A lot of the time, it works a treat. They will (eventually) tell you that they did, in fact, kick, bite, punch, scratch someone and they (usually) accept whatever consequence results from this angelic confession. Admittedly, this can take anything from a few minutes to a few days to reach fruition, but it generally happens in that way (I'll go into how I tend to get the truth out of children in another post - it's a subtle mix of NLP, CBT and hypnotism. No, really. It's really useful! But for another time...).
This week though, I am not talking about the honesty of the children. I am turning that oracular lens inwards (I am also sick. When I'm sick, I over-write, it's a whole thing, please forgive me). How often, dear reader, are we honest with the children?
Now, a few housekeeping issues first. I am not saying we need to let the little darlings know every inner detail of our lives. I doubt little Kimmy wants to know about my love life (well, she may want to but she certainly doesn't need to). And I'm sure little Noah is more interested in his current high score on Fortnite than the time I finally defeated Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts (even though it was a battle of epic proportions and definitely warrants the occasional humble-brag). I'm not talking about that kind of honesty and I don't have the time to get into the ethics of degrees of honesty. I'm talking about day-to-day honesty. Like when you come to school in a bad mood.
It's happened to the best of us. For whatever reason, we have come to school in a bad mood. Or maybe we came to school in a very good mood, but once there someone ruined it. It's usually a member of management.
Anyway, you're in your classroom fuming and the school bell tolls declaring the day begun. Enter the 30-or-so cherubs who have no idea how frustrated, irritated, or just plain (sorry) pissed off you are. They come in with their smiling faces and their noisy voices and you just want to kill them all.
Except you don't. Not specifically them, anyway. You just want to be left alone to calm yourself down. But there are registers to call and Early Work to set and young Billie's mother has an issue with the homework that you didn't want to set in the first place and Max wants to tell you about his high score on Fortnite and you are stabbing your leg with your keys through your pocket just to stop yourself from screaming, or crying, or both.
If you have never been in this situation, you can skip to the end. I salute you. Congratulations!
If you recognise at least part of this tableau (I know, I know, it's moving so not strictly a tableau) then rest assured - you are human and in very good company!
So what do you do?
Here's what I do. I tell them. I get them to sit down - before calling the register - and tell them that I am in a bad mood. I use those exact words. Sometimes I am even a little bit bark-ish.
"Children," I say, "a word of warning," I continue, "I am in a bad mood."
This usually generates a degree of silence. These children are not stupid; they know that an adult in a bad mood is no fun and that they are usually to blame. However, this is not the case. So I use the silence to qualify my statement:
"Nobody in this room has put me in a bad mood. I was in a bad mood before any of you came in." Now, if I feel that the room is a little uneasy, and depending on the class, I'll add a flippant "not even you, [insert name of child who can reliably take a joke]." This can really help to release some of the tension that will have built up. A teacher being in a bad mood can be distressing. Some of the children I have taught will associate adults ina bad mood with physical danger, and I don't want them to be scared.
So I continue.
"I'll snap out of my bad mood eventually but if you guys could help me, that'd be great. Here's how you can help me. You can make me smile with your amazingly good behaviour," [a little bit of emotional manipulation between friends is okay, right?] "or you can just remind me that I am not angry with any of you."
I'm going to repeat that bit again because for me it is the most important bit.
"Remind me that I am not angry with any of you."
I usually teach 10-11 year-olds so I add that they have permission to tell me to 'chill out' or even to invite me to leave the room for a few seconds (an option open to them if they are angry). You see, we are all human in my classroom. We're also a team. It sounds like a Hallmark movie, but it's a fact. Some of these children see me more than they see their parents. We either work things out together or we have a crappy time.
Here's the thing though. Almost immediately after I have said this, I begin to feel better. I've given myself permission to be angry. I've given the children permission to not feel responsible. I've also recognised out-loud that it is an emotional response and therefore, by its very nature, fleeting. Now, I am a sensitive soul, so this release is usually accompanied by a lump in my throat and the sudden urge to cry (don't judge me, I'm a millennial man in touch with my emotions). A great time to have one of the children take the register for me!
Responses to this admission of feels has ranged over the years. I've had children work extra hard to make me happy. I've had children try (and succeed) to make me laugh. And, on one occasion, I received a big hug from one of the quietest children in the class. That last one took me over the edge from 'feeling like I want to cry' to 'oh, my eyes appear to be leaking.' Bloody kids.
Whatever the result, the day is always a good one and within half an hour, the children have completely turned my emotional state around. They're good like that.
And I recommend this kind of emotional honesty all the time. I'll tell children when I'm mad, sad or glad. I told them when my best friend's sister died and they understood that I would be a little distracted that day. This actually led to a really nice class discussion on death and grieving, during which a few of them talked about relatives they had lost. I told them when I was very excited because I was heading to Disneyland on the weekend, so they knew that I would need calming down (I am frequently the biggest child in the room).
And they have used it right back at me. I was telling one child who arrived in a very bad mood to 'leave their outside-school stuff outside school.' They reminded me that I had not done that in the past. Touche. I don't mind. I don't consider that rude or impudent. I think that is recognising personal emotional states and working through them. It should happen more often - there might be fewer fights in the playground.
To summarise, be honest with the children. It doesn't make you weak; it won't lessen your control; it'll just humanise you. Children like human teachers. And let's face it, by this point in the year, they already love you. They'll forgive a bit of grumpiness and do everything they can to alleviate it. Just let them know that they are not to blame. It's only fair.
So anyway, that's my two cents for this week. You'll have to forgive me - as I said, I'm feeling rough and the drugs are beginning to wear off. I hope you are all feeling healthier than me at the moment. I want to leave you with a challenge. This week, ask a colleague how they're doing. If their mouth says they're okay but their eyes or body language say otherwise, ask them again. Mental health awareness is improving, but too many people are still suffering in silence. That isn't fair. We're all in this together (yes, I have gone from Shawshank to High School Musical, sue me), let's help each other out. Hello head-pain, I thought you had gone. Sigh...