sassing back with purpose

April and I looked at each other over the desk when the assistant principal came into the room.

“I saw that you called, sorry I missed it. What do you need?” she asked, surveying the room of off-task students.

“Please take her,” I said, pointing to April. “We need a break from each other.”

Without hesitation, or question, the assistant principal took April with her to the office. I am so grateful for her reaction. I didn’t feel judged, either positively or negatively. She came to do her job, so I could do mine. That reaction from an administrator, I’ve worked in enough schools to know, is rare and precious.

April and I had reached a standoff after a day, after days, of struggle. She wants to be anywhere but in school and in her frustration she constantly disrupts the class. This bright girl with a quick mind has made little to no progress in the past month because she is painting her new persona as a tough girl who doesn’t need these silly old ladies telling her she has to understand fractions. She sees her future and it requires  well coiffed hair and stylishly off the shoulder dresses, not organized paragraphs with correctly punctuated sentences. She is becoming proficient in girlfriend loyalty and well-timed insults and the art of choosing the right clique.

I don’t think these are unimportant skills. As she betrays one friend to support another, as she makes decisions about who to share her secrets with and discovers the dangers in those decisions, April is learning some valuable life skills. She is deciding who she is, who she wants to be, and who she wants to associate with. I’m impressed by her fierce support, giving compliments when she thinks a friend needs to hear she looks good, asking questions about how a friend is feeling and really, really listening, and yes, doling out verbal retaliations against any who cause her friends hurt. April is someone you want on your side.

But she hasn’t been on her own side.

April constantly disrupts the class by talking to friends both near her and across the room. She easily, often without effort, encourages the other girls, and quite a few boys, to join her in making noise over which no learning can happen. She rolls her eyes and sasses back and tosses her hair in reaction to every reminder or reprimand. She knows just what to say when you bring her out in the hall for a talk and even adheres to rules for a little while after claiming a desire to avoid “the drama” and focus on her own learning.

I figured she was just telling me what I needed to hear to let her back in to class. But maybe something else is going on.

My assistant principal came to talk to me at the end of that day and said, “So, I made her cry. I asked her who in the class helps her make the right choice, thinking that maybe we could move her closer to a positive role model, but she said that person who helps her make the right choice is you, Mrs. L.A. So I asked her “Then why do you treat her so badly?” That’s when the tears started.”

Yeah, that’s when my tears started as well. (OK, started again, because it had been the sort of week where my tears were ever present.) I went home to think about April.

A counselor I worked with a while ago said that she thinks some kids feel the freedom to act out their anger and frustrations at school because they feel like they will always be able to come back, no matter what. They trust us to give them another chance. They trust us to love them even when their ugly side shows. I tried to think of April with this theory in mind. April is trying to find her place in the world but that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re ten. I guess she really was participating in those hallway talks not just enduring them.

After seriously considering a career change earlier this year, I’m newly inspired to keep moving forward in teaching. I’ll continue reading about adolescent behavior and collaborating with my team to find better ways to support my frustrated students. And when I think I can’t take anymore of the disruptive behavior, I’ll toss my hair and turn to April and try again.

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