There’s Always A Reason

I haven’t slept well lately. And, to be honest, I have been worrying about quite a bit lately.

Fortunately, I am not one that requires a tremendous amount of sleep. As I get older, I need a bit more as I can no longer function on two hours sleep like I did during my 20’s and into my 30’s. The 43 year old me needs a solid four to function. But, this has been a different kind of “not sleeping.” Fortunately, my health is fine, my daughter is fine, and my family is fine. So, the worrying is about other stuff and just an innate part of being an Italian.

The pressures that we all face–bills, the well being of family, trying to balance all of the work related things, more bills, upcoming events, big plans, even more bills, and just about everything else–has kept me up. You know, the normal stuff that we all deal with. The frustration of everything not working out perfectly actually got to me on Thursday. I woke up at my usual 4:30 AM, but laid in bed rather than make the usual trek to the gym. It was the first day that I didn’t want to go to work either.

But, I went and, once I got into my classes, it was as if everything that I spent all night worrying about was put to the side. Having 30 young people in front of you will do that to you. As a 43 year old, I was able to put all of the stressors behind me and have some fun with my classes and do my job relatively well. My three classes got me through the morning and were enough to help me deal with some of the other parts of my job that aren’t so enjoyable as well as motivate me to hit the gym at 6:00 PM.

I am not unique in the fact that I had a lot more than work related stuff floating in my head that may have impacted my work performance this week. So many of us come to our classes with outside pressures and situations we have to handle. But, we are able to push them aside the majority of days because it is our job to teach kids. We cannot afford to throw away a day or put it in cruise control. We aren’t in a cubicle. We cannot be anonymous. 

And, my worries are common. Some people have much more. There are so many colleagues who come to work worrying about their sick children, worrying about parents’ failing health, spouse issues, and their own health. Some are dealing with serious financial problems and some are dealing with tragedy. The job of teacher does not make you immune to real life problems. I can remember when my then-wife was diagnosed with cancer at 32 years old, had to undergo a bilateral mastectomy, and chose to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. My life was out of order. I was worried. I was up a lot of nights with her and trying to keep up with work. Most days, work was a safe haven from reality. But, there were some days when I was barely functioning and pretending my way through the day. Those days were hard. And, while I was there and doing my job, I would be lying if I said that I was certain that those kids got the best of me. Maybe they did, but I cannot guarantee. I was, however, there and able to do my job without kids knowing that I was truly struggling inside. It was tough, but as we age, we learn to cope a bit more with each situation.

But, during that time, I had the support of my colleagues and my administration. I wasn’t alone at work. People picked up the slack for me, helped me, and helped through that period. They understood that what was going on at home was blocking all of me from being there. Everyone helped. They understood.

I see that with my colleagues now. Some people are dealing with a lot of challenges at home and we rally behind them. We’ll cover for them so they can make appointments. We help with plans. We remind when deadlines are coming. We’ll make the extra copy. We have the conversations. 

We understand that issues outside of work can make a person a little less patient, a little more angry, a little more forgetful, and a little less focused than they are normally. But, that’s human.

We often forget that when it comes to kids. 

One of the highlights of my week was visiting one of our young teachers. She is just beginning her career and is one of those people who you can tell just has “it”. Part of my role as Department Coordinator is to check in, help out, and offer support. We starting talking and she began to excitedly tell me about her days since we last met. She spoke about how she changed her lessons because of class interest (good instinct) and how, despite many telling her that “those kids” aren’t good, she loves her students. She mentioned one kid who kept his head down the entire period. She didn’t bother him in class, but pulled him aside afterwards to ask if he was ok. 

Talk about great instincts.

That conversation led to finding out that the kid had so much going on at home and was also working a full time job after school and into the late night. Yet, he still came to school, rather than sleeping at home. 

“It’s ok that I didn’t write him up or kick him out, right?

Yes and definitely yes.

Another teacher would have took it as a sign of disrespect and threw the student out of class without asking what was going on. Here’s a kid who is living an adult reality and has adult problems, much like my colleagues and I are dealing with. Yet, most would’ve kicked him out. My young colleague had the right instinct to ask. The kid was tired and was having a bad day. It wasn’t worth embarrassing him in front of his peers. And, it certainly wasn’t worth forming an adversarial relationship. 

That 17 year old is dealing with a lot. He is dealing with things that some of us who are in front of the room have never dealt with. The fact that he is showing up and participating the majority of days is a testament to just how strong this young person is. Thankfully, my young colleague had the instincts and the compassion to make his day a bit better and realize that a lesson can always be re-done on another day. Most important, she reached out, verbalized her concern, and established herself as someone who cares.

Sadly, that student is not alone. So many of our students are facing a reality that will often put the importance of understanding a line of poetry or caring what the square root of an imaginary number is at the back of the line. Just this week alone, I heard stories of a student whose family lost their home and was now living in a one room apartment. Another’s Mom was undergoing chemotherapy. Yet, another is working as the biggest income in his family. Another is dealing with the death of a grandmother. More are dealing with parental issues, identity issues, ongoing health issues, and wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Of course, there are students who may not have those extreme issues, but have those everyday stressors that so many of us have. There are a group of seniors who are struggling under the weight of the college process. Whether it is trying to please everyone with a college essay, worrying about how college will get paid for, or nervous if they are good enough, stress hasn’t never been this high for most of them. There are freshmen who are in tears after receiving their first grade lower than a 90 in their life; it is new and they feel lost. Although we can tell them that it will get better—and, it certainly does—that does not matter in the moment. Our new middle school students–7th graders in our district–are transitioning to a building with “real” grades, placements, and even something seemingly small as lockers. Their anxiety is at an all time high.

All of these student scenarios have one thing in common: uncertainty. Whether it is the uncertainty of the real world or the uncertainty of what is coming next in their academic careers, students are feeling the same types of worry and pressure that many of us, the adults, are feeling. 

We must remember that these are kids. Some aren’t even teenagers yet. 

Most importantly, we must remember that there is always a reason why. There is always a story for a kid’s behavior, perceived lack of interest, perceived disrespect, or absence.

Those reasons and those stories are just as valid as the reasons and stories we, the adults, bring with us every day. The only difference is kids are less equipped emotionally and it is up to us to understand, accommodate, help them with a plan to deal with their stressors, and help them process their feelings. It is not only our job, it is our duty. 

In reality, this can be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, you can misread a kid. I pride myself on being there for kids, whether it is a kid crying about college stuff, pressure from home, a bad grade, or those heavy real life problems. I always want to be there. But, just this week, I misread a student and it still bothers me. While I never blew off the kid or treated him poorly,  I had a perception of kid and mentioned it in passing to a colleague. I was then told that the student’s family recently lost their home. How could I have that perception?

There. Is. Always. A. Reason.

Here’s a few things to try to keep in mind when we see kids who may be projecting indifference, tension, or disrespect.

It’s Not Personal

The Admin says this a lot and he is completely correct. A kid who may lash out or even just sit there disinterested or sleeping isn’t disrespecting you. It is not about you. This is, most likely, the only way the kid knows how to cope. Even if the student lashes out at you and says something rude, it isn’t about you. While you may worry about saving face with the rest of class, I can guarantee you that if you react calmly, talk to the student privately, and show compassion, your class’s perception won’t be that of a pushover. It will be that of someone who actually cares. My young colleague could’ve made a spectacle of the kid sleeping. She could’ve made a speech about how her class is way too important to sleep through. She could’ve done what I did when I was her age–slam a book right next to a sleeping kid’s ear–and get a cheap laugh. Instead, she realized it wasn’t about her, formed a relationship with the student, treated the student with dignity, and came up with a plan for success. 

It’s Still New

We are heading into our second month of school here so it feels like kids should be settled and have a routine. Even I felt that way last week as my classes still aren’t quite where I’ve had them in previous years. But, then, a colleague said something that made everything click.

She said, “it feels like we’ve been here forever, but we’ve only been with the kids for 12 days.” 

With religious holidays in both the second and third week of classes, we didn’t work a full week until last week. High School freshman are still very new. 7th grade students are still learning their “grown up” schedule, moving around more independently. As a teacher in his 21st year, I still don’t feel like I have my routine down quite yet. How can I expect my freshmen to? How can a 7th grade teacher expect it? Yes, those routines will be developed and cemented relatively soon, but kids are stressed right now, trying to navigate new curriculum, new expectations, and new independence levels. Oh, and they are probably figuring out a new social life too. So, if some kids seem out of sorts or burst into tears in the middle school hallway, it’s not because they are babies or have to grow up. It’s because they are young, a whole lot of new is happening to them, and they’ve had very little time to adjust. It is up to us to provide the environment for them to learn, grow from mistakes, and find a process that will lead to their success. 

They Are More Than A Name Or Number

A secondary teacher may have 140 students on his/her roster. That is a big number and can lead to the approach of bulk teaching, rather than getting to know each kid. Even the kids who seemingly have it all, are coming with stress. It is up to us to form relationships with all of our kids. We must be the adult that they can come to and talk through their problems or at least the adult who they feel safe enough to seek help and get directed to help. It is easy to assume that a student taking an advanced placement course or a college course and has an excellent GPA is fine. Yet, those are the kids sneaking off to the teacher they trust and breaking down. They are worried about their future. 

One way to check yourself is to do a relationship check. Simply print out your class rosters. Next to each kid’s name, write down what you know about him/her outside of academics. If you can’t write anything, you now have immediate targets to form a relationship with. Once you get to know kids outside of academics, you will learn who has a job afterwards, who has to run home and watch his/her younger siblings, or who is driving back and forth to the hospital to see his mother. Or, you learn about the kid who is struggling with the college essay, is scared about the future and what to study, or is dealing with extreme parent pressure. 

With that knowledge, you will never forget that everyone has a reason. No student comes to school wanting to sleep, wanting to be belligerent, or wanting to be disinterested. If you rolled your eyes as you read that, you are wrong. All kids come to school wanting something positive to happen, even the kids who supposedly “hate” school. Too often, they are met with adults who don’t want to see the story behind the actions or attitude. Too often, they are met with the expectation to handle issues like an adult, when they are still kids. And, yes, high school students are still kids. 

We cannot forget that there is always a reason. As adults, we try to push our reasons aside so that we can be professional. Most times, we are successful. But, there are times, because we are human, when we fail. We may “mail in” a class, snap at a kid or colleague, or even take a day off. Many times, kids aren’t allotted those same opportunities, even though, developmentally, they should not only be given those opportunities, but given guidance about how to cope.

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