Education Opinion

Up Against the Wall

By Susan Graham — September 26, 2010 4 min read
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One of the most important things children learn at school is not on any curriculum map. In addition to all those facts, critical thinking, and technology skills, we expect our schools to help our children master self discipline, because without that, success in school and in life is a long shot. If we pay attention, we can see children progressing through the stages of Bloom’s Hierarchy of Learning in this critical area of self development. I’m just hoping that some of my 6th period students are going to have a fast learning curve in the next few weeks.

In lower elementary grades, children are into the comprehension stage of self control. “I know the rule, Miss Jones! We sit criss-cross applesauce during story time!” For most of these little ones there is nothing finer than the beaming approval of their teacher.

By upper elementary school, children are into application. “Mr. Johnson, Mr. Johnson, Bob is not staying in line. We’re supposed to be in line and I’m in line, but he’s not. Are you going to make him get back in line?” They aren’t really tattling, they are just pointing out correct and incorrect application of the rules.

When children get to middle school, they are ready to take on analysis. Middle schoolers are engaged in an experiment of how far their power to control their environment extends. The variable is how far they can push before the test subject responds negatively; and the test subject is pretty much any adult they encounter. “How many times can I do this before the teacher gets mad? Can we make the substitute cry or cuss? Will the principal really call my parents and give me three days of in-school suspension or is he bluffing?” They need to know where the limits are and they are unlikely to find out unless they test them.

If they have made appropriate progress, high school students are ready for synthesis. When confronted with what they consider injustice or inanity, they attempt to change the system. “We’re walking out! We’re circulating a petition! We’re going to the school board! We’re contacting the press!” It is entirely appropriate that they do so, because they are about to become adults who will become more responsible citizens if they are prepared to be proactive rather than passive.

I think that’s what bothered me so much about those signs in that New Orleans middle school, “Be nice, be neutral, and nothing else.” That might make the school day run more smoothly for the adults in the building, but I’m not sure it supports the development of the moral and ethical decision making skills our young people need.

So much for theory. Right now it’s week three of middle school and I’ve got some precocious students in my 6th period class. They are so highly motivated to learn self management that they come in ready to analyze my limits every single day.

My classroom rules are simple: Respect all people. Respect the resources that have been provided for your learning. Respect your self. My system for classroom management is equally simple. I have 1st, 2nd, and Final Warning cards. A Warning Card is sort of like a yellow card in soccer or a foul in basketball. It isn’t judgment on you as a person, it just means that your behavior is somehow limiting the ability of others to learn.

I don’t stop to discuss the reason for the card because the whole point is getting on with the business of learning. But if I lay a 1st Warning card down in front of you, it means that you need to figure out what it is that you are doing that interferes with my delivery of instruction or your classmates’ focus on learning. A 2nd Warning is an indication that you may need to think a little harder. A Final Warning earns you a meeting with me after class so that I can help you understand what needs to change. Just as in games, the record is cleared at the end of the period.

Unfortunately, some of those cards are already getting sort of dog-eared this fall. I’ve had some private conferences and I’ve made some parent phone calls. But on Friday afternoon, J.R. just keep pushing his limits until I was really up against the wall. I sensed he was having self management issues and I knew I was on the verge of being reactive rather than proactive in dealing with him. That’s putting it nicely. To put it bluntly, he’d pushed all my buttons and I was about to lose it.

I sent J.R. out in the hall and told him that I’d be with him in a minute. I got the rest of the class engaged in their work and then took a deep breath before heading into the hall for a confrontation. And on my way out, I remembered something my wise young friend Julianna recently shared in a Teacher Leaders Network conversation about dealing with difficult students. Julianna said: “I’ve learned to lean up against the wall with my students.”

Sure enough, J.R. was leaning up against the wall, so rather than stand in front of him, I just leaned up against the wall beside him. I breathed deeply, thought about how cool and solid the wall felt, closed my eyes for a moment, and then I waited. While J.R. and I stood there leaning side by side, I finally said, “Well, what are we going to do, J.R.?” He made that huffing sound that is the trademark of all middle schoolers and then said, “Okay, I guess I need to shut up sometimes don’t I?”

I’ve always been an optimist, but I’m not stupid. We have not become best buds and I’d bet money that we’re going to be out in that hall quite a few times before the semester is up. But I’ve come to realize that when I’m up against the wall with a difficult student, that kid’s probably up against the wall too. So maybe it makes more sense to quit staring each other down, lean back, and focus on the problem at hand.

It beats banging our heads against that wall.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.