In my previous post, I focused on the myth of music: enhancing learning and having “Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” We had need of something in my school during breakfast in the cafeteria. This situation illustrates the effects of expectations and stress on both students and teachers, as well underlying racial stereotyping. Our breakfast crisis vividly illustrated Mariale Hardiman’s comment: “Setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.”
That breakfast chaos affected everyone in school, but especially those students who rode bus 317. Bus 317 was packed with our lowest performing students, primarily black kids (and some Hispanic students), who were placed in a school of mostly upper-class whites (teachers and kids). Virtually all of bus 317’s kids qualified for free and reduced lunch. When these kids got off the bus, they literally ran to the cafeteria and continued to run amok. Breakfast was bedlam and as the kids left the cafeteria, now splattered with food and debris, they bolted down the hallways. There were conflicts at every corner, physical fights erupting, and teachers trying in vain to settle the kids once they got to their classrooms.
The first attempted solution was to provide more consistent teacher and assistant rotation for breakfast duty by scheduling a week’s breakfast duty at a time (instead of daily rotations). Classroom teachers were exempt, since they needed to greet their own students. That meant all specialists and assistants were assigned cafeteria duty. On paper, I suppose this might have worked. but most adults were either scared of entering the cafeteria or were determined to prove they could control “those” kids. Here are some salient points:
- The kids from bus 317 had already reached a breaking point, as far as stress was concerned: They felt threatened (unwelcome, different-poor and black, and overly powerful) and responded in a predictable way to this “unsafe” environment, all in accordance with brain-based research.
- The behavior of these students had become habitual and appeared overwhelming to them, other students, and adults.
- Teachers and assistants who had breakfast duty did not know most of the kids.
- Few people wanted to have breakfast duty; a couple of teachers paid others to take their rotations.
When I served in the cafeteria, my “partner” almost never showed up for more than one day of the week, even with varying “partners.” However, this time I spent alone in the cafeteria gave me a glimpse of a solution. And my experience in managing behavior certainly helped. Even so, I never made more than a dent in the situation.
The next major attempt to stem the rising tide of chaos was to set up morning duty at pivotal locations along all the hallways. This proved unsuccessful, so ALL non-classroom teachers were required to stand outside their classroom space and monitor the roaming and conflicts which punctuated the start of the day. By the time this group got to their classes, they were late, the other kids were apprehensive at their arrival, and they faced consequences related to fighting, disrespectful behavior, and tardiness.
Of course, we discussed this growing crisis at faculty meetings but I felt that the HEART of the problem was never really addressed. The chaos had to do with the hearts of students and teachers, or in brain-friendly language, “emotional states.” Did we truly value these kids or were we as threatened by them as they were by us? Could we imagine their fears as they boarded the school bus, not looking like most of the school and finding themselves trapped in a cycle of misbehavior? I do not believe that ANY child comes to school wanting to fail.
The “final” solution to the growing problem was announced at a faculty meeting, greeted by cheers and an almost universal sense of relief: two teacher assistants, one black and one white, would take over breakfast duty. They would play soothing music. A principal intern would provide support. The other administrators would regularly monitor the cafeteria. With a collective sigh, the problem was handed over to these brave souls.
Want to know what happened? Check out Part Two!