute to think about their perspective. And often they were right, and I changed my mind, or we found a way to compromise. Things were much more civil.

I don't want it to sound like this has worked magically. We have almost two years of habits under our belts, and they are hard to break. Kids still whine or snap at me, and I still forget to calmly remind them to try it again. Sometimes I snap back, and they get madder, and then I get my way just because I'm the boss. But I have found a new way to respond to them: not with a consequence, but with a lesson or reminder, and then a do-over. I have high hopes for next year. If I start with a new class from Day 1, working on these kinds of communication lessons, we might get far by the end of the year.

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