Running Toward Trouble

I’m a duck and cover kind of person. I don’t like anything that brings anxiety—arguments or roller coasters or financial risk. And I took this way of thinking into the classroom. In my first years of teaching I ignored, when I could, a rolling eye, a dirty word carved into the desk, an insolent tone, a child whose eyes showed something was wrong, a terse note from a parent, the raised eyebrow of an administrator.

I soon learned, though, that trouble doesn’t go away. Eye rolling, for example, can evolve to swaggering and then to disrespect and defiance. Not following up on the terseness in a note results in a tense parent-teacher conference. And the longer a student’s eyes looked haunted the further behind that student fell in classwork.

So I took tentative steps toward resolving problems earlier. But not with much skill. For one thing, I used too much teacherese—the jargon tossed around for so long by so many teachers that students, especially by the time they get to middle school, take as a kind of background music that they really don’t like. In those first years of teaching, I called parents to make statements, not to ask questions, and I referred students to guidance counselors and principals without talking with them first.

I found it easier to run toward trouble after I developed this set of skills to take with me:

  • Come out from behind the desk. The longer I was a teacher, the less I talked like one. I found myself depending more on relationship than on role. I didn’t sit behind my desk at a parent-teacher conferences, and in the classroom I drew up a stool beside a student’s desk to talk about an issue. I tried to send the message to parents and to students that we were two people, sitting with a dilemma, looking for a solution.
  • Take good news. Hope helps, I discovered. Hope brings the energy to find a way out of a problem. It helps people reach out to others instead of isolating themselves. It gives the courage to take one small step . . . and then another.

  “Here’s an idea,” I liked to say. Or, “Here’s something good I see.” Or, “What do you       think about this?”

  • Seek information. With students, I had only a one-sided look, the view from the classroom. I saw kids in one dimension. But parents had a fuller picture. And so did the students, themselves. The more I talked, I came to see, the less new understanding I gained. Questions brought valuable information to the table.

Procrastinating grows problems. And, although trouble still daunted me, I found running toward it much easier and more pleasant when I used these approaches.

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