When Does Empathy Become Enabling?

A Four Year Old in High School?

There was a little girl running up and down the aisles in my summer-school Algebra class. Actually it wasn’t my class. I had taken it over as part of my duties as a utility, summer-school, substitute teacher. That summer, I did everything from security in the halls to attendance phone calls in the office. And when a teacher was absent or running late, I took over their classroom. That’s how I wound up teaching Mr. Smith’s summer-school, 9th grade Algebra class with a little girl running up and down the aisles.

I was the new guy in town so the next time the little girl ran past my desk I introduced myself and asked her her name. She told me her name was Sally and she was four years old. By this time another, somewhat older girl had walked up to my desk and introduced herself. The older girl said her name was Amy and that Sally was her daughter. She said that Mr. Smith allowed her to bring her daughter to school because she, Amy, had no one to look after her daughter. If she couldn’t bring her daughter to school she would have to drop out. I told Amy that if it was okay with Mr. Smith, it was okay with me. Amy returned to her desk and Sally continued to wander around.

The truth is, I wasn’t okay with it.

I didn’t take it out on Amy though. The student’s ID number, which is their birthday and a few other numbers, is on the attendance roster. I looked up Amy’s birthday and found out that she was only 16 years old. That meant that she was impregnated as young as 11 years old and had Sally when she was 12!

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The Two Worst Times

14 years oldHaving Trouble? Call Home!

Imagine I am a novice teacher. I’m having trouble with a student’s behavior. The kid is talking at inappropriate times, won’t take directions seriously – that sort of thing. Nothing dangerous, but still disruptive and/or disrespectful. I go to my principal (or my university professor) and explain the situation. What’s the first question they will ask? “Have you called home on the student?”

Calling home is the most often recommended behavior management tool we teachers are given. But I was (we are) never told what the given assumptions were with that advice. Nor was I told what to do if calling home didn’t produce any positive behavioral changes in the student.

Unspoken Assumptions

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Educational Expert? Who Me?

CSUN DiplomaEducational Expert?

Yes I am an educational expert. How about you? If you’re like me (or Rodney Dangerfield) you put in the time and still get no respect. I put in the time going to University classes. I earned a Masters degree in Education. I became National Board Certified in Algebra. I attended colloquia and seminars and extra classes. I put in the years in the trenches of the classroom. There are legions of former students who attest that I was a positive influence in their lives. So why don’t parents and the school district listen to me?

It’s simple. Parents want an easy fix and the school district wants support for their way of thinking. Part of the reason the powers that be don’t listen to me is that I don’t always spout the party line. For other reasons we may look to the Bible and Matthew 13:57

And they were offended in him. But he said unto them, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.”

So why does this matter? I’m tired of people saying, “You’re the educational expert. You should have known what to do.” I know what to do, but too many times those involved don’t want to go along. What they really mean is, “You should have known to do something different which didn’t upset anyone or involve the parents.” Here’s an example:

The dreaded “N” word and the call home

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Working to Misunderstand: The Fire

10.27.15 Yes & NoFire

The fire alarm was sounding. Then the familiar voice of our Principal came over the P.A. system, “This is not a drill. This is not a drill. There is a fire in the the cafeteria so have your classes assemble by room 5 to avoid the fire and to stay out of the way of the firefighters.”

And we all left our classrooms in a safe, orderly fashion. NOT!

There are set guidelines for teachers to follow and the kids don’t really give a damn about my guidelines. They want to get out, check out the action and shoot the breeze with their friends. Seriously, who can blame them? But I always conducted myself with one eye to the future when I’d be sitting on the witness stand getting grilled by the D.A., “So tell the jury Mr. D., where were you when your student, that poor ignorant uh innocent child was being consumed by the flames? Didn’t you know where your students were? Didn’t you have control of your class?” Control of the class – there’s the rub. How do you control a kid who doesn’t want to be controlled without extreme behavioral management?

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School Is Funky

School is Funky - Boy Holding NoseClassroom management can be disrupted by the funky nature of kids.

Yes, school is funky!  Now, I’m not talking about funky as in the syncopated stylings of a James Brown or a Tower of Power.  No, no dear friends.  I’m talking about the kind of funky that leaves sticky fingerprints all over the place, or smells bad, or leaves unpleasant stains on your clothes.  Hey, we’re dealing with human life at school and life is messy.

I’m bringing it up here because too many reform initiatives and criticism of teachers don’t take this funky human element into account.  Sometimes we teachers have to dress for the occasion, which can make us look a bit unprofessional or unfashionable.  I was lucky to have worked with some very conscientious plant managers but even the cleanest school can be an incredible source of dirt and funk.  I’ve already written about the time I found black mold in a book cupboard.  But we also get dirty dealing with dusty books and shelves, crawling around on the floor plugging in computers, projectors and TVs, or just cleaning up after the hoards of youngsters who storm through our classrooms on a daily basis.  Please remember, it takes time and energy to deal with the funk.  In an effort to save time when dealing with some of it, I invented the ‘Gum Museum’.  But before I tell you about the ‘Gum Museum’, let me give you some human background (which you may already know about but maybe haven’t considered from a classroom management perspective).

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Every Child Can Learn?

7.28.14 Sax iStock_000028194066_SmallBlues singer Otis Spann once sang,

I tried to tell the city boy what to do,
But it looked like to me he just couldn’t learn.

‘…he just couldn’t learn.’  You might get away with saying that when singing the blues, but for teachers, we can never say a child can’t learn.  It’s considered giving up or politically incorrect (i.e. career suicide).  Just listen to politicians and highly paid administrators (most of whom have not spent much time in the classroom).  They’ll say with great confidence, “Every child can learn.”  What they don’t say (or won’t admit) is that although every child can learn, they might not learn what you want them to learn or they might not learn it as quickly as you want them to learn it (see what I wrote about Common Core).  To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, let me introduce you to Bennie.

Bennie was one of my darlings from the Special Ed. class I taught.

You may remember from an earlier post that I had taken a job as a long term substitute teacher for a Special Ed. class which was labeled ‘severely disabled’ (severe autism, Tourette’s syndrome, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and more).  These kids faced intense learning challenges.  I was teaching these adolescents things like: how to use a stove without burning themselves, how to use a public restroom safely, or how to count – very basic life skills.

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Don’t Shout! Oh Yeah?


“Hey Man.  You don’t have to shout!

“Oh Yeah?”

What do you think?  The vast majority of books and teacher trainings tell us don’t shout.  Shouting teaches shouting, not quiet compliance.  That’s fine philosophy but there are times when it seems counterintuitive.

Back when I first started teaching, I was given a most excellent book called Teaching Children Self-Discipline At Home And At School by Thomas Gordon, Ph. D. (author of the best-selling Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training).  In it, Gordon ‘shows why traditional disciplining doesn’t work at home or in the classroom, and how to change children’s behavior effectively using skills of cooperation instead.’  I agreed with everything he said until I got in front of a classroom and I crash landed on Planet Reality.  I still believe he is right.  I just believe there is more to it that is missing from his books – that’s one reason why I write.

Here’s what happened:

At home I’d read, ‘…children will use self-control to follow rules when they have been given the chance to join with adults in deciding what those rules should be.’  Then the next morning I’d get a call to substitute teach at some troubled school and wham!  Reality set in.

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English is Crazy

Maine Coon kitten and Labrador puppy on white background

I believe there is great benefit in learning to read, write, speak and understand English especially if you’re living in an English speaking country.  But my heart goes out to anybody who is trying to learn English as a second or third language.  English is a crazy language.  And if you really want to know how crazy English is, try teaching it!

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I Saved A Life!

RACHEL, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 10: In front of the Little A'Le'Inn on November 10, 2013. An old tow truck hoists a UFO at the Little A'Le'Inn, which draws tourists from across the worldTeachers shape lives.  Teachers change lives. I saved a life!

And sometimes, teachers even save lives.  This is one of those stories.  Now don’t get me wrong.  It’s not about anything noble like taking a bullet or rushing into a burning building.  Nope.  Sorry.  It’s not about the day to day influence we exert that comes back to us years later when a former student lovingly says, “You helped me.”  No.  This is a story of how dumb luck and my Captain Bligh routine literally saved a kid’s life!

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A Godfather Speech: Respect

TheGodfatherAlPacinoMarlonBrandoI had accepted a job in Musicians’ Hell.  I had just started working for the school district and was rather naive.  The job was band/orchestra instructor at a performing arts magnet middle school.  You’d think that such a job would be fun but…  It was late in the spring semester and I was the third band instructor these students had that year and I was as welcome as an evil stepfather in a dysfunctional family.

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