Monday, June 29, 2015

The Meanest Generation

On Thursday, June 18, the day after the shootings at Emanuel AME church, I attended a seminar with Malcolm Smith titled "The Meanest Generation: Teaching Empathy and Compassion to Defeat Bullying." Teaching empathy and reducing bullying is a big part of my job as an elementary guidance counselor, and I was excited to hear what the director of Courage to Care had to say.

The date of the seminar is significant because Dr. Smith is  on a crisis team that responds to mass shootings, and has done considerable research on school shooters. So while he was in Louisville for this conference, he had been on the phone all night with the crisis care first responders. And when he spoke with us, a roomful of Kentucky educators, at 8:30 the next morning, his exhortation that we STOP THE HATE by instilling compassion in our students reached fever pitch.

He shared his own story of being victimized by bullies - of being moved from a caring, one-room schoolhouse in walking distance of his ranch to a consolidated school 90 minutes away as a sophomore and being beaten and bloodied by the school's seniors while teachers shrugged it off as a rite of passage. He shared his story of being labeled as a special education kid (because he had given up) and of the merciless teasing the SPED kids endured. He shared his story of the one friend who believed in him, stood up for him, and, unbeknownst to him, completed the application and wrote the essay that got him into college. Where he became a special education teacher and then a professor of education so that kids under his influence would never endure what he had endured.

We discussed the definition of bullying:
1. Intent to harm.
2. Interferes with one's civil rights. (We discussed this in the context of the right to an education free from fear, but there was additional post-seminar discussion about what characterizes civil rights in America.)
3. Imbalance of power.

This is the same definition of bullying we use at our school. Understanding the definition - knowing what is and is not bullying - helps us to know how to discipline. Is the kid sitting next to you who WON'T STOP making faces and annoying noises bullying you or is he socially immature?* Are the girls who won't let you play at recess unless you wear a particular brand of headband bullying you or are they just being fashion-conscious girly-girls?**

The imbalance of power element drew a lot of discussion. The power may be real or perceived, and may involve gender, culture, race, social class, etcetera.

The seminar and discussions meshed beautifully with the connection, compassion, safety and discipline (teaching not punishment) that we continue to refine and attempt to implement at school.

But it also tagged into conversations and articles and tweets and Facebook posts that have popped up over the last week and a half. What is free speech versus hate speech? Is the Confederate flag a symbol of heritage or hate? Are we "speaking the truth in love" or are we intolerant bigots? The definition of bullying provides a good benchmark in answering those questions.

(Full disclosure, I believe the Confederate flags as symbols fit all three criteria and as such should hang in a museum where we learn, contemplate and repent of our racist history rather than on public, government grounds. I also believe that people should have the freedom to wear, display, fly the flag on their own persons or private property, and I encourage them to do so prominently so I know with whom I'm dealing.)

Dr. Smith reiterated that victim safety must be paramount and outlined a four-step process for disciplining bullies, one that we also use in our school. Before returning to class, activity, etcetera
1. The student must take responsibility for his/her behavior and explain why it was wrong.
2. The student must be able to discuss and/or act out alternative behaviors that he/she could have used.
3. The student must try to understand the victim's point of view and feelings (empathy).
4. The student must atone or make amends. Saying "Sorry" isn't enough.

What if we, in our adult dealings and interactions and laws and decisions and Facebook posts did the same?

*the annoying face-making kid is socially immature, not bullying, because there is no intent nor is there a power imbalance.
**the headband clique is bullying because there is intent to exclude, interference of an emotionally safe educational environment, and a social/class power imbalance

Thursday, June 11, 2015

True but also False

I was always that weird kid who preferred essay questions to multiple choice or true-false. Essays provided an opportunity to synthesize and analyze the information; to expound and explain. (Also, if I didn't really know the answer, I was also pretty good at writing my way around the question and hopefully earning a few points for effort.)

True/false questions kind of make me twitch. Because exceptions. And unless the question is worded precisely (and let's face it, question writers, especially, it seems, in math, tend to write ambiguous questions), then the most accurate answer might mostly be true but also sometimes false.

There is a narrative pushing around social media and certain news sites in response to recent events along the lines of "Come on, parents! This is the problem - parents today refuse to be parents and teach their children respect for authority or hold them accountable for their actions."

Which is true - one of great and moral mandates for parents is to teach their children respect and responsibility.

But also false. So false it makes my stomach hurt.

I had a conversation this weekend with a woman whose friend is struggling with her 13-year-old daughter. Struggling to the point of wondering if her only option is to call the police in order to have her child committed. Her daughter needs some intense and specialized therapy for a brutal combination of anxiety and ADHD and puberty. They have tried everything, are trying everything. But intense and specialized therapy, supports for both the mom and the daughter, are expensive and not available in her community. They family struggles to get by. They don't have the money for a three-hour-round trip to the nearest treatment facility that charges $120.00 an hour (not including the psychiatric appointments - that's extra) for therapy that will take months if not years.

Her school doesn't have the funding to help - the school psychologist is underpaid and overworked.

Her church doesn't know how to help - they are not equipped. Really they just want her to obey the Bible. At least the "be good" parts.

Some children easily learn to respect authority and to take responsibility. My firstborn was a breeze. (Mostly. She did still go through the threes. And the thirteens. But mostly.) I'd like to take all the credit and crow right along with the "blame the parent" narrative that if I can raise a respectful and responsible child, EVERYONE should be able to do so.

That would be a tiny part true. My husband and I had a bit to do with her upbringing. But it would also be so, so false. Because SO MUCH MORE went into shaping her life and her choices: Healthy, neurotypical, born into a safe and loving home, solidly middle class with no worries about where her next meal is coming from, health insurance that allows doctor visits and medicine and mental health services as needed, great friends and schools and communities who encourage and support her, extracurricular activities to build her interests and talents, NO TRAUMA.

I don't speak for all parents, by any means, but I'm going to anyway. Some children and some situations eschew the parents' ability to "just teach them respect." Trauma, fear, poverty, racism, family dysfunction, community dysfunction, lack of resources, etcetera upend any notion of "just teach them respect." Those proclamations make those of us who managed to raise respectful, responsible children feel better, of course, but it doesn't change anything for those in need of support. It doesn't help. Most parents really are doing their best with the resources that they have available. Some aren't, of course, that's just the nature of living in a free society. But even if a parent is doing a horrible job, pointing our fingers doesn't help that child.

What if we supported each other instead of shaking fingers? What if the next time we meet a mouthy, defiant, disobedient, aggressive, anxious child we avoid clucking our disapproval and instead offer our love? What if we followed the words of Rich Mullins:
"My friends ain't the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will ~ I will be my brother's keeper."