A day late and a dollar short may be a familiar idiom, but it is the kiss of death in classroom management. Yesterday I was sitting in the rocking chair with seven children sitting in front of me beginning a lesson on, of all things, how precious they are. I was waiting for the room to quiet and was musing about the way wackamole is played. One at a time they squeaked and squawked, taking turns offending and making the requisite quiet elusive.
As I later reported the “what happened next”, I could remember only sitting patiently and watching with some bit of shock as Miles and Tommy in unison jumped up and towards each other to exchange blows. I was close and quick and the skirmish ended almost as quickly as it began, but I was left to wonder how it started. As the lead teacher asked, “what was the antecedent?” This is the important clue that may allow a proactive teacher to head off behaviors before the fists connect. I edit the sentence to add “may” because in truth the best teachers manage classrooms not control them, and the toxic myth of control is what leads to frustration and prevents the kind of management in which we can all thrive.
I know a bit about the myth because it is my fall back. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon and into the night wondering how I could have controlled the situation more forcefully. In fairness, I reasoned, the children need to feel the security of a safe adult clearly in charge. This is true, but only partially so.
Somewhere near dawn, in that morning hour when if wakened sleep is invariable elusive, I remembered a question shared when I began my work with the children. “Why are you there?” And dearly I hold the answer that also gradually came, “to listen”. To be sure I have a job description, a number of tasks, and a responsibility to my teammates, but the underlying sense of mission for me in this context is that of open-hearted presence. As the 4:00am hour turned to the 5:00am and sleep came and went, I found myself holding the call to listen.
What exactly was happening for Miles and for Tommy as I sat in the rocking chair listening to the classroom wackamole? As I turn back the tape and try to focus more clearly, I remember that one of them yelled at the other for talking, and the other yelled back about the yelling. That is the point where, had I been more mindful and in the moment, I might have simply walked to them and stood calmly between them. As I ponder their anxiety in the moments that lead up to their heated exchange and angry fists, I hear simply that: anxiety. A teacher sternly staring at them while wackamole played all around them added to the anxiety that they carried with them yesterday. Unintentionally but undeniably, I had added to the anxiety which is already too big for their tiny bodies.
A little less naive than I was even a few short weeks ago, I know that today will bring challenges of its own which may well include physical altercations that I wasn’t able to foresee and forestall. But what is clear, in the early morning calm, is that what I can bring worthy of the children is mindfulness. In the world in which the children live, drama is easy to come by and my instinct to drink lightly at the trough is probably wise. What is in short supply for all of us is serenity, the promised peace that passes understanding which comes only with attention in the now. This is mindfulness, and the children deserve my best effort to practice it.
Before I go, I will listen again to Thich Nhat Hanh inviting me to see the blueness of the sky. When I am with the children, I will practice seeing them more clearly and deeply. Practicing peace, we increase the peace in ourselves and those around us. This is the least I can do, that any of us can do.