Outsmarting the Troll

There’s a troll living in my classroom.  I’ve never seen him, but I know at night he sneaks out and steals students’ homework right out of their desks.  Sometimes he pulls it right out of their books!  But he doesn’t just mess with the students; he’s also been known to take my important papers and hide them – or eat them – right before somebody asks me for them.

We’ve had to take steps to foil this evil creature.  Every year I ask my students how many of them have had homework mysteriously disappear.  I then explain that I have solved the mystery and tell them about that diabolical troll.  “Aha!”  they exclaim, and,  “I knew it all along!”  I confess that I have suffered at the hands of the troll, too, which is why I never let them put assignments into my hands.  Instead, all assignments go into my One Hundred Percent Troll-Proof Homework Box (which lives on top of my little refrigerator).

I then tell them the best part – they, too, can keep their papers safe in the Troll-Proof box!  If, for example, they have an ongoing assignment like DOL (Daily Oral Language), and they’re afraid the troll will steal it before they need it again, they are welcome to stow it safely in an empty folder in the box, instead of hiding it in a book or binder.

I then explain my problem with object permanence:  I can carry something into a room, set it down, and it no longer exists for me.  A little later, when I have to recall where I left it, I can’t seem to get a clear picture.  Since I have spent far too many hours of my life searching for my car keys or my coffee mug, I’ve learned to always put them in the same place, and/or to put my name on everything (that way it finds its own way back to me).  And, because I used to lose students’ homework assignments, I now put my hands up in the air when a student tries to give me a paper.  “Put it in the box,” I say, “where it will be safe.”

Many students can empathize, and they are relieved to hear they’re not alone.  I gently deliver the bad news:  some of them will never outgrow this problem; therefore, they need to figure out coping strategies similar to my Troll-Proof Box.  If they can develop their own strategies now, they will save themselves much heartache later.

Now if I can only figure out how to remember a conversation once I’ve walked away. . .

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A Well-Placed Compliment

Like a single vase on a bare coffee table, a single compliment has the power to brighten our whole day.  It has the same power in the lives of our teens.  The trick is to be understated, even offhanded in your delivery.

Last week when my co-teacher and I were chatting in the doorway and Chad had to walk between us to get in the classroom, he ducked and said, “Excuse me.”  Though I was mid-sentence I said, “Hey, nice manners” and went back to my conversation.  He flashed an appreciative smile from his desk.

When a table of students passed out the science books without waiting to be reminded, I said, “Way to be prepared!”  To the student who loaned her pencil before I could offer one from my lost and found, I said, “That was thoughtful!”

Sometimes I’m more intentional, like when I sought out Taylor and told her that our choir accompanist had specifically asked if she and her strong voice would be returning to choir this year.  “Well, that makes me feels special!” was her response.

One way to deliver a teen-acceptable compliment is to begin with the words “I noticed. . .”  Just toss it out there:  “I noticed you put your dishes in the sink.”  “I noticed you started your homework already.”  Don’t make it too big a deal – and by all means resist the temptation to be manipulative or negative, as in, “I noticed you did the dishes without being asked.  It’s about time you grew up and took some responsibility around here.”

Sometimes I realize I haven’t been paying enough compliments.  The other night my husband handed our son some papers that had been missing.  “Thanks for finding those, Dad,” he said.  I went to him later and complimented him on his respectful attitude of gratitude instead of the snide humor he sometimes uses.  “Are you being sarcastic, Mom?” he asked.  Ouch.  I’d better practice what I preach.

‘Twas the Night Before. . .

It’s the night before school starts.  The alarm is set to EARLY, the sandwich is packed in its new lunch bag, the outfit is laid out. . .uh-oh.  Doubts creep in.  Maybe that’s not the right thing to wear.  Is it comfortable enough?  Does it make the right statement?  What will people think?

For that matter, what will they think of everything about me?  What if I talk too much?  Or too little – what if they mistake my shyness for being stuck up?  What if there’s too much homework?  Or not enough – what if nothing gets learned?

What if I can’t stay awake?  How embarrassing if I doze off in class!  What if I forget what I’m supposed to do next?  What if there are awkward silences?  I hate those!  What if I spill on myself at lunch and have to spend the rest of the day smelling of sour milk?

What if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of class?  I can’t very well just get up and leave. What about breaks?  What if nobody wants to talk to me?

Such are the thoughts of the TEACHER the night before school starts.  And I’m a fairly self-confident adult!  How much worse might it be for an awkward adolescent?

Think about  the changes that might have occurred just over the summer.  Larger feet, larger bra size, changing voice. . .what we adults might find amusing can be paralyzing in a 12- or 13-year-old.  She’s just sure everyone will notice and be talking about her.  Or he’s afraid his voice will crack and everyone will laugh at how stupid he sounds (teens aren’t always good at understanding sympathetic laughter).

Regular readers will know what I’m going to say. . .it’s time for a huge dose of EMPATHY.  Listen for the emotion (most likely fear or embarrassment), and name it.  “I remember feeling scared like that on my first day of school, too.”  “Isn’t it embarrassing when you walk in the door and feel like everyone is staring at you?”  Try gently re-focusing:  “Don’t you love it when the first day’s over?  The rest of the week just seems so much easier.”   “Let’s go out to dinner tonight and you can tell me how it went.”

Avoid those words that prove you don’t understand:  “Oh, you’re just being silly.”  “What’s wrong with you?  You told me how much you had to have that shirt!”  “You look awesome; don’t worry about what anybody else thinks!”

The feelings are real, and for the middle-schooler, they’re very, very big.  Show that you understand and can be supportive, then decide whether or not you’re brave enough to follow her inside and risk capturing a sulk or a glare in that first-day-of-school photo.