Be the change, being a teacher

Lessons from the “Bad” Kids

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“I think of the children who make trouble at school as miner’s canaries.  I want us to imagine their behaviors – which are admittedly disruptive, hypervisible, and problematic – as both the loud sound of their suffering and a signal cry to the rest of us that there is poison in our shared air…”

These words from Carla Shalaby’s phenomenal book Troublemakers have haunted me since I read them.  I think I have shared these words with other educators more than anything I have ever shared from a book.  This book is a book that will influence my teaching for years to come.

The image of these kids that so desperately need school to work for them as the canaries is one that I cannot get past.  Is one that we all need to unpack.  What if we saw their behavior as an alert to how our schools are not working, rather than think that they do not work in our schools?  What if we treated each high flyer, each challenging kid, as what they are – spotlights on what we are actually asking kids to do all day; sit still, comply, listen, only do what we tell them to and then realize that just perhaps this is not what every child needs.

What if we unpack our own values and not the ones we claim we have, after all, I have yet to meet an educator who says that making children hate school is part of their job description, but the ones that our actions show us we have.  Who do we listen to?  Who do we praise?  Who do we give positive attention to?  Who do we highlight as valued members of our classroom?  And who do we not?  These actions speak louder than the things we say we value.

And I speak from my own history; for several years, I wielded exclusion and public shaming as my primary tool of control.  So what if other students saw kids move their sticks or put their name on the board, after all, they had been there to witness the behaviors.  So what if the same kids were sent out of the room; to think, to take a break, to go to the principal’s office.  So what if the same kids were “otherized” every time they failed.  Every time they screwed up.  Every time they weren’t “good” students.  They would just have to learn how to adapt, how to fit the mold of school, how to fit “our” classroom and not the other way around.

A few years in, I realized what I was doing.  How I was part of the problem of schools failing kids, how public shame has no place within our classrooms, how exclusion is often the worst long-term solution because it isn’t really a solution at all.  How relationship, giving students power and giving them a way to speak their truths was what I needed to pursue instead, even if it meant more time, more work, and yes, more frustration at not having a quick answer.

Within that revelation I had to uncover a hard truth; that I was the reason that some kids were otherized.  As I was writing Passionate Learners, a book focused on how we change the way we teach to give control back to our students, I asked my students, “How do you know who the “bad” kids are?”  Their answer shook me to the core.

“The teachers tell us…”

So simple and yet so hard to digest.

We, the adults in the room, are the arrows that point out the bad kids.  Are the magnifying lenses.  Are the ones that show that it is okay to exclude others.  That it is okay to police others who step out of line.  That there is such a thing as “good” kids and “bad” kids.

And that is something that needs to change.  We can do better.  We must do better.

So as I prepare for our students to come to school, I think of what I need to do to ensure there are no “bad” kids in our room.  That all kids are truly valued.  That all kids get what they need.  Lofty?  Sure, but it shouldn’t be.  It should be the right of every child to be seen as a valued member of our schools, even if they make their presence known loudly.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the “Bad” Kids”

  1. I’ll never forget about 10 years ago my son had two Lukes in his kindergarten class. One was nicknamed “Bad Luke.” I asked him how he knew the one was “Bad Luke” and he said the kids called him that because the teacher was always yelling at him and sending him out of the room. This little boy was 5 years old and I can’t imagine him liking school much after that. How sad for Luke and all of the kids being influenced to call him that. We had a long talk and thankfully my son saw that he shouldn’t call a classmate names.

  2. I hear you loud and clear on these issues. My question is, how can teachers be helped to re route themselves and still successfully handle/ teach the rest. Teachers are so confined as to what they can and can not do in the classroom. Do you have some workable solutions to offer? It’s all well and good to acknowledge the existence of the problem but the acknowledgement only bears power when solution is implemented

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