For an introvert, teaching can be exhausting. Every day, you are pouring out of yourself and into people. And not just any people, but young people, many of whom are uncertain and insecure.
At the beginning of each year, I especially struggle with teaching seventh grade. For the first three months of school, I feel that all I do is answer questions. The questions are incessant and unending. Kids are so unsure of what is the right thing to do, and they are hesitant to take a risk for fear of being wrong – or worse, different. “Is this right?” “Can you look at this?” “What should I do now?” “Is this right?” What they are really saying is, “Am I okay? Am I likable? Am I worthy?”
Last year, some of the middle school kids got mean. Though I never saw it in my classroom (I may have been oblivious), there were reports that kids were being laughed at when they answered a question incorrectly. They were being called names. As a result, our principal had to outlaw a particular word. It’s a word that, to most people, doesn’t mean much of anything, but to these middle schoolers, it was the equivalent of being called a “retard.”
The problem is that banning a word doesn’t fix the heart. It doesn’t heal the wound that was caused, and it doesn’t make mean kids nicer. It just makes them think of other ways to make fun of their classmates. I don’t understand why this happens. What benefit is there in making someone feel bad about themselves? What joy is there in hurting another’s feelings?
What is needed is a change in culture, but that’s tough. In a society where candidates for office attack people instead of ideas, when adults post cruel things online because of the feeling of anonymity that social media provides, how are children supposed to grow up with kind hearts? All these kids want is to know that it’s okay to be who they are, and if they aren’t sure about whether it is, then maybe the next best thing is to feel better than someone else.
I can’t change all of American culture. But maybe I can do something to change the culture in my classroom.
When I make up my classroom rules each year, I usually stick with four. (There are lots of policies, like how to turn in your work and whether gum and candy are allowed, but as far as rules go, there are just four.) In the past, those four rules have focused on respect. But when it comes down to it, I give out the rules at the beginning of the year, and I never go over them again. This year, I’m trying something different.
I recently read a book called Schools of FISH! Perhaps you’ve heard of the FISH! philosophy. It started when someone observed a Seattle fish market where the employees throw the fish around and generally have a fabulous time. Somebody identified some key concepts from that workplace, wrote a book about how to implement it in anywhere, and has (I imagine) subsequently make a killing by marketing the ideas, writing several more books, and developing a whole training session that you can purchase.
Good for him. I’m not going to buy his program (even the book I got for free), and really the ideas are simple. But the philosophy gives a set of terminology that gives you a way to talk about it. So this year, my four rules are going to follow the FISH! philosophy:
- Be There. Support each other. Reach out to each other. Be a friend.
- Play. Make learning fun. Try new things. Take a risk. Challenge yourself.
- Make Their Day. Do something to be a bright spot for someone.
- Choose Your Attitude. Even though you can’t choose your circumstances, you can choose how you react to them.
Not only am I going to use these as my rules, I’m going to have those concepts posted in my room. When we do our first little writing assignments, I’ll have them write about how they can embody these ideas, how they can exemplify them throughout the day, and how they’ve seen others use them. If I see kids being mean in my room, I’ll refer to the rules and ask them, “Are you being there for him when you say that?” Or when I see someone who looks sad, I’ll mention to another student, “She looks like she’s having a hard time. Why don’t you see how you can make her day?” When they try to do the bare minimum on an assignment, I’ll encourage them to play with the ideas to see how they can make it more fun and challenge themselves. And when they’re grumpy about taking notes or learning grammar, I’ll remind them to choose their attitudes.
I don’t know if this will work. And even if it does, I don’t know how much of a difference it will make. But if I can get 125 students to think this way, to look out for each other and embrace joy in life, maybe we’ll start to be on the right track.