Thursday, March 17, 2005

Keeping My Cool

"zzzz..zzzz..ZZZZ... DING!" The third floor bell on the west end of the corridor issued its anemic warning. The latest repair had reduced the authoritative ring to a sound that could only be described as a bastardized hybrid, the illegitimate offspring of schoolbell and alarm clock buzzer.

"Hurry up you guys!"
I called to three ninth graders gathered at a locker outside my classroom.
"Shawn, If I didn't know better I would think you had no destination." The tall boy turned, grinned, and began a slow trot toward my classroom door. His friends began a slower saunter in the opposite direction.

"Yeow!!!...What the?...You bitch!"
The sound of a scuffle grabbed my attention and brought me quickly inside the art studio just in time to see three chairs fly across the room. One after another they crashed against wall, floor, and table-top. Students jumped out of the way, hands over heads, ducking for cover.

Launching the attack, was a pretty 15 year old girl, still a tom-boy, tall and athletic. Very hyperactive. One of the type of students my colleagues call "The kids who make us EARN our salaries".

Shaking my head I called to her. "Come here, hon'"

She looked up, smiled and reached for another chair.

"No...Put that down. Come here please. You know we just can't be throwing chairs across the room at each other. Come over here, honey."

Shooting a backward glance to her still cowering classmates, she ambled over to my desk.

"What is going on?" I asked quietly.

"He knocked my bottle out of my hand!" she shouted, and started to laugh.

"She dumped water down my back!" came the response from the middle of the room. Her victim was a bright serious student who normally kept to himself, concentrating on his assignments.

"You need to step into the hall. I can't have you in my classroom today. I am going to call security, and you will have to go to the office. Stand right here hon' and wait for the security guard."
My voice was low, the tone somewhat conversational, almost casual.

When my attention returned to the other students, to my great pleasure and surprise, they were all at their tables working, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

While filling out the office referral form, I marveled at my own response to the situation, and how I've changed over the years.
As a rookie, I often felt the need to assert my authority. A loud clipped voice, occasional yelling, and flashes of anger were the means of gaining control. Losing my temper could always get the students attention.
It also let the class know that they could rattle my cage. That was lot's of fun...For them.
As my career progressed I've come to understand that adding negative energy to a situation only makes it take more time to diffuse. Over time, I've learned to keep my cool.
Would I be called unflappable?...Hardly.
Patient?...With teenagers, definitely.
With adults who should know better, definitely not!

But, I'm working on it.


Mary Beth said...

Well done! Truly the great hand of experience there.

Where I work we practice something called Fearless Feedback and in fact we received training on this along with all the product info etc when we were first hired. It means briefly that you can address concerns to anyone above or below you, without fear or anger. It means that after 4 years of working with most of the same people I started with, I have no long simmering problems. And most of us are still there.

I say this only to preface a similar experience to yours - a very LOUD, yelling kind of person. She felt she was not being helped which wasn't exactly true, but as I laid out what we could and couldn't help with she just kept yelling. Finally I quietly said - you know - you really need to stop yelling at me. Oh, she protested - I'm not yelling. I'm just loud. Well, I said, it seems to me like you're yelling and if you want any help at all, you need to talk in a normal tone to me. And she did. If she hadn't I would have given her one more chance. Afterwards I thought - wow - that could have escalated into something ugly. But by being direct and honest - moderate success. AND I didn't feel abused by her. That was really cool.

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