A few months ago I began working as a substitute teacher/ aide at a few local school districts, in part because I had taken a new job that I immediately knew was not a good fit for me so I left and was therefore unemployed, and partly because I have decided to go back to school to get my master’s in education. It has been interesting to observe how things are done across the three districts I currently teach in; I see many things that give me hope, as well as many things that make me scratch my head.
Probably the oddest thing is to leave the school at the end of the day and feel like I am returning to some other world. Schools are very self-contained, so I think that is part of it. A few years ago, I also attended a training about helping build bridges, figuratively, for people living in generational poverty that taught about the mentality of folks who have grown up that way. As background, I grew up upper lower class and the area I come from is poverty-stricken.
One thing the poverty workshop opened my eyes to was the fact that schools operate with a middle-class mentality. I had never contemplated this idea before. Now that I am working in the schools, I feel it every day, especially once I hit the back roads to commute home. As I drive, I pass rusty pickup trucks, tractors hauling loaded manure spreaders, and many run-down trailers surrounded by enough lawn ornaments to make someone on Hoarder’s weep. This is not to say that any of these things are bad – or even necessarily signify poverty: I have family members who are farmers and live way better than I do! I grew up in a double-wide trailer and going into any trailer gives me a warm feeling of home. However, what I am driving at is that when I am leaving school with that middle-class mindset and going back out into the world, it seems somehow out of tune with the other.
It also makes me wonder where some of these kids come from. During the day, I don’t look at any child as Auggie in Wonder does and makes a judgement about them based on their shoes: trust fund, second hand, crazy… But when I get back into my car to head home, almost every day I think to myself that I have probably just taught the child of someone who has made as much money this year as I will make in my lifetime. Or I taught some kid who’s parents are in jail and now lives in a foster home. And I probably taught many children in-between.
But none of that matters. That’s always my last thought. I don’t sit and try to piece out who had money and who didn’t because it doesn’t matter. What matters was whether I effectively helped that child learn something that day and if I helped them in a positive way to becoming the person that they are developing into. I mean “a person is a person, no matter how small,” (Dr. Seuss), but children are still growing and learning and becoming, so I ask myself if I made a positive contribution to that ‘becoming.’
In striving to make a positive contribution to the self-development of these children, especially in the very short time of 6 hours, it is essential that I meet them where they are. It is not hard to know within a few hours which kids are struggling, which have problems with attention. I try to hone in on these kids and make a positive connection with them, often by working with them one-on-one for a bit. I try to make a personal connection with them based on their interests. I’m guessing that some of the kids I have met have learning disabilities, but all have impressed me with some well thought out response made during the day – every single time! As a sub, I find connecting with these kids often makes my day go easier. It can help gain respect as well as head off unwanted attention-seeking behavior. Working closely with kids that have a hard time sitting still or focusing also gives them something to focus on and they become too busy or engaged to cause disruptions.
What disturbs me most is the judgments of the adults working with these children, usually about the child’s parent and/or the lack of parenting. In a few short months, I have heard judgments based on past homeschoolers, was told a kid has no future because of his family, was told a kid was a delinquent, and numerous times just told that the parents are bad parents.
I refuse to pass judgement. I went through a really, really, really hard time in my life a few years ago and you just never know what people are going through. Poverty, addiction, domestic violence, lack of resources, medical issues, learning disabilities, and so much more afflict kids and families these days. They also have to live with the choices their parents make about parenting styles, schooling, business, and personal life. In no way do I want to imply that families living on a low income are not properly supporting their children – nor is that to imply that families living in middle class conditions are the gold standard either. I also do not wish to imply that families living with the challenges listed above are not supporting our children, rather I wish to illustrate the fact that looking in from the outside, we just never know what individual families are facing.
Adults make choices that impact their children, that is how it is. When a child comes to school, besides mandated reporting, the best that we can do is to meet that child where they are and work with what we have. Judging decisions a family has or is making about a child doesn’t do that child any good. A person is allowed their personal opinions, however to best support a child in their education and personal development, the best – and really the only – thing that can be done is to meet them right where they are.
I’m not saying this is easy. It takes extra work to make connections with people in 6 hours. It means individualizing lesson plans that need all 20 kids to understand the material quickly. It is exhausting. However, on my first day of actually subbing as a teacher, there was a boy who was loud, rolling on the floor, etc. It was the last day to turn in work – and the teacher wasn’t present! I sat with this boy while the rest of the class worked. He was behind, of course. But with some individualized attention, he whipped out 4 pages of work, and to the best of my knowledge, they looked like they were correctly done. As he was in a different homeroom, he came by later to wave at me before we all left for the day. The kid who’s other teacher made him stay in from recess connected with me because I met him where he was that day and saw him as more than a boy who was fidgety and unable to stop talking. I don’t know anything about this boy than what we experienced in the class room that one day. I don’t know if his father is mayor or if he lives on food stamps – and I don’t care. I care that he had a positive experience with me and I look forward to seeing him again.
Meeting kids where they are doesn’t just apply to schools and working with children that are not your own, it totally applies to your own kids. When was the last time that you stepped back and thought about who your children are and where they are at emotionally and mentally? A three-year-old can sometimes pick up after themselves, but expecting this behavior perfectly done and without reminders all of the time is expecting something outside of the ability of a child that young. For a child that is older and acting out, are the standards that are being set actually within reach for that child’s developmental stage? Is the child able to achieve success in appropriate challenges to learn self-confidence? If not, attitude and behavior will go down hill. Self-discipline is a muscle that is developed over time, encouraging kids to exercise it results in personal growth, but expecting kids to achieve it consistently will result in disappointment. Meet your child where they are – something that may change every day, or even every hour – and help him to grow in the positive. And get rid of the judgement. Kids are being judged every day when they go to school. Do your’s a favor and keep home judgement-free so they have a safe place to become and grow.
I’m sure that you have heard the term ‘Namaste,’ which is commonly said at the close of a yoga session. It is actually a Hindi greeting that is sometimes translated as, “The divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.” (From the Chopra Center.) I like to think of it as, “The light in me sees the light in you.” Wow. Wow! What if we said that to each other every day? What if we said that to our children every day? The light that shines in me recognizes the light that shines in you. I see you. I see you for who you are. The real, authentic me sees the real, authentic you. We all need that. Our children need that. Let us recognize their light and let us meet them where they are because no one wants to feel judged; being judged shunts growth and makes positive “becoming” difficult.