tradecraft…your voice (part V)

make no mistake…talking to people, engaging with people who are coming at you with aggression and anger (and not losing control of yourself) is difficult…i was lucky to have people around me who showed me how to navigate those situations (by their example), friends and coworkers who showed me the way…

in my journey, herding cats…i learned three simple phrases to help me (get) back in control–these phrases were/are really important for me in my work with young people (no matter the setting)…i consider them to be gems…maybe you will too…

these phrases are called “deflectors”– and my favorites include:

regardless, never-the-less, and be that as it may

let me give you a scenario when these deflectors served me well…

the scenario that i am going to share took place at the school where i currently work at (as a high school teacher)…the school is part alternative high school and part career-technical education center–the students we instruct are from a variety of backgrounds and have had a variety of life expriences…some of the kids we teach are tough to work with and are resistant to authority and being in school–they are similar, in some regards, to what you would experience working in juvenile justice…

one day, during my first year of teaching, a female student had her phone out in class (this happens all the time, cell phones are one of the biggest distractions and disruptors in today’s classroom–and because of the disruptive nature of phones, we have classroom rules against having them out)…she was about two rows back, one student in a class of twenty…

so, i addressed her…(names have been changed to protect the innocent;)

me: alexis, can you please shut off your phone and put it away

(alexis did not respond to me, continued to have her phone out…and showed ‘what was on her phone’ to the girl sitting next to her–so, at this point, it wasn’t just her learning that was being affected, but those around her were being distracted as well)…

me: alexis, can you put your phone away

alexis: no, i don’t have to…i can be on it if i want

me: not true, you know the expectations…so, plea–

alexis (interrupts me and takes it to the next level): you’re fuckin’ bullshit, mr. d.

it’s funny, when certain things happen in class–everybody listens…this was one of those times…instantly, the class got “real quiet”…i’m pretty sure it was the most quiet my classroom has ever been (with students in it)…and at that moment, after she said what she had said, all of the students were looking at me…waiting… thinking…what’s he gonna do, now?! (you could read it on their faces)…

i had the same question, for a minute…then, my juvenile justice brain clicked on…and, luckily, i remembered the deflectors…at the same time, i told myself–stay calm…

(i took a deep breath)

me (my voice and tone were ‘even’): regardless, you need to follow my directions–you need to put away your phone…i’ll give you one minute to do so, if you don’t…i’ll take your daily points for today (each day, students earn daily points…it is a way they “get paid” in our career-tech programs)…

a minute came and went, then she responded–her response was original…

alexis (looked up from her phone and spoke–aggressively): you’re fuckin’ bullshit, mr. d.

me (still ‘even’ in voice and tone): never-the-less, we have work to do…put your phone away and let’s get to it…look, if you put your phone away now, you’ve only lost one day’s points and we’ll move on–don’t do it, continue on in this way, and i’ll take tomorrow’s…i’ll give you a minute to choose…

all throughout this exchange the class was transfixed, their eyes flicked between us–some heads swiveled back and forth (from me to her)…like they were watching a tennis match… at this moment, their attention turned back to her…

another minute came and went…and she responded again…

alexis: you’re fuckin’ bullshit, mr. d. (still with her phone out, still not complying)

at this point, what flashed through my mind…what i wanted to say was–no, you’re fuckin’ bullshit–bitch!!! (gives you an idea of just how twisted my mind is, right?!:)

but i didn’t say that…not “out loud” anyways…instead, i countered once again with my last deflector…

me (still calm): be that as it may, you know what you need to do…last chance, put your phone away or i’ll have to send you down to the resource room–for not complying with me and for the ‘disrespect’ (the resource room was a room where the school resource officer would meet with a student–a “time out”, if you will–nowadays we have a version of ISS were kids get sent, it is monitored by a regular staff member–not a school cop)

(she was a fighter, stubborn and unwilling to back down–and so, she came at me again)

alexis: you’re fuckin’ bullshit, mr. d.

(i exhaled)

me: ok, alexis, head on down to the resource room

she got up (with her phone, of course) and headed on down to the resource room…i took another deep breath and continued on with class…20 minutes later she came back to class and actually set her phone on my desk and got back to work…(later, i thanked the officer for “having my back”)…

interestingly, i never had a problem with her in class again and we got along well after that…

a few days after the incident, i was able to talk to her about what went wrong...to process the incident…to talk about expectations and consequences…to listen to her and what was going on with her…she explained to me that, at that moment, on that day…she was having a really hard time with things at school and in other classes (w/friends)–“it was all going to shit” (she told me)…turns out that her outburst had nothing to do with me, phones, or class rules and expectations…she was having a bad day–and, it just came out on me…

this is a really important part of the story…because, what happens often times is about something else…what is going down in a kid’s life (apart from you) is the origin or cause of the bad behavior…a good number of the kids we see have experienced (or are in the midst of) hard knocks…so, it’s really important to live up to and be the adult in those hard situations–and not take things personally

it is not easy to do, situations like this are stressful, tense and hit you hard–and sometimes you fail in how you respond–your natural response is to lash out and strike back at the person who is hurting you…and in that space, you fail (i have failed enough times to know what i’m talking about here)…but, taking the high road–this should be your goal (how you want to handle things)…it’s what professionals do (most of the time)…

i sincerely believe that how i handled things in this situation rippled out, like waves when a stone is cast into a small, still pond…

she came at me hard, she was aggressive and disrespectful…but, because of those three simple phrases–i was able to stay above it, to speak to her with respect–to not take it personally and lose control…she felt that…and that’s why we were able to move on and continue life together in the classroom–that’s why we were able to maintain the relationship…at the same time, the other students felt those ripples…they saw how she treated me and they saw how i treated her…they felt it too…and afterwards, i felt that same wave wash over me in return–and, i held that good feeling, that good regard they had for me…until the end of the year and beyond…

it’s true that i used more than those phrases to maintain control…i combined them with choices (she had control too, or some sense of it)–giving options to kids you work with is key in navigating conflict; also, through these exchanges, i was reminding her of expectations that i had explained to the class at the beginning of the year and at other times in our journey together…she knew the score, she knew what could happen…it was no surprise…

while choices and expectations are important in this kind of work as well…i cannot overstate the power of these three deflectors…they are gems…they are fine tools of this trade…

i hope they serve you well, too…

recommended readings: back in control by gregory bodenhmer, 1984 (it’s where i got the three phrases from (during a training at the idaho youth ranch)–this book has a lot of really good information in regards to working with difficult young people!); verbal judo: the gentle art of persuasion by george j. thompson, ph.d, 2004 (a book i’ve mentioned before and one that is required reading for anyone in any setting who wants to learn how to talk to people, persuade others, and navigate difficult interactions!); a wizard of earthsea by ursula k. le guin, 1969 (the first book in a fiction/sci-fi/fantasy epic series…in the tradition of the lord of the rings–a parable about what happens when you speak something into the world–profound!)

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