I knew from the first week of school that Tina would be an influential force in the classroom community. When she was focused, she was hyper focused--she has the kind of mind that can read the teacher’s thoughts and give the teacher the kind of answer she is ‘looking for’. She is eloquent and athletic, outgoing and pretty. She listens carefully to her classmates and can adjust her answer based on what she’s learned from them. At age 5, her power in fostering a healthy classroom matches mine.
On the first day of school, Tina stood on the edge of a rug with her arms swinging wildly like an amusement park ride. I told her to hold her arms still to her sides and she said no. I brought my eyes level to hers, and lowered my tone, repeating the directions sternly and slowly. This time, she covered her face with her hands and shook her head from side to side. In common language, she was being "defiant".
Tina immediately was flagged in my mind. A kindergarten student who says “no” to the first one-on-one direction they receive from the teacher is an anomaly. Her dangerous body movements, combined with her disregard for authority, made me nervous on that hot day in early September. My suspicions were confirmed later. She hit students if they had a marker she wanted to use, or pushed them in line to be funny. Within the first week of school, she was a whirlwind in a nascent classroom culture. At the same time, I noticed moments when she tried to help students by telling them what to do. I noticed that this behavior was often a form of power--not only could Tina be labeled as “defiant", she could also be called “bossy”. Other students would become nervous when she ordered them. But I decided that I would spin her behavior into the positive. If she wanted to be bossy and tell kids what to do, I would teach her to do it in a way that was constructive and gentle.
Fast-forward three months, and the class is lined up outside the classroom, ready to start the day. I hear a sound and look over to see that Tiara’s (FTP in blue) face is contorted, tears imminent. Tiara is holding up her finger and I can’t tell whether she is physically hurt because someone stepped on her finger, or she is in an emotional paralysis because someone cut in front of her in line. Before I can say anything, Tina has stepped out of line and is walking Tiara to our classroom oasis. I continue leading the kids with our morning greeting routine, shaking all of their hands and guiding them through calendar questions on the rug. Within 3 minutes, I see that Tiara is calm, and ask Tina and Tiara to join us again in the circle. The interaction required no more than 3 sentences on my part, the rest of the kids did not lose their morning routine, and Tiara and Tina were removed from the group for less than 3 minutes. Through this interaction, Tiara calmed down and Tina was empowered. And I stayed calm because I didn’t have to interact with a crying child, for which I have low patience. Thanks to Tina, everyone in the community, myself included, was able to complete a relatively uninterrupted morning routine.
The class worked for an entire week on understanding and practicing how they can take care of one another. We brainstormed strategies they can use, and then posted these throughout the room. Some included: asking “Do you need help?”; bringing someone away from the group and helping them take 10 breaths; asking them if they want a hug. Many students are quick to express compassion and help another with the strategies we have brainstormed.
On my end, I reinforce and maintain this culture by choosing when I redirect an individual, and when I redirect an individual along with those who were around her. For example, if a student at a table is off task and not following directions, I may first redirect the student, but may then redirect the people at the student’s table, reminding them that they are responsible for their teammates and suggesting that next time they remind their teammate. If a student is waiting at dismissal without her coat on, first I remind her that it is not wise to go outside without a coat in the cold, but then tell the people around her that it is their job to take care of their teammates, and to help someone who doesn’t have a coat. If a student has a thumb in his mouth, I tell him that he needs to think and realize that this behavior will get him sick, but then remind the whole class that if they see someone in the community being self-destructive, they need to take care of one another and tell each other to take their fingers out of their mouth. Often my group redirect has a more urgent tone than my individual redirect of the off task student. Tina has thrived in this culture where students are responsible first for themselves but, very quickly after, for one another as well. She follows community norms so she can then be the one to enforce them.
Tina had, and perhaps still has, the potential to be destructive--in my eyes, in the eyes of the other students, and most long lasting, in her own eyes. If a kid thinks you think they’re “bad”, they will fulfill that prophecy. Just like academics, student meets the behavioral expectations the teacher sets for them, both on the floor and at the ceiling. Tina has become a pillar of my classroom culture. Children cry in my class perhaps 10 times a week. On average, I only have to interact with 1 of those criers, because 9 times out of 10 Tina or another student sees and goes to the student before I do, and dries their tears almost instantly (it usually would take me much longer than an instant to calm a crying child).
There was a day earlier this fall, when Tina had slapped the hand of a gentle boy who sat at the same table as her because she wanted the paper he had; moments after I reminded her to use her words if she was frustrated. I remember going up to the principal and saying, “I don’t know what I am going to do with Tina.” Now I would say, “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.