I dread situations like the one Mitch walked in on in the boys bathroom. I know I react with frustration and annoyance. I don’t want to “deal with behavior.” I just want to be responsible for teaching and learning.
Of course, the graffitied bathroom is all about teaching and learning - just not the stuff that I feel comfortable with. Moments like these make me cringe. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.
Nakkula and Toshalis (with Smith echoing in the background) remind me, though, that this is a giant opportunity for co-construction of identity, not just something to be “dealt with.”
For starters, I probably would have been surprised to see Julian in such a predicament. It wouldn’t have fit in with my perception of him. Diligent students don’t break the rules, right? I would probably have figured that something else outside of school was distracting him and chalked it up to a one-time mistake. As for Antwon, I hate to admit that I probably would have expected to see him behind the door. Assuming that I knew about his reputation in class, especially with Ms. Peterson, it would have fit right in with my existing schema. Troubled kid, troubled choice. Just another unsuccessful attempt to avoid academics.
Of course, something was distracting Julian and Antwon was avoiding academics. But in my judgment, I would have missed the subtleties of their risk-taking, the implications for their friendship, and the potential to work with Julian through this crisis. As the authors explained, “If Julian’s experiment were to be viewed only as an infraction . . . And treating Antwon the same as Julian simply because they were involved in the same event also misses a key developmental opportunity. The two of them approached that event from very different perspectives and present unique needs” (24).
If I were in Mitch’s shoes, I think my response would have been missing the understanding that “when risk-taking experiences are undertaken with others, they often function to secure relational bonds” (52). I think one of my biggest challenges is that I take misbehavior so personally. I know how much effort I put into planning and teaching, that I am disappointed and hurt when things don’t go as planned. But I need to remember that it’s not just about me. The students each have their own worlds and their own motivations for engaging in (un)expected behaviors. And one major reason is figuring out where they stand in their peer group.
Hank Green uses The Breakfast Club to frame the adolescent struggle of standing out/fitting in.
My parents sheltered me and I later sheltered myself from situations where my values and beliefs might be questioned by my peers. I didn’t want to try on any other roles or try to fit in any other group. It wasn’t until college that I finally had an adult in my life create a safe space to explore my previously foreclosed identity. This teacher asked me questions like Mitch asked Julian: “What did it feel like to be like that in that setting? or What was it like when you were with those people in that place?” (34). My experiences as a child and adolescent were validated but, for the first time, open to interpretation. This teacher helped me see that my identity was still being constructed and that I had power over its development.
So the next time I walk into a graffitied bathroom, I know that I need to balance accountability with meaning making (37). I need to develop trust by observing and asking questions that help the students see how their choices and analysis of events in their lives shape their life story. And most of all, continue to try to develop engaging challenges that help counter the “high risk” risk taking behaviors with their peers. I need to make my classroom a risky space where they can more safely be creative theoreticians.