I’ve been struggling lately with a girl in my program whose behavior has just been abominable. She’s not only constantly rude and disrespectful, but she makes the lives of the other girls a living nightmare. Every single day I’ve had her in program for the past two weeks I’ve had at least one child run out into the hall crying inconsolably. When I’ve talked to her parents, they give her a stern talking to in front of me, but I know full well that they don’t follow through with consequences. My hands are a bit tied…being an EEC licensed program limits what sort of consequences I can impose on a student, so I’ve been locked in this spiral of becoming more frustrated with her every day, which only inspires her attitude to new depths of evil. My temper was maybe two days away from bursting last week when something changed.
I was doing a headcount when I realized that this girl wasn’t in the room. I walked out into the hall and called into the bathroom to see if she had gone there–one of our perpetual struggles is to get her to just let us know when she’s going to the bathroom or for a drink of water–and sure enough, she answered me. Her voice sounded sad, though, like she had been crying, so I coaxed her out into the hall so we could talk while I kept an ear and eye out for the other kids. Her troubles were nothing terrible–she wasn’t enjoying program because the kids don’t like her (I kindly didn’t point out that they don’t like her because she acts like a psychopath half of the time). She’s stuck with me, however, because her mother needed to go back to work.
As I stood with her for fifteen or twenty minutes, letting her spill out the minute details of her life and struggles, something began to dawn on me: this girl is no longer a child. She’s an adolescent, just beginning that transformation that turns many preteens and teens (myself included) into raging psychopaths for a while. I had been dealing with her as if she were still an older child, but what’s going on with her brain and body is so different that my approach was absolutely failing.
A similar thing happened a month or so ago with another younger girl who makes me crazy. This girl hates the other kids a third of the time, me half of the time, and the world three-quarters of the time. She has a habit of ignoring the rules and directions with a ferocity that had me on the verge of expelling her from the program until something shifted. I found out that she’s been diagnosed and medicated for a disorder that, more than anything, makes her hate herself all of the time. She is absolutely convinced that it is outside of her power to be good and when I heard that idea formed with her childish words, it broke my heart and drained all of my anger away.
I’m not going to say that life in program is suddenly easy with either of these girls, but I’ve hit the turning point with both of them that convinces me I can help them do well in my program now. Not just in obeying the rules, but in getting their homework done and being kind to the other children. In both cases, it came when I suddenly saw what it was that they were struggling against. Working with my kids has started to persuade me that people are pretty good at heart, but get changed by pressure. If you try to move a mountain by pushing on it with a piece of tinfoil, the tinfoil is going to get a bit warped. By seeing the mountain my kids are fighting against, I can shift myself off the mountain and help them become steel.
The reason I chose to write about this on Valentine’s Day is that it seems to me that the learning I’ve been doing about how to be a better teacher is a learning that can apply to any relationship. I suspect that I can learn to love people more (and by so doing, fear and dislike them less) by looking for the mountains that they may be struggling against. It’s an old truism, I suppose, but learning to live the idea takes a rather longer time than knowing it it my mind.
And slowly I am learning how to shift.