Wednesday, July 29, 2015

That One Sheep

Once upon a time Jesus told a story about a band of sheep. (Did you know that a large herd, or several herds together, are called a band? Google told me.) There were goats in the pastureland, too, apparently, but this particular story had to do primarily with the sheep. One hundred (or so) sheep.

(Did you know there are more breeds of sheep in the world than any other livestock except for poultry? And that there are more than 50 breeds of sheep in the US alone? (Google told me that, too.))

The sheep (and goats) grazed in a large, rich and rolling pastureland, acres and acres and acres filled with grasses and clover, gently flowing streams and shady areas to rest. Wilderness surrounded the pastureland, rocky desert wastelands and brooding forests and looming mountains where the wolves and mountain lions roamed, where the rattlesnakes hid.

The grassy pastureland was originally inhabited by several indigenous breeds, such as the Old Norwegian Sheep, but they were gradually pushed into the wilderness and surrounding mountains. As these native breeds faced extinction, more economically influential breeds like the Merino took over the pastureland. The adaptability, foraging instincts and value of these Merino-related breeds quickly centered them as the most populous breeds in the band. There were other breeds too, of course, hair sheep like the Pelibuey and mutton or milk sheep like the Zwartbles, but these sheep only comprised 15 percent and 10 percent of the band, respectively.

The majority of the sheep thrived in these pasturelands. The Merinos, especially, flourished. Life wasn't all sunshine and clover, of course, they faced the occasional drought and were sometimes hassled by biting flies or a scarcity of favorite grass, but mostly they grazed in comfort.

As the Merino-breeds and the goats grew more prosperous the rams began to scuffle for position, driving the smaller less populous breeds of sheep and goats to the margins of the range, closer to the wilderness where the wolves preyed and the mountain lions pounced. Harassed and helpless, these sheep often fell victim to hunger, disease and predators. Occasionally an intrepid sheepdog would, on the shepherd's directive, spread the Merino herds in order to shift the Zwartbles and the Pelibueys and the Old Norwegians and the others back into the lush pastureland, away from danger. But wooly sheep tend to be unthinking creatures driven by habit, and goats surprisingly territorial, so soon the Merinos (and the goats) once again consumed the lush pastureland, with only the hardiest animals from the smaller breeds defending their place in the pasture.

One morning the shepherd, counting his sheep, realized that one of the sheep who grazed on the margins was missing. He sent a sheepdog after it, but the sheepdog returned beaten and bedraggled. He sent another sheepdog, but this dog lost his way and took up with a pack of wolves. Finally the shepherd, fearing the worst, set off into the wilderness with his staff and sling.

And when he found the lost sheep, he joyfully put it on his shoulders and went home, rejoicing -- Luke 15:5-6

The shepherd loved all his sheep, but it was the one in danger who needed his immediate attention.


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