Kids and trouble

Declan got in trouble in school again. This isn’t new. He hangs out with the principal so much he doesn’t know principals are supposed to scare kids despite the fact you spell “principal” with a “p-a-l.” If I ask him, he’ll tell me the principal gets his lunch, holds the door open, says good morning, and lets kids back in after fire drills.

I’ve worked with little kids before, but my own son’s a tough nugget. I’ve taught large classes without one child escaping. I’ve taught the student you want to clone, the unfocused kid, a couple who really wanted to kill people, and a twelve-year old college undergraduate trying to get her phys ed credit in my martial arts class. I’ve kept them all in line. Classroom management is an art. There are books on the subject where every class runs like clockwork and the hypothetical bad class fixes itself by the end of the chapter. Done well, running a class looks like a Hollywood education victory movie.

I don’t always do it right.

As a high school teacher, I see a lot of school haters. Lets face it–school’s boring, or so kids say. School haters often get into trouble when forced to stay in the place they hate most for seven hours. They do stupid things.

Elementary teachers say things like “That wasn’t a good decision,” and “You’re making poor choices.” My kids would burn me at the stake. It’d work as well as “I’m really disappointed in you.” Try saying that to a teen. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Find a random teen doing something idiotic–shouldn’t be too hard–and say you’re disappointed in their decisions.

Scientific research shows you’ll get 1% to say “You’re right, I’m sorry.” That’s your future social worker or Catholic saint. 49 1/2% will give you the blank stare. These are your politicians. The remainder will wrinkle their eyebrows and shoot a “Who the f cares” laser right between your eyes. Those are the entrepreneurs.

High school students require creative correction to stay on the right path. Declan can’t wait to be a teen. “I’m gonna say bad words and spray paint all over things like teenagers do.” Society needs to work hard to nip this in the bud.

I never say “Are you really that stupid?” I don’t believe any kid is stupid. I believe video games and phone radiation rewired their neurons to the point they can’t pull up their pants past their butt cracks when they dress. These teens need help.

When kids do stupid things, it’s inherent upon us, the adults, to react.  It must be an instantaneous response, because kids sense weakness like a Great White senses a single molecule of blood in the ocean. If you’re not careful, you’ll be Jaws 5: The Unnecessary Sequel.

In teen world, there are little offenses and big offenses. A little offense might be the “f” word. While this would stop the universe in an elementary setting or even a private school, in the public high school, it gets The Evil Eye or perhaps “Language alert!” If I wrote a slip for every curse I heard, saving the rainforest would’ve been a nonissue my first year. A big offense–crime or disrespect against another–is in a different league and handled swiftly without mercy.

I once spoke with a principal at a small private religious school. She said she was grateful she didn’t have to deal with discipline because it let her do things like lead the school. I asked her to give examples of discipline issues she’d handled. At first, she refused. She said she didn’t want me to laugh. One kid said “damn” and another threw a sandwich out the window. That’s wasteful. Both were serious offenses and never happened again.

Crime and Punishment

Punishment is an art, a craft. If I’ve previously warned an offender about the “f” word, for example, I give a choice between “writing one-hundred good ‘f’ words, like ‘family’ and ‘fun'” or writing a paper on the history of the “f” word, which is actually quite interesting.  If a student throws something, I allow the individual to make restitution by choosing to clean papers off the floor for a few days or writing a long essay about recycling.

Detention is silly. It doesn’t change behavior. I don’t give them. “Why would I want to punish myself because you can’t behave?” Some students need extra attention. I give that 1:1 time for positive reasons, like feedback on classwork or a human-to-human conversation about life. If adult-kid interactions are a bank account, I want to keep the balance positive while still getting my “don’t cross the line” across clearly.

Sometimes it’s easier to correct behavior as a teacher than a parent. I’m not sure why. I caught myself telling Declan, “I’ll tell your teacher you’re not behaving!” It works.

“Wait a minute…” my brain said. “You’re a teacher. Where are your parental discipline cojones?” 

Parents will use any tools we can get. Teachers need to invent tools.

Use your inner torture chamber

Is it bad to think of medieval torture chambers when considering ways to fix kids? My English teacher friend said, “Don’t make them write reflective essays for punishment. Writing is something that should be enjoyed. You’ll make them hate it.” I only heard the last part of that sentence.

“They’ll hate it? Good.” I noted this on my List of Terror. “Then they’ll never do it again.” I’ll be honest. I have a file in my drawer where I kept a few of the classic mea culpa assignments I’ll treasure forever. It’s right next to the “You’re an awesome teacher” file which I love equally as much.

This weekend, though, I had to step up to the plate and discipline my son. Crying, screaming, and wailing ruins my Saturday.  Taking away electronics makes him play Legos, which he enjoys. I decided he’d take the road of restitution.

He reflected on his misuse of the bathroom at school and made his first instructional video, “The Correct Way to Use Manners in the Bathroom.” It took three tries. the first time he dropped a Lego in the toilet and cried. The second time he used the word “butt” rudely, and the third time he got it right. I don’t know if it punished him, but it amused me. That’s really the goal. Noting his track record, this’ll probably be the first in a helpful series.

I’ll tell you if it works. Parents and teachers are on the same team. Our kids are out to defeat us. It’s our duty to share all the info we can find. The best tools get the message across without making the adults suffer too badly.

Dostoyevsky would be proud. Enjoy!