Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

Children are contemptuous, haughty, irritable, envious, sneaky, selfish, lazy, flighty, timid, liars and hypocrites, quick to laugh and cry, extreme in expressing joy and sorrow, especially about trifles, they'll do anything to avoid pain but they enjoy inflicting it:  little men already.  ~Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères, 1688

"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." -Anne Frank

"Itchy itchy, scratchy scratchy" is from a book my kindergarden class read about tattling. A boy tattled on everyone and got some crazy tongue disease, so he learned only to tell on someone if someone's hurt or sick or hurting you. Well, I'm not sure all of them really got the message. Students are constantly tattling about the smallest issues, and issues that have absolutely nothing to do with them. He did this, she did that. Sometimes you have to pick your battle. They're sitting at the wrong table in the cafeteria? Is this hurting you, no. Are you sitting in the right spot, yes. So don't worry about it. Every kid has an opinion about everything--ask someone who's crying what is wrong and you'll get six different answers.

Sometimes I feel like I can handle anything when I successfully handle a situation. If you work with kindergardeners for example, you can't help but get a little dirty--from getting glitter EVERYWHERE, to pulling a kid up out of the mud, and washing them up. So many crying children. The other day I had a kid whose pants were too big so they kept falling down, and then he fell into the mud and was just bawling. I ended up using a paper clip to connect some belt loops to tighten his pants, as well and getting a bit of mud on myself in the process of getting him back to class and washed up. Today I had to take pens away from a boy who was throwing them at another table in the lunchroom. I've given kids band aids, had a kid throw up in class. I've watched a fight being broken up by some other teachers, and restrained kids myself who were on the verge of making poor decisions. It's amazing how much of a teacher's job--and my job--are not based in instruction, but in building character, and keeping a class under control. There are some kids who ruin a lesson for the entire class--it's so hard for one teacher to try to teach if there is one kid taking up their time and energy. And it's simply not fair to the rest of the kids. But what can you do?

So here's my weakness: discipline. Sometimes I feel like I just have a sign on my back that says "Miss Amy is a pushover, you don't have to listen to her." And it's frustrating--I feel helpless when I have to turn to another teacher or staff member to get a kid under control. Sometimes I feel like maybe I've failed, but it helps to see that it's not just me--a lot of the problem kids won't listen to anyone. And those they do listen to understand and see that it's not me, it's the kid. And I think I've gotten to a point where I'm more comfortable in my role at the school that I'm more successful in keeping kids under control--and I'm not as bothered by my "failures" because it's not that I'm failing-it's that the situation might just be out of my control. (I'm excited to go back to school after another year because I feel like there is so much more I can learn before anyone should trust me with a class of my own.)

So what is the best way to handle students who might be bullying other kids, or swearing, or hitting other kids or being disruptive in class? I clearly don't have an answer. I don't like being overly harsh with kids, but sometimes you have to put your foot down. I always try reasoning with a kid first--what's the right choice to make? would you like it if someone was doing that to you? throwing that pen isn't going to solve anything. How effective is this? Well, there are a lot of kids who are very responsive to adults. And don't have to be told more than twice to sit down, be quiet, stop that. But there are others for whom it really doesn't matter how many times you tell them, they aren't going to listen.

I'd take a muddy, crying kid any day, to a kid hell-bent on annoying/hurting/bugging his/her classmates and won't listen to adults. The school I work in has quite the cohort of students who would probably have been kicked out of another school by now. And I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, they need to learn that their actions have consequences, and that their behavior is unacceptable and they need to respect everyone else. On the other hand, I'm sure some of these kids have unstable home lives, and other such issues (which is why this is number who-knows-what on the list of schools they've attended), where it's probably beneficial that school remain stable. And maybe by giving them more time in a school than just shipping them off somewhere else where they'll be someone else's problem for a little while, maybe they'll chill out and realize that being in elementary school is a lot more fun when people like you and you follow directions and actually learn some stuff. (Seriously, elementary school should not be as hard as some of these kids make it).

Maybe I'm just being optimistic--I'm a glass-is-half-full and human-nature-is-good kind of person. I can't help but think--and hope--that these kids have a heart somewhere in their little bodies, and really do want to be good, just something, somewhere along the way, went wrong. Maybe it has to do with their home lives. Maybe there is a chemical imbalance. Maybe they're scared, and hide it by being mean. I like what John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden about people:
"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly re-spawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is."

So if nothing else, I have my hope in human nature, that something good will come out of a situation that seems to be going no where. They are, after all, just kids.

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