Diplomacy in learning

Recently, there have been dust-ups in my place of employ. Students get into issues with one another, with adults, with the cafeteria staff, with inanimate objects…

It’s winter. And winter in Vermont is brutal.

I grew up with winter in Kansas. I was right on the Colorado border. We got snow. We had lots of blizzards. But this unending cold is inhumane.

I know Vermonters love their winters. They are pretty.

But there was a reason I moved to Florida…

I don’t know about you, but my diplomacy skills run thin, even with my own children–or maybe especially with my own children–when the weather is cold and the days are short. My temper seems to run wild without me.

And if you are a student from warm climes, maybe it would affect you, too, trudging through snow when you never used to wear even a jacket. Wearing all these clothes when you are used to living in flipflops. Freezing all the time in apartments lacking adequate heat. And tending an adolescent mind on top of that.

Our reactions to “bad behavior” at my school tend to be the same as they were for me (I graduated from high school in the 1980s), and for my parents (1940s). Skip school, you stay after. Skip after-school punishment, get pulled out of class for a day.

Add to this:

  • a climate lightyears away from your own,
  • a language that is not very friendly or easy to master, very unlike the one you grew up with,
  • people who don’t understand you and don’t really try to (both peers and those who are supposed to be educating you),
  • a society that doesn’t really “get” you and makes assumptions because of your dress, your hair, your music

I’d be upset. Wouldn’t you?

But we as a community are not really trying to figure out the real problems. Little issues become pretty big pretty fast, mostly because of bad communication and an assertion that “my way or the highway” is the right way to make children learn.

The problem is that not all our students are children dealing with children’s problems. Not all our children are from happy middle-class homes where people love them and care about where they are. Some are expecting children. Some need jobs to help parents pay the mounting bills. And some are simply misunderstood. Again. And again. And again.

So what can we do? We can try to understand them culturally. We can try to reach out and make sure that we are making connections to our students in our classrooms.

Think about this for a minute: If two students are having troubles, which side do you take? Why? Is it because you sympathize more with one? Could you try to have empathy for the other? If one is loud, do you automatically side with the quiet one? Do you know what the home life is like for the students standing in front of you? Do you have any idea that he works every weekend night until 11:45, including Sunday? Is that why he is sleeping? Do you know that she is expecting a baby in July? Do you know that this student’s parents are not really able to care for him? That one’s mother is stuck in immigration issues? This one has no money for boots? That one’s brother just went to jail? This one misses school to take care of siblings sick at home. That one leaves school to become the adult at home so the parents can work third shift? That one just had a car accident and can’t pay for repairs? Or even understand why he got tickets for the accident in the first place?

I began to realize my students’ lives were a little different than mine (I was blissfully oblivious my first six years teaching…) when I asked my students if they helped out at home. This adorable second-grader tells me that she washes dishes and cleans, and she is learning to cook, too. At the time, I would not let my daughter anywhere near the stove. And any cleaning she did would just have to be done over.

“I’m good at cleaning, Ms. Beth.”

“Really? I’m not very good at it.”

“Oh, you just give me a little time. I can make your kitchen SHINE!” And then she smiled a smile that melted my heart.

We as a society–I know my daughters’ friends, and their moms also are not making them work–do not expect even as much as our parents expected of us. I used to do dishes. I used to mop the floor. I used to have to vacuum. My kids don’t. We tried to teach them. They were pretty bad at it and whined a lot. So we don’t really hold them to anything other than cleaning their rooms.

But it’s not the same for my students.

So here’s my little contribution. I’ve sent the video above out to teachers in my district. Let’s see what waves I can make…

Maybe I need to go practice my mindfulness.

I think I’m a little angry.

And that’s OK.

Recognize it.

Breathe… Then…

Do something.


As a postscript, my colleague pointed out to me that Friday was the end of the month. For some of our students, this may mean they are at the end of their rations. Food shortages also can cause shortage of patience. And understanding.

So as you move forward, know these bodies in front of you have more going on that you know.

And have a little compassion.


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