It has been two days since a black unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer here in Madison. 15 minutes from my house. He went to the high school across my street. For the past two days, we have checked the news, watched the protests unfold, and searched for answers much like the rest of the country. This is not a post on what happened, because I do not know. But in the past two days I have been inherently aware that we live in a country that solves its problems with force. That we keep ending up in situations where unarmed children are being killed because that is the resort we go to. As the teen’s grandmother shouted to the police, “Why not just tase him?”
We see it in our schools as well; the escalation of punishment and force when a child, according to us, gets angrier. When a child loses control and reacts in a negative way, we take away the rest of their control to show them that we mean business. They lose all power over their day and then we wonder why they get angrier rather than just give in. When a child comes to us angry, we assume more will follow and we prepare plans for what to do when that anger comes, not plans for how to keep it at bay. We live in a society that punishes rather than investigates.
I have had the angry children in my classroom. I have had the kids with the file, with the police records. With the outbursts that scared me. I have had the child who threw a table across the room when another child called him a name. I have had the child where parents didn’t want their child in the same room, afraid of what would happen. I get it; fear is a powerful emotion, and when it comes to being fearful for our own safety or that of others, it becomes critical that we react.
Yet it is within our reaction that we must pause. If a child is angry or violent, we must ask why? We must dig for answers until something is uncovered. Yes, start the plans, but start the investigation at the same time. Relationship and trust has to be our first line of defense, not excessive force. Not assuming that the worst will happen, thus waiting for it to happen, and then not being surprised when it does. If we look at an angry child and expect anger, we will find it. If we look at a child that may become out of control, they will. Our mindset is what has to change, even if it means pausing before reacting. We have to stop our line of escalating punishments if they are not solving the problem.
So with all of my angry students, I had the showdowns. I didn’t always call for the principal, and perhaps I should have, but instead I stood my ground and asked questions; why are you doing this? Why is this your reaction? How can I help? I even cracked a joke or two. And it wasn’t a miracle, these children did not change overnight, they still got angry, they still threw chairs, but at least sometimes I knew why and I could work on that. Yes, there were consequences, but they were ones that made sense; speaking to the counselor or the psychologist, working through it with me, parents getting involved, teams put in place. Not suspension, not detention, not always.
For the past 5 years I have tried to give power back to my students. I have asked them what they need in our classrooms to learn. I have listened and tried to provide a classroom that they felt in control over, where there was room for them, where they didn’t have to escalate to get what they needed. I have moved away from my own instant judgment and punishment as much as possible. It has been hard. My gut reaction has often been to punish, yet I knew that long-term it would not help the child but only grow the problem. I am not alone, other educators have been doing this for years, so how do we do it as a nation? How do we move away from more and more force being used, from creating more angry children who end up becoming angry adults? What can we change? And what can we change right now?
PS: I don’t know what prompted the officer to shoot Tony, I don’t know if there was anger. The post is simply the train of thoughts that were prompted based on what my community is going through.
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.