“Good Morning Eric” I said. No response.
He signed himself in and took his seat. I heard no hello, saw a look of impatience, and caught a whiff of disdain. He clearly didn’t want to be in class, didn’t want to study, but did want to get a High School Equivalency Diploma.
If he only knew! I was his last remaining advocate in the program – he pushed everyone else away. I wonder if it would make any difference to him. My co-teacher wanted to send him packing – and in our program we could do just that saying “Enough! Goodbye!”
“Not yet” I cautioned. “Let’s see if we can get through another week with him in class.”
I wanted him to get his diploma and be able to move on to his next phase of life. Perhaps there he could learn to be civil.
It was clear to me how he inspired anger in his teachers (myself included). He seemed to feed on the contest and the friction. I didn’t know the reason for his behavior and at that point I didn’t feel a need to know. Eric’s behavior was not what would be called serious. His side-talk during class and pestering other students were not life-threatening but did need some response from teachers. His defiance of teachers and blatant disrespect could take infractions to the next level and warrant a timely response. One morning, the prior week, I had sent him home for the day for refusing to change his seat when directed. His choice was to move or leave. He left. He had been pushing a line (in the sand) and needed to find out where it lay; I showed him.
Working with angry students makes it easy to react with anger. This is actually a natural state for we human animals, thanks to something called Mirror Neurons. When someone smiles at us we typically experience a call to smile back. When a scowl comes our way we feel a scowl grow within us. Attack begets defense, a form of attack. Anger begets anger. Mirror neurons give us the inclination, but our actions are up to us.
That last statement is a strong one, and might be more of a goal than a fact; “Our actions are up to us”. In fact, we do need to determine our own actions, but the reality is that this is far more difficult than we might imagine. Looking at my interaction with Eric, for example, I could feel the bristle beginning at the nape of my neck, the rough comment arising in my chest looking for a voice. But I’ve dealt with far more challenging interactions than this and I’ve made a practice of weakening the anger-voice while strengthening a different voice, an intentional voice.
I was able to hold any action until I could bring some reason to bear. Instead of snarl for snarl or spit for spit as mirror neurons might have me do, I kept silent and simply went on to greet the other students arriving to class, beginning their day.
Part of the reason that I employed, the restraint that I championed (and voice that I cultivated), was prioritizing what this individual needed most. I am not against the possibility of expelling a student from school if this kind of shock would be his best lesson. A choice such as this is not something to be taken lightly, however. An understanding of the student and the situation are essential and the potential short and long-term results must be seriously considered. [In later writings we will explore ways to help develop strength in this facile-decision-making arena]
Many things can interfere with a reasoned approach in situations such as this:
-Even a small slight such as Eric’s can pull an angry reaction out of us, before a response can be formed.
-If I as a teacher am already in a bit of a “state” this morning, or am dealing with other issues, I might not have the energy needed to reasonably deal with such an attitude.
-Perhaps the most common interference to engaging with a reasonable approach is that we humans are prone to habit; habit that can prevent objective observation. Habit is a tremendous topic. Habit is ever-present in us in ways that we see as well as ways that are far below our radar. Habit can grossly and subtlety interfere with reason.
I have spoken of the importance of reason in this interaction with Eric. Yet a good measure of heart was present as well, even while anger scratched at me from inside. I cared what happened to him. This was not changed by his rude behavior toward me or by any negative emotions I might have been experiencing. Combining the intelligence of my heart and of my mind was the only way for me to move with clear vision. [Another large topic for later discussion]
Eric would have other hard lessons to learn in life – they didn’t all need to come from this program. My want reflected this. I wanted this student to have and to develop tools for success. I wanted Eric to go forward at least with a high-school diploma in his grasp, and maybe more. My responses to Eric could easily have followed a more typical path. I could have comfortably let inner reactions to his behaviors determine my actions. I chose differently, and I was able to do this through practice; practice at seeing with my mind and seeing with my heart and keeping an awareness of my body – all at the same time. Then I could be fully engaged in the moment and enjoy in-sight.
Eric was not a large problem, but if left to act on his own in class he could become a disruptive force. He could distract or disturb other students, continually take attention away for the class, or undermine teacher authority. Most teachers will have an Eric or few in their classroom careers. This is not uncommon. The task is to keep the problems small, or they will grow to gorilla size.
Eric went on, through us, to garner enough attendance and to pass preparatory hurdles to be signed-up for the final test to receive a diploma. He was smart enough to pass, I felt sure.
“Now can I tell him not to come back?” asked my co-teacher – when a potential couple of weeks remained to the semester.
“I have accomplished what I wanted” I said. “Fine with me”
She did tell him to leave, and explained why – without holding back. He seemed a bit taken aback, but left quietly, his welcome worn-out, pondering what he was told. Perhaps he did get to leave with a bit more than a high-school diploma after all.