Bring Them Back Alive
Helping Teens Get Out and Stay Out of Trouble
More than two decades ago, in my first year of teaching high school, I ordered a disruptive student to leave my classroom. After some balking, she did so but later came back to tell me to “f— off.” Without saying a word to her, I informed the administration, which suspended her for a week. She eventually returned, but never again spoke in class, not even to disrupt it. I had “won,” perhaps, but at a terrible cost: The student did no work and eventually disappeared into the shadows of the long corridors.
I wish I’d had contact with someone as wise and sensible as de Olivares. The former South Bronx street tough became a cop and then a youth counselor, and he’s the founder of Streetwise, which trains school staffs to work with hard-to-reach kids. His counsel in Bring Them Back Alive is indispensable to anyone who parents or teaches adolescents.
At the heart of his argument is the insistence that you can’t make adolescents do anything, whether it’s giving up recreational drugs or studying hard to get into college. Threats typically engender more opposition, while inducements cause kids to see teachers as shameless panderers. Faced with the seemingly incorrigible teen, we’re tempted to explode in anger or do nothing at all.
What de Olivares advocates is a middle road, where teachers hold students accountable while showing them respect. This is not easy with an obnoxious or nonperforming teenager but, as de Olivares insists, we have no choice. The “stresses of adolescence require that teenagers concentrate their energies on their own development,” he writes, compelling us to serve their needs while subordinating our own.
De Olivares offers a list of practical suggestions for fostering mutual respect. “Never look away,” he writes, “without first acknowledging a teenager once you’ve made eye contact with him or her”; to do otherwise suggests fear or disdain. And “always walk over to teenagers before talking to them, especially if you are going to confront and correct [misbehavior]”; doing so publicly, and from a distance, invites anger. The author also advises making “positive eye contact with teenagers before ... correcting their behavior”; otherwise you’re setting up a challenge. Common-sensical as these tips are, just about every high school teacher has witnessed colleagues doing the opposite.
These tactics don’t guarantee that students will behave appropriately. And if they don’t, de Olivares writes, they should “experience the direct consequences of their behavior” and “make things right.” A kid who trashes a classroom, for example, might be assigned to clean up the schoolyard, or someone caught stealing from a classmate might be asked to make a public apology. The point, again, is to avoid the temptations of punishment (e.g., a blanket suspension) or of doing nothing.
But this book is more than a how-to guide; it’s also a critique of educational institutions. Teenagers, de Olivares argues, need teachers who offer them compassion and perspective. The objective of typical high schools, however, is “to teach students the ‘right’ answers ... on standardized tests and move on,” he charges. Adolescents also crave excitement and challenges, things not often found in schools or mind-numbing jobs. It’s no mystery, given these circumstances, that many teens choose troubling paths, even if only for a time.
While individual teachers may not be able to fix institutions, de Olivares tells us, we can work on building trusting relationships with individual students. In fact, if we want them to become productive and emotionally healthy adults, we have no choice.
Vol. 16, Issue 03, Page 47
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