A Tale of Two (Moody) Middle Schoolers

It was a pretty chill Friday until the last two periods of the day, when I got to deal with two guys with attitude.

I heard student #1 (let’s call him Sam) yelling before I entered his classroom:  “What’s your friggin’ problem? I can’t believe you just did that! What’s wrong with you?!” I didn’t wait to find out what the issue was; I walked in and sent Sam to another room to cool down,  knowing he’d only get more worked up if I gave him a chance to speak. It turned out someone had backed a chair over Sam’s poster on the floor, and Sam unloaded on him without giving him a chance to apologize.

I went to Sam and let him tell his side. I then told him his response was inappropriate and said when he was calm, he could return to class. I also said he needed to apologize at some point. He was back in 5 minutes, not ready to apologize, but sulking quietly in his chair.  I ignored him for 20 minutes until he raised his hand, ready to participate, at which point I called on him like nothing had happened.

During the next class, I had a student (let’s call him Liam) get testy with me because he didn’t want to be in the front row in a dance number we were rehearsing for graduation.  When I pointed out that he’d already rehearsed with the front row and couldn’t change because the back row’s routine was different, he got sarcastic, “Oh, no! I would go this way instead of that way and mess everything up!” I calmly said he could drop out if he wasn’t happy, and he turned and left the gym. I let him go, knowing he was headed to another classroom to vent to a staff member.

Minutes later he was back with a sincere apology: “I’m sorry; that was stupid. I shouldn’t have said that.” I told him he was forgiven and said we could’ve worked out something, but when he chose sarcasm, I got defensive. He apologized again and held out his hand. We shook hands, he got back in line, and the rehearsal continued.

I’m often asked how I deal with “all that attitude” in middle school.  The reality is that I don’t face much of it, because if it appears I stay maddeningly calm and defuse the situation as quickly as possible. I first avoid an open confrontation and then I pretend it never happened, allowing students back into my good graces as soon as they stand down (regardless of my feelings at that point). I want us both to get back in the Blue (cool, peaceful) Zone and out of the Red (hot, angry) Zone as soon as possible so life can go on.

Middle schoolers are emotional creatures, often embarrassed by the lightning speed at which their tempers flare, tears flow, or uncontrollable giggles erupt. As the adult, it’s my job to ride out their feelings and give them every opportunity to save face. It’s how I keep good relationships with my students, and it’s more effective than a tirade or a lecture from me.

On Friday when school ended, both Sam and Liam wished me a good weekend as they went out the door. They knew I bore them no grudges, and we ended the week feeling pretty good about each other. After all, Monday is another day!

Talking Back

chbrThis week I had to get after a student for two things in P.E.:  messing around on the chinning bar and goofing off with a friend.  He protested, “But my friend came over to me and was bugging me!  Is that my fault?”  I reminded him he was also in trouble for the bar, and he said, “Oh.  You didn’t mention that the first time.”

The fact was I had mentioned it, and I would’ve preferred his response to be, “Okay, sorry”  in a respectful tone of voice.  In my book, he was talking back to me.  He, however, would see it differently.

I saw a T-shirt that perfectly expressed the feelings of teens:  “To you it’s talking back, but to me it’s just explaining.”  This is also what students told us when we wrote our middle school book.  The reality is that we all want the chance to explain ourselves and there are right ways to do so–but teens often choose the wrong way.

Keeping in mind that adolescents are trying to figure out how to be adults, take the time to teach the proper way to explain.  Start by modeling an acceptable tone of voice and comparing it to one that makes the listener defensive.  Then explain the value of the words “Sorry” or “I’m sorry,” especially as a lead-in for what comes next.  Finish up with the difference between making accusations and explaining one’s actions  Suggest a better response: “Sorry for messing around on the chinning bar, but my friend was the one who came over to me.  Guess I should’ve just told him to go away.”  All spoken respectfully, of course.

It’s a lesson I teach every year, and it takes lots of patience (for me) and practice (for the students), but it’s an important step in learning to be a considerate adult.

I’ve always said it’s part of my job to civilize them. . .

 

“So I’m Never Supposed To Have Any Fun?”

CAParents like to call it attitude; I’ve dubbed it exaggerated sarcasm.  Call it what you will, it’s designed to push our buttons – and it’s usually successful!

Last week we instituted a seating chart for 7th and 8th graders in the lunchroom, which caused the expected whining and complaining.  One angry young man approached me and said,  “So we can’t sit by whoever we want?”   Such phrases don’t translate well in print, but anyone who’s heard them will be familiar with his tone of voice.

As my blood pressure rose, I was tempted to take the bait, replying defensively with, “Look, you brought this on yourself.  If you could just behave appropriately, you wouldn’t have to suffer.  I’m not the bad guy here.”  However, experience has taught me that my response would not be met with, “Oh, you’re right.  Thank you for explaining it to me.”  Instead, the door would be opened for arguing and proclaiming of innocence and accusations of picking on people for no reason.

So instead I just said, “Yep, pretty much,”  accompanied by a small, sad smile and a shrug.  The young man looked frustrated, shook his head in disgust, and walked away muttering.  I wisely did not ask him what he was muttering, as that would have started a fresh conflict, and my goal was to defuse this one.

In the 1983 movie War Games,  a young Matthew Broderick teaches a computer about the futility of thermonuclear war by having it play several games of tic-tac-toe.  In the end, the computer comes to an important conclusion – one every parent would be wise to adopt when faced with teenage attitude:

“The best move. . .is not to play.”

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

theone

I expected it:  some parents got defensive after the last post (All That Attitude).  “But,” they said, “what if I’m speaking in a calm and reasonable tone and I still get attitude?”

That’s when you use “The One,” which is simply your index finger pointed up, as in “Wait.”  Don’t comment on the attitude and don’t reply to what’s being said (it’s probably just to bait you anyway); instead, say, “Wow.  I don’t feel very respected by your tone (or words).  Could you try that again, but more respectfully, please?”  As lame as it may sound, I have almost 100 percent success with this.

If the comment is repeated in a nicer tone, then respond pleasantly or with empathy, depending on what is said.  For example, your reply to “Why do I have to do all the work around here?” might be, “It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  I can totally relate.”

If it’s out of line no matter the tone, as in, “I said, ‘I hate my brother,'” don’t overreact.  You can deflect attitude by being neutral – try shrugging and saying, “Seems like everybody feels that way once in awhile.”  No need to lecture on using “hate” or other strong language; by middle school, they’ve heard it.  Again,  you’re being baited.

If the comment isn’t repeated because the speaker knows it’s over the line, or because not repeating it is a power ploy (“Just forget it”), then let it go.  End the conversation.  Change the subject.  Avoid getting sucked into a battle that isn’t related to anything else.

It takes patience and willpower to head off an Incident, and you may need to phone a friend to vent afterward, but stick with it and you’ll see the dreaded Attitude diminish.

(Just be sure you’re not the one who invites it back.)

All That Attitude

???????

When I mention that I teach middle school, two things happen:  1) I get blessed, as in, “Oh, bless you – that’s not an easy job.” and 2) I get asked how I  handle all that attitude.

But the reality is, I don’t get much attitude from students.  The eye rolling, shrugging, hair flipping, steely-eyed glaring – I see very little of it.  Correction:  I see very little of it directed at me. However, I do see it directed at other adults.  So why not at me in my classroom?

It’s not because I terrify them.  Spend an hour in my classroom and you’ll pick up on that, as the teasing goes both ways.  But I do demand respect, and that, too, goes both ways.  And that may be part of the answer:  I treat my students with respect.  Teens match their tone of voice to the tone being used with them, so I try to keep mine calm.  I can’t do it all the time – sometimes I’m too frustrated – but more often than not, I keep my cool.

The other part of the answer is a little trick I call “intentional ignorance.”  For example, if I’ve had to tell a student that she can’t play in a basketball game because of low grades, and she throws herself into her seat and glares at me, I will pretend not to see her little tantrum.  Unless she gets so loud that she’s disrupting the class, I will turn a blind eye to her antics until she settles down.  If she does get disruptive, I’ll (calmly) ask her to visit another classroom until she has herself under control.

Why don’t I have to deal with “all that attitude?” Probably because I choose to ignore it – and not to return it.