Sunday, September 2, 2012
It was the first day of class - September something, nineteen ninety something. Seventh grade core - reading, writing, social studies. I had big dreams for all that these thirty boys and girls would accomplish that year. I knew that for those dreams to be actualized I had to convince these 12 and 13 year olds that they needn't worry for even a minute that anyone in this classroom would ever roll their eyes from the back of the room or snicker from a side desk at their efforts.
I talked to them about the one thing I cared about the most - a respectful classroom - and specifically, INTENT VS IMPACT. I could see them try to stay with me. I talked about put-downs and teasing. I acknowledged that many of the TV sitcoms they laughed at or the movies they loved were full of those 'funny put-downs'. But that we were not going to do that in this classroom.
"You mean we can't even tell a joke?" one student asked.
I told them I was sure that they would never INTEND to hurt anyone with their words or actions or jokes, but that yes, at least until we all really understood and embraced this and knew each other a whole lot better, we would be VERY careful with our words and our actions because we could never be totally sure what the IMPACT of that joke or tease might be.
I could tell some were skeptical.
We moved on to reading. I asked if anyone had read a good book over the summer. Hands went up.
"Where the Red Fern Grows."
"Witch on Blackbird Pond."
Then I called on a smiling and confident girl near the back who had come in with a friend she now sat near. Just before she could respond, her friend called out, "She read the Berenstain Bears." Most of the students erupted in laughter. I don't know if I missed a class-wide teachable moment or not, but I chose to ignore his remark and let her give her answer. We moved on to a class assignment and I went to my desk while they worked. Soon I called both of them over to my desk and told them of my concern about his remark in light of our Intent vs Impact agreement. She quickly defended him saying what a good friend he was and that his remark didn't bother her one bit. And he said that he teases her all the time. I assured them I guessed that was the case so I really was not concerned about the impact of that tease on her as much as I was thinking about its possible impact on other students in the classroom....perhaps a student who was new and didn't know anyone and was trying to find the courage to raise her hand to share the summer book she had read, OR perhaps there was a student in our class who had read a Berenstain Bears book because that was his or her reading level.
Every September after that whether teaching middle schoolers or high schoolers, I used that story to illustrate INTENT VS IMPACT. And when we would get a new student in our midst partway through a year or a semester, I would introduce them and then ask the class to do a brief review of our classroom philosophy. Inevitably, they would tell the Berenstain Bears story.
So as this new school year arrives, I am grateful for those two students who gave me that example, and I am grateful to Stan and Jan Berenstain for those quirky and fun-filled Berenstain Bears books and I am grateful for all the wonderful and gifted educators who are starting out a new year with their own dreams.
And I am especially grateful for every educator that takes a chunk of time during that first week or month of school to set a tone of respect and caring in his or her classroom.....
and then bird-dogs the heck out of it.