Blog: Milestones

Awkward.

8 Oct 2019

Awkward.

Want to know awkward? Sitting in a circle of teenagers, asking them to pass a "talking piece" around while they share their thoughts upon completing their first full week of school. I went first to model what one might say in this loud silence. "Well, I'm new to the building too, so I'm feeling pretty nervous that I'm going to make a mistake. I don't know where things are, so I feel like I look lost. I definitely feel like everyone is noticing me because I am new, which I'd rather not happen." I had explained to these students—some who were friends, many who were not, and a few who really don't care for each other at all—that we'd need to trust one another to maintain confidence if this plan to be a support for one another was going to work.

The REACH Alternative Learning Community that is being piloted at my high school includes a REACH period where I lead students through a circle each day, help them organize to go home, and offer a listening ear as they debrief their days. The circles have been going pretty well, growing less and less weird. I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about the vulnerability that I'm asking these students to have, and I've realized that it is perhaps the single most complicated dilemma in education. Hear me out.

When students don't know how to do things, there aren't good structures in place to allow them to get help. Think about it. How many times have you asked, "Does everyone understand? Any questions?" I've done this. I do this. I'm trying to stop. Why? Because I'm coming to realize that we ask students to do what is fundamentally impossible for vulnerable children: admit, in front of their peers, that they are "other."

We are, by asking them this type of question, expecting them to shed their self-consciousness, their self-doubt, and their armor and ask for help. Unless we deliberately create safe spaces where we model vulnerability and provide an actual community for students, we are never going to see students ask for help amongst the judgmental adolescents around them.

If, on the other hand, we create communities where students know each other, support each other, and value risk-taking without fear of failure, then we just might overcome this dilemma.

Have you ever asked a student, "How are you?" and they respond, "Crappy" or "Awful"? Did you offer a platitude like, "That's too bad" or "Sorry to hear that" or "Tomorrow will be better"? I have. I do. But, I'm trying to stop. If we ask the question, we need to be honored when students open the door for us to find out what is really going on with them, but most of the time, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons, we don't really take their invitation.

If, on the other hand, we were to ask a follow-up question, offer the student a chance to talk with a counselor, or simply listen to them, relationships will develop that allow us to become that caring adult who can impact the course of their lives.

But it's awkward. The fact is, as adults, we aren't very good at being vulnerable either. I don't know about you, but I've sure as heck acted like I knew what was going on (just this past week, in fact) when I definitely didn't. I've responded to someone asking how I am with "Not so great, actually," hoping that they might inquire just a little bit so I could unburden myself, and when they say, "Join the crowd" or "TGIF" instead of saying, "Oh no. What's going on?" I'm disappointed.

As adults who can have such an influence on children, and indeed do have that impact whether we are intentional or not, we have an amazing opportunity to model the vulnerability that will make us better communities. But wow, it is awkward. How do you forge relationships with students and encourage community, especially with those who aren't as willing? Share your thoughts in the comments, follow me on Twitter (@MsAmberChandler) and use #AMLE. Hint: this is another way to practice intentional vulnerability!


Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, a recipient of the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year award, and author of the AMLE/Routledge book The Flexible SEL Classroom. In this blog, Amber examines milestones that make teaching in the middle a truly unique experience, and shares ideas from middle level educators that ensure we reach every student, no matter what it takes. < blog home