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Becoming an Unteacher: Do the Unexpected

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I had the pleasure of seeing Jeremy K. Macdonald’s  Soiree of Slides at the Instructional Technology Strategies Conference this past weekend . . . a beautiful five minutes.

His message was that as teachers, we learn to do the expected.  Students are supposed to behave within the norms and rules of school.  Teachers enforce those norms and rules.  When students break those norms and rules, teachers discipline the students.  But, maybe, just maybe, the student had a “good” reason for doing so and maybe, just maybe, teachers should do the unexpected rather than enforce.  Maybe, they should “do” caring instead.

Jeremy’s Follow-Up

Jeremy reported what happened next via his blog post #Unexpected.  Here is an excerpt:

My student was at school today. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to approach the situation and my plan for a book drive. She met me in the principal’s office. I asked the school counselor to be there as well.  We began to talk. I asked her about the recent events. We discussed her thought process over the past several months and what had happened to so many books. Her answer was simple. She didn’t know. She was not sure why she took the books other than that she wanted to read them. She talked about taking books that she thought her two year-old sister would like to hear or books that she could share with her neighbors. As the conversation went on I could see in her eyes that she really did not know what she had done was “wrong”; that the currency she had used to buy social interactions was not earned but stolen.

My heart broke again. This time, however, it was because I knew my reaction was the right one. Her eyes grew larger and brighter as I explained what her new responsibility would be in light of this situation. She said things like, “I’ve never done that before.” and “I get to be in-charge?”, and “I wonder who else would want to help.” So starting Monday, she will head our community book drive and organize a book-trade in which anyone can take or leave a book.

As I stood up to hug this little girl my eyes met the teary eyes of our school counselor. Just moments before this meeting, she had asked the usual questions regarding punishments, detentions, and possible suspension for stealing. The unexpectedness of it all was more than she anticipated. She then saw what I saw — a little girl that already lived in a world of turmoil and confusion. Today was our opportunity to bring her out of that world, if only for a moment, and empower her instead of the expected belittling we so often justify.

My Own Doing the Unexpected: A Peak Experience

I had a similar experience with 8 year old Sherry a while back.  To this day, I view it as a peak experience in my life.

Sherry was a tough little third grader in my counseling group at a local elementary school.  Sherry had to be a tough cookie – as she was a witness to her sister being shot and killed by a drug dealer.  Other kids in my counseling group had similar stories – one’s mom was found dead in a ditch . . . tough situations, tough kids, tough behaviors.  Sherry would be suspended three times during her third grade year due to defiant behavior.  I had to use a behavior modification system (which I personally abhor) to check in with them every 10 minutes because of acting out behaviors. But who could blame them?  . . . such horrible situations in their short lives.  As the principal stated, “These third graders have experienced more trauma in their young lives then I will experience in my whole lifetime.” 

Sherry loved coming to the group, but was especially defiant this day – I wasn’t feeling so patient, tolerant, or compassionate on this day.  So with a brush-off wave of my hand I said, “Sherry – just go back to class.”  With head down, she returned to her class.  The group met the last period of each Tuesday.  I would send the kids to their respective buses after that.  Sherry did not take the bus, walked home from the school. After school on this day, Sherry returned to my meeting area– staying shyly on the periphery as I straightened up.  I made eye contact with her and she moved ever so slowly towards me like the boy and the fox in The Little Prince

I was ready to make the adult-in-charge-type-statement.  As I knew Sherry loved the group time, I was about to say, “If you learn to behave yourself, you would be allowed to stay in the group.”  I opened my mouth and these words come out instead, “I missed you today.  You are very special to me.”  With her big black eyes (even bigger at that moment) staring intensely at me, she stated, “I don’t feel very special.”  And this kid, who never cried, had a few big teardrops flow from her eyes.  I said, with eyes that were probably as big, black, and intense as hers at that moment, “Well, you are very special to me.”  And big teardrops rolled from my eyes. This was a peak experience for me, an experience that can only be explained as one heart purely touching another heart.  No more was said – Sherry’s behavior was fine for the rest of the year.

I did the unexpected . . . I didn’t expect it, Sherry didn’t expect it.  It changed me.  I became an unteacher on this day.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 22, 2012 at 11:16 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing all of this. The unexpected is what will truly engage our students. Once we become predictable, we’ve limited learning. It is a vulnerable moment, however, when one choose to do the unexpected in an effort to make a great impact. Thank you for sharing such a special moment.

  2. Thanks for sharing this moment with us. My opinion is that the expected brings boredom, and boredom lowers students’attention – I know it is difficult but it is worth trying!

    adartee

    February 23, 2012 at 4:25 pm

  3. ah.. so lovely Jackie. thanks to both you and Jeremy for sharing..

    I think we’re getting closer to what the flipped classroom needs to be.

    teachers deliberately not teaching.
    people (everyone) owning their learning.

    relationship at the core.

    monika hardy

    February 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm

  4. What a reminder that as a angela says, we are all special. It is our job to find out how special others are.

    mrsdurff

    March 3, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    • Nice, Durff – thanks!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      March 3, 2012 at 11:26 pm

  5. great story, im crying now,

    ian

    March 14, 2012 at 3:01 am


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