Build­ing trust with black, ur­ban kids

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Michael Mead­ows Michael Mead­ows is a mid­dle school Ital­ian teacher in the Hy­attsville and Green­belt Mid­dle Schools in Prince Ge­orge’s County Pub­lic Schools and a Teach Plus Teach­ing Pol­icy Fel­low. His email is michael.mead­ows@pgcps.org.

Ev­ery time I read about a mur­der of a young black man or woman, it hits me hard. I teach in a mostly mi­nor­ity school in Prince Ge­orge’s County, and I worry that some­day one of the kids in my class­room might be the next statis­tic. And when calls go out for more col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­ni­ties in which they work, I won­der why the teach­ers in those same com­mu­ni­ties are not called on to help too.

I think this be­cause teach­ers in ur­ban mi­nor­ity schools and the po­lice are work­ing with the same black youth. Teach­ers like me reg­u­larly han­dle the threat of vi­o­lence at work — and we need to use class­room man­age­ment strate­gies that both main­tain or­der and re­spect stu­dent rights.

Early in my ca­reer, I came upon a 7th-grade black boy who was re­peat­edly kick­ing a locked door while his class­mates egged him on. Their teacher had just stepped a few feet away to look for a key. I asked what was go­ing on, and al­most im­me­di­ately the boy, whom I’ll call “Shawn,” and I got into a shout­ing match. “What are you do­ing here? Go mind your own [ex­ple­tive] business,” he yelled. I yelled back. Later, I found out that Shawn got sus­pended for dis­re­spect­ing me.

I know now that I could have done things dif­fer­ently. Shawn had a dif­fi­cult home life; I made things worse by re­act­ing with hos­til­ity to his bad be­hav­ior. In­stead of al­low­ing the sit­u­a­tion to es­ca­late, I could have ap­plied the best class­room man­age­ment prac­tices I’ve learned af­ter teach­ing for eight years. Shawn wouldn’t have been sus­pended. He would have learned to trust me as a guardian of his wel­fare and safety. So what do teach­ers know that can help? First, it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that poverty has just as much of an im­pact on stu­dent be­hav­ior as it does on a child’s abil­ity to suc­ceed in school or so­ci­ety at large. A child’s mo­tives for act­ing out are in­cred­i­bly com­plex and too dif­fi­cult to process in the heat of the mo­ment.

Se­cond, teach­ers know that their own be­hav­ior largely de­ter­mines how a child will re­spond. If I want a stu­dent to calm dow­nand lis­ten to me, no mat­ter how tense the sit­u­a­tion, I need to demon­strate that same calm­ness and abil­ity to lis­ten.

And third, teach­ers have to fol­low up for mu­tual un­der­stand­ing af­ter ev­ery in­ci­dent. Par­ent con­tact is crit­i­cal, and I al­ways need to re­mem­ber that even if chil­dren can’t of­fer a good ex­pla­na­tion for their ac­tions, they de­serve to hear mine so our fu­ture in­ter­ac­tions can be­come more pre­dictable.

This last point is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant be­cause re­search shows that strug­gling stu­dents don’t see a con­nec­tion be­tween their ac­tions and be­hav­ioral-aca­demic out­comes. In other words, we need to teach chil­dren, es­pe­cially poor chil­dren, that they have the abil­ity to in­flu­ence events in their lives and in the lives of others. This means that the lion’s share of a teacher’s work with dis­rup­tive stu­dents comes on the back end, help­ing chil­dren to un­der­stand the con­se­quences of their be­hav­ior, whether pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. The real work that teach­ers do is not sim­ply a mat­ter of stop­ping bad be­hav­ior when it hap­pens. It’s all that we do af­ter an in­ci­dent that makes the dif­fer­ence in a child’s life.

Oneof mysixth-grade stu­dents was a black girl who con­sis­tently did good work, but she also over­re­acted to even the most min­i­mal cor­rec­tive ac­tion. Her mother and I fre­quently dis­cussed her be­hav­ior over the phone, and I al­ways have to re­mem­ber that no mat­ter the dis­re­spect or dis­tur­bance, the girl’s be­hav­ior is al­most never per­sonal or ever meant to be threat­en­ing. On any given day, she could have been bul­lied, she could miss her fa­ther, or she could just be hun­gry. So each time she has an out­burst, I strive to show her that I can re­main calm and that my re­sponse to what­ever she’s done will be en­tirely pre­dictable.

When it comes to black chil­dren, we — teach­ers and po­lice — are the adults. It’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to think and act ju­di­ciously, even when a de­vel­op­ing young mind is strug­gling or con­fused. That is why we need to find ways to put the pro­fes­sional knowl­edge and per­sonal con­nec­tions of teach­ers to greater use in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. Be­cause if we are ever go­ing to put a stop­per in the school-to-prison pipe­line, teach­ers and po­lice who are work­ing with the same kids need to be on the same page.

Even though Shawn got sus­pended at the end of our ter­ri­ble in­ter­ac­tion, he found it within him­self to apol­o­gize to me at the end of the day. But I was the lucky one; I had an­other chance to make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in Shawn’s life. I had a chance to show him that I was re­ally there to help. I want the same op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery other teacher and po­lice of­fi­cer who works in our com­mu­nity and across the coun­try.

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