Isn’t that weird? Even I have always thought that was weird, but it’s an odd little fact. When I’m angry or frustrated or irritated or just plain mad at you, I’m going to go out and buy you a present. Especially if you’re name is Chris and we have been married for eight years. But I’ll do it for other people, too.
I think I used to do it subconsciously. I’d be mad at Chris in college for some stupid fight, and I’d find myself in a Hallmark store, picking up a funny little figurine or a sappy romance card. But a couple years later when I actually noticed my weird habit, I realized that going out and buying a present or doing something nice for someone I was angry with helped defuse my anger. It’s hard to be mad when you’re buying hot pink boxer shorts with French poodles on them for your boyfriend.
Over the years, I’ve continued to use this little trick to help me get over things. Frustrated with my kids? I take them somewhere fun for a treat. Fed up with my husband? I pick up his favorite beer and surprise him with his favorite dinner. Irritated with a friend? I bake some cookies for them. (Except you, Sarah Lee… Your cookies are never anger cookies!) It’s therapeutic for me. Though, I’m not quite sure what a real therapist would say about my habit. Something about repressed anger, I’m sure. But I’ll think about that tomorrow.
Anyway, I have this one class at school that has driven me crazy all year. It is a huge class with 27 students, 13 of which are special education kids, and 1 co-teacher who helps me out that period. The class size alone is staggering. Throw in some ESE kids, and it’s a party. Add in some behavior issues on top of that, a few emotionally disturbed kids (those are the ones who hit people…), and a handful of over-eager learners who sometimes demand more attention than those with special needs, and you’ve got yourself a headache before the class period even begins.
I’ve been racking my brain with how to deal with these kids. Truth be told and as frustrating as it is, these kinds of classes can be my favorite. Such a challenge, yes. But it’s 10 times as rewarding when they are the ones who succeed or master a new skill. However, on a daily basis, I run out of ideas for how to manage them. I’ve tried using bells and whistles to teach them, good old fashion note-taking, art projects, literature groups, small group learning. We’ve even split the group in half and physically taken half of them to another classroom with the co-teacher to see if we could teach them better that way. Some of it works. Most of it doesn’t. At the end of the day, it is discipline that is the issue. I’m not a yeller, but I have to be in this class to speak over them and keep them focused. And so by the time the class period is over, I hang my head and think, “What the hell just happened?”
I was completely fed up one day last week. Completely, over the top, could-not-go-on anymore fed up. I came home and was up all night long thinking of what I was going to do. Short of calling their mama’s right there in the middle of class, I was out of ideas.
So, I decided that’s what I’d do. I’d call their mama’s, their daddy’s, their grandma’s, their aunts, uncles, and cousins. I would call them all until my students realized their behavior had to change. Now, I call parents quite often. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve called just about every parent of every child in this one particular class, but this time I wanted the student to be there and I wanted them to do it right on the spot at the time of the incident.
I went into class the next day and before I began my instruction, I told my students that I would be making three phone calls home that day in the middle of class. It was up to them whether they were good phone calls, or bad ones. But at three different times during class that day, I might ask one of them to go call their parents or guardians on the phone at my desk and I was going to talk to them right there with the entire class.
They stared at me with mouths hanging open for about 45 seconds. Which, incidentally, is the longest period of quiet I’ve had in that class all year long.
And so, I went on teaching. I gave my lesson, gave them their assignments, broke them up into their groups, and turned them loose to work while I walked around and helped. And then I saw my first phone call. One of the male students who had not done ANYTHING that school year actually (gasp!) PICKED UP HIS PENCIL AND WROTE SOMETHING!!! I almost had a heart attack.
I stopped where I was working with another group and yelled out over the class, “JOHN! YOU’RE DOING YOUR CLASSWORK! OH MY GOODNESS, BOY! GO CALL YOUR MAMA AND LET ME TELL HER HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU!”
John froze. The class froze. It was silent in that room.
“Go on,” I said casually, as I bent back over to help another student. “Dial 9 and the area code first.”
“You…um… Want me to call my mom?”
“Yep,” I said, continuing to help a different group. “Just tell me when she’s on the phone.”
“Like, right now? You want me to call her right now?”
“YES, JOHN! Good Lord, go pick up that phone!”
At this point, no one knew what to do. Some of them snickered nervously. Some of them sat silently. Some of them whispered back and forth between each other. And I know what they were thinking. How could I call JOHN’S parents and tell them how good he was? John was the laziest kid in class! But eventually, he went over and called his mom.
“It’s ringing!” he shouted to me.
“Oh, good!” I said, and I jumped across the room. The entire class was staring at us while I asked John what his mom’s last name was so I knew how to address her. Finally, Momma John answered.
“Hi, may I speak with Mrs. Smith?” (snickers from the class) “Oh, hi there, Mrs. Smith. My name is Katie and I am John’s language arts teacher. I am actually standing right here with John and his entire language arts class. Everybody say hello to John’s mom!”
And I turned the phone so the whole class could yell out, “HI!”
“I just wanted to let you know, Mrs. Smith, that John is having a great day in my class. He is working really hard and he’s contributing to his group’s assignments. I’m just really impressed with him today, and I thought you’d like to know. You should be very proud of him. I know I am!”
And that was it. That’s all I had to say. I thought Mrs. Smith was going to die of shock. She just kept stammering, “Well, that’s fantastic! That’s just fantastic!”
I got off the phone right after that, and turned to see a completely BEAMING John and a classroom full of laughing, happy students.
I made two more good phone calls that day. And every day since then, I’ve made one phone call home to someone who was working especially hard that period. It’s become a really quick process now. The students know that when I say, “Hey, go call someone!” that they get to go call their parent or guardian and that I’m going to brag on them for a minute or two. They know that they get to be part of someone else’s phone call, too, by saying hi to the parents. For a few calls, they’ve even given rounds of applause during the call. But it never takes more than a minute or two and then they go right back to work.
Now, I can’t say that this has fixed all the problems with that class. There are still rowdy days and days when they leave that I feel like collapsing. But it has made a difference. An extreme difference. In fact, today, one of my students told me I needed to call another student’s mom because he was being so helpful. Now they are ratting out each other’s good behavior!
More than changing the students, though, it has changed my entire outlook about that class. I know that no matter how frustrating things get, I’m never more than a phone call away from everyone being in a better mood. And it makes me feel GOOD. These are not the kids who get good phone calls home. They are the ones who are suspended and failing and struggling to get by. To make a good phone call for them takes me 1 or 2 minutes, but it makes their entire day! How good does that feel?!?!
And I’ll tell you something else. Just like when I buy presents for people I am mad at, making nice phone calls about students who drive me crazy forces me to notice the good. When you’re talking to a parent with the student standing there looking at you, you have to find the good. You have to celebrate that sunshine in there because let’s be honest, it’s not really about the parent. It’s about what the student hears me say.
It’s about realizing that, yes, my own children may pitch temper tantrums. And, yes, my husband may forget to call when he’s going to be home late. And, yes, some of my students make me want to pull my hair out by the handfuls. But I still care about them. I still love them. They are still important to me. And sometimes when I’m angry and I can’t quite get those words out, it’s a little gift or plate of cookies or a phone call home to parents that help me keep my perspective.
All student and parent names have been changed. So that I don’t lose my job. The end.