I walked down the hallway of a local elementary school. The smell of school lunches, pencils and tempera paint embedded the walls and low-pile carpet. As I looked for my assigned first-grade classroom, a boy (4th grade maybe) made eye-contact with me, smiled and said, “Hi, how are you today?” I resisted the urge to look behind me to see if he was really talking to me. I smiled back and said, “Hi, I’m good thank you.”
I’ve been in several schools, from elementary to high school, over the last three months, working as a paraprofessional. No child ever addressed me like that. It was such an uplifting surprise.
We’re fellow humans, not projects
As the day went on, it was clear the atmosphere of this school was different. I met and talked to the principal twice during my four-hour shift. Many staff members smiled at me and said hello. They thanked me for being there. A special education teacher took time to sit with me and talk about the student I would be working with for the day. He told me of the student’s challenges as well as his interest in games and talking with adults.
This last bit of knowledge was a surprise to hear. In other schools it was an unspoken rule that we (paras) were not supposed to engage students in conversation. Our interactions with the students were supposed to be more about discipline, schoolwork completion and behavior feedback. Those who are familiar with my style, can probably see how that would be problematic. Putting limits on kids’ imaginations and expressions does not sit well with me.
I find myself longing to make the kids laugh or get them to share something they love. I want to let them hug me around my legs instead of telling them they are inappropriately in my space. I want to engage them AND get their schoolwork done.
I sneak in questions to pique their curiosity or encourage their sharing during recess. The elementary kids are dying to share. If they blurt out an answer to the teacher’s question before they are called on, they are reprimanded and shut down. It gets recorded as blurting on the student’s feedback form. I completely understand that too much shouting out is rude and not fair to other quieter classmates (God knows, I understand the plight of the quiet person), but any excitement a student has around a subject gets snuffed out when they are constantly told to be quiet and still in body and language.
I once watched three kindergarteners eat their Monday morning snack together at a table in the special ed. room before class. The kids were having a nice calm conversation about what they did over the weekend. I stood there nodding in approval, happy to see the kids socializing with each other. Two minutes later a program director hushed them. She said they could only eat, not talk. For a second, I felt bad for not getting after them myself. I was not doing my job. Then I thought, wait no.
New is better?
One of the more restrictive schools I work in, is brand new and prides itself on the implementation of an empathetic and compassionate culture. The sterile-ness of the staff-child relationship does not feel very caring and compassionate to me. It feels more like us against them or appearances before the child’s self-esteem. Side note: it seems the younger teachers buy into the teacher/child separateness more.
Because the school is brand new, there is a steady stream of observers wandering in and out of the classrooms. Everyone wants to see the state-of-the-art facility and its practices. The beautiful building with its huge windows and muted colors of sea blue and oatmeal, portrays modern success and gleaming funding. Perfectly behaved children engaged in a finely tuned core curriculum is the picture the staff must feel compelled to paint.
The interesting thing is, neither students nor staff seem especially happy. Perhaps they are all playing within the relational paradox, where they give up part of themselves to maintain connection. In this case, they give up fun, passion, excitement and curiosity for a hushed, controlled, clean, new, admired school.
You’re watching me? Oh dear
Perhaps being observed makes us all act unnaturally? We so want to appear perfect or normal that we squelch whatever needs squelching (our voice, our untidiness, our unique personality, our children’s voices, our children’s untidiness, etc.) to gain approval. I get nervous and usually make mistakes when someone is watching me closely. Perhaps others micromanage or strive to look in control when being observed?
I noted an interesting phenomena when I was married. Whenever my in-laws visited, my husband would become the ultra disciplinarian. He was on the kids for every perceived transgression. There was no meaningful conversation, just a steady flow of directives.
As if constant critiquing and supervision would produce the perfect family and impress the hell out of my in-laws. I believe he desperately wanted his parents to see him as a successful parent, totally in control of his well-behaved brood.
Again, it did not seem like this made anyone happy. The kids felt scrutinized and micro-managed and my in-laws seemed uncomfortable. I know I walked on egg-shells during those visits.
New day, different perspective
This week I worked at the new, more sterile school again. I worked with completely different children. It was chaos for most of the day. Seeing the highly demanding needs of the children in these classrooms and the lack of staff to help them, gave me a new perspective on the situation.
The new shiny school is going through a huge learning curve and they have been understaffed and over-populated since the day the doors opened. The school has not created its community yet. The staff and students are still unfamiliar to each other. Many of the special needs children have had a rotating list of paraprofessionals to work with them. There is very little consistency in anyone’s schedule.
The constant reprimands now seem like small victories of control for the staff. Does stress make us more persnickety? I think so. Are some of the children extra challenging? Yes.
The more friendly, more relaxed elementary school I worked in is established. It’s been around with a relatively steady staff for years. They are a community. They have fewer children and, to my knowledge, are not as understaffed. The staff know each other and they know the kids and their siblings. They have their systems in place.
Perhaps my former husband got stressed and overloaded with extra people in our house. The routine was off when my in-laws visited. Perhaps micro-managing the kids gave him a sense of control. Perhaps he worried about my reactions to my in-laws visit. Maybe he worried I would not like someone shaking up our routines. Having guests in your home for more than a few days always gets a bit challenging. It’s possible he thought his interventions would ease my discomfort.
How you look at the world
All of this reminds me of the saying, Fall in love with someone because of how they look at the world, not how they look to the world.
Both the new school staff and my ex-husband seemed to care a lot about how they look to the world. As an outsider and an insider in both situations, it seems how we look at and after each other is the important thing.
The genuinely friendly and relaxed school and staff recently received the Blue Ribbon Award. I’m not surprised. I hope they don’t feel the need to change now that they’re in the spotlight.
Is there a time when you feel compelled to micromanage? Does stress cause you to seek control over something, anything?