* A dreadful prophecy

knife-376383_640Today’s local paper featured a senseless murder (is there any other kind?) in which one man stabbed an acquaintance during a bar fight.  Friends reported that they knew it was going to happen eventually.  The victim had led a troubled life, moving from school to school, with arrests for drug abuse and larceny.  His murderer’s family has asked for a psychiatric evaluation because their son may have stopped taking his prescription medication.  When friends found out about the murder, they signed and framed a shirt in the victim’s memory.  The victim’s off-and-on girlfriend added, “It was a senseless, careless, inconsiderate, and thoughtless thing that one man did to another man.”

Her words have been echoing throughout my mind all day.  Obviously she must be distraught, but “careless and inconsiderate” strike me as odd descriptors for murder.  Careless?  The killer pulled a knife out of his backpack and stabbed his acquaintance in the heart.

In my role as a teacher of kids with behavior and emotional disorders, I could have taught any of these people.  In fact, when I see headlines like those today, I check to see if they were former students.  I wonder if anything more could have been done for these poor souls.  I grew up in a life of senseless violence and also thought each day was my last.  I’m grateful that I’m not featured in that article, but also saddened that their prophecy was fulfilled.

* Crucial Conversations #5: Master my story

danger 2Master My Stories.  This is the most complex chapter in Crucial Conversations to date.  The authors describe a “path” that leads to healthy actions, which requires that I first accurately describe my actions and the emotions underlying those actions.  After that, I must identify the “story” I am telling myself to justify those feelings, then analyze what I actually saw and heard.

Here’s an example from my life.  As a resource teacher, I was serving a student who was identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder by a psychiatrist.  He had also experienced considerable psychological distress in his past, having been abandoned by his parents and subsequently adopted by his grandparents.  From the outset of my interventions with him, I successfully used strategies which are considered best practices for ASD kids.  He did relatively well for his first several years of school, but experienced gradually increasing anxiety related to relationships with others.  About this time, he was reevaluated and as a school-based committee, we had to decide on an appropriate label.  I became angry and defensive when it was suggested that he receive a label based on emotional disabilities instead of autism.  I heard secondhand that my principal was furious with me for arguing with the school psychologist in front of his family.

I had fallen into a trap described by the authors of Crucial Conversations.  I thought I felt angry; I did react defensively.  If I had been able to more accurately define my feelings, I would have seen fear and hurt.  Why?  I was telling myself a story something like this: “My work with this student is considered unsound.  My judgment is being unfairly criticized and a major assessment administered to this kid is just plain wrong.”  What evidence did I have to support my story?  Well, my work with him was praised and suggested that I had been on the right track.  The “gold standard” of ASD identification did not identify this student as autistic.  He did have a history of serious emotional problems.  The path I chose did not lead to any healthy conversations!  But I apologized to the school psychologist, who responded graciously.  We restarted our conversations and ended up with a primary label of Autism and a secondary label of Emotional Disturbance.  Live and learn!

* Sweet husband and fine wine

My first special education teaching experience was in a parochial school that served as home for emotionally disturbed youngsters who were wards of the state.  I had an older group of wild ones, but every class had an equal share of wildness.  These kids had been through the worst of the worst, and they were the worse for it.  Four of us were lay teachers and the rest were nun conscripts.  I had the dubious distinction of teaching in a classroom that was directly next to the principal’s office.  We were separated only by a wooden louvered door with sizable spaces between the slats.  I could hear the principal’s footsteps as she paced in her office, I could see her shadow as she placed her ear to the door.

I suppose I would have listened in, too, because each day was extremely difficult.  And not just for me.  I don’t recall many meetings and none of use dared to show how we really felt.  I saw tears quickly wiped away but heard calamity in every room.   Our one ritual as teachers was eating lunch together, a meal prepared by a small group of energetic but ancient nuns, bent and gnarled in their long robes.  Apparently they were going to live out their days in the convent associated with this school.  They were the only adults in the school who did not seem to live in fear for their lives.

I taught day-by-day, survived day-by-day.  Every day I struggled through a slightly different approach to managing my kids.  As soon as school was over, and my own evening classes were finished (I was going to school full time and teaching with a provisional license), I headed home in tears to my husband.  We shared a glass of wine and then I read.  I read everything that had been written about behavior management.  My husband brought me book after book on strategies.  And every night he told me, “I think this will work.  It’s getting better very day.”

I was not convinced.  The miserable kids in my class teetered on the brink of violence.  A door slammed down the hallway.  A lay teacher could be heard screaming and running out of the building.  The kids waited for my reaction and I said, “We are doing better every day.”  They all stared at me, which was a shock.  In reality, I probably had their attention because we were doing something DIFFERENT every day, not necessarily better.  I would try a new strategy and if it didn’t show immediate promise, it was tweaked after my glass of wine and my sweet husband’s encouragement.  I had never read so much research on behavior management in my life.  It was all I thought about, because my kids weren’t learning; they were arguing and seething and daring me to stop them.

One morning, another lay teacher passed me in the hall, trailed by her husband with his guitar.  He was her last hope for classroom control.  I listened to him sing and tried not to laugh with hysteria.  I knew it was not going to work:  She was gone the next day.  And so I went home and considered what small portion of my day had gone well and how I got there.  I had a glass of wine and read more books.  I talked to my sweet husband, who told me, “You’re getting there.  It’s getting better every day.”

I was finally the last lay teacher left in the school.  New conscripts had arrived, young and tense.  I was getting to know my kids by this time, as anxious as I was.  I was beginning to laugh with them.  I was beginning to sound like I had some authority.  I was interested in their tragic stories, their writing which gradually reflected who they were.  They were doing school work.  Somehow we became a community.  We moved furniture and made the room our own, even if all the other rooms were defined by rows of desks.  We broke every unspoken tradition of that school in our room, right under the listening ear of the principal.  It was actually better every day.  We made it to the end, with truces, and skits, and poetry, and desks scattered to the four winds.