A Revelation

as a teacher at an alternative high school, i regularly find myself critical–or worse, cynical of young people and the choices they make every day. but, over the last couple of months i’ve seen something that is truly astounding–young people discovering their voices and finding their true power — standing up and speaking up — for what they believe in — their right to life. it is inspiring. and, no matter your social or political leanings, you’ve got to be moved by that, you’ve got to respect that. for me, it’s been a while, if ever, since “i looked up to a teenager”–but, that’s exactly the way i feel today. good speed and carry on, youngins! cheers!

tradecraft…your voice (part VII)

“if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.” ― steven wright

i love the above quote from steven wright…it is something that we can all relate to because no one likes to talk about failure or have their failures known…including me…but, that’s what this post is about…a time when i messed it up

here’s the story…

a few weeks ago, a kid came into class–we’ll call him ‘jacob’–running his mouth, like he was known to do…this time, jacob was ‘going off’ about how he hated the school resource officer and how the ‘school cop’ was always on his case…his tone set me on edge from the get go…and it went downhill from there…

every year, there is one kid who can push your buttons like no other, really get under your skin, you know…it can get to the point that every time you hear the sound of their voice (regardless of the words) it feels like someone’s pulled out a tattoo needle and started digging in, started working over your nerves like nobody’s business…imagine that kind of thing happening nearly every day for nine months…then you’ll have an idea of what it’s been like, this year, with jacob…

and it’s the kind of thing that can drive even the most seasoned teacher to the brink…could also be one of the reasons why nearly half (46%) of all new teachers in america leave after the first five years (dr. david walsh (lecture), 2014; ‘american teacher’ documentary, 2011; national education association publication, 2008)…that fact alone should be enough to raise alarm bells across the country and is probably an issue worth returning to in a later post [note to self]…

anyways…

class was moving along and we working on an interactive observation activity…students were moving around the room and working with other students to complete their tasks…jacob wasn’t working, in fact, he was standing near some other boys and they began arguing over which branch of service was the best, and it was getting heated…i told them to ‘take it easy’ and focus on their tasks (it was the second or third time that i had to redirect these gentlemen during this block), but it didn’t slow down or stop their debate…they continued on and it got more personal…to the point where other students were beginning to be affected by what they were saying…

it was disrespectful, they way they were talking to each other…and disruptive…especially, the remarks that jacob was making…

and, i was done…

so, i launched out of my desk chair and came around my desk with a full head of steam and shouted:

enough! that’s enough!  jacob, just sit down and shut up!

immediately, i realized what i had said…it was like i could see the words floating over the desks in the classroom…like a bubble hovering over a cartoon character in the sunday comics…in that instant, i wished i hadn’t said those two words… “shut up”…

but, i couldn’t take it back…it was too late…

in that moment, the room went completely quiet…but, not the good kind of quiet…if you work around people (as a profession) you know exactly what i’m talking about…it was a quiet that resulted from a slap in the face, a cheap shot…

we finished off the class and i finished off the rest of my day, then headed home for the weekend…

the next day, my wife, kids, and i went out to breakfast with our friend joy…

during breakfast, i shared the story i just shared with you…after i was done…joy said, these things can happen, you know?

there was a bit of a pause in the conversation…

[you should know that joy’s a teacher…she’s been doing it a long time (longer than my wife and i) & she’s really good at it]

the next thing joy asked was…

joy: when did it happen?

me: on friday…

there was another pause…then, joy looked at me and said…

joy: it’s not too late, you can still apologize…

i guess it was my turn to get slapped in the face…because that’s exactly what it felt like when she said that to me…at the time, i said something like, yeah, ok…but, deep down i was pissed…thinking…

the hell you say, joy?! apologize?! you’ve got some nerve saying that to me, this kid needed ‘a talking to’!

[you can see that i was continuing the same mature attitude and mindset that i had demonstrated the day before…heh, heh]

anyways, i thought a lot about what she had said…and it went around in my head for about 48 hours…i thought about what i had said and done, i thought about my actions in the classroom that day…akin to looking into a good mirror…a kind of mirror that can show you the truth…reflect back the good, bad, and ugly things about yourself..and in this case, it was a painful process…

i thought about it right up until the time that jacob and his class were to arrive for monday’s lessons…

so, they came in and we went through a regular class…it was all routine–no issues or problems…at the end of class, i dismissed everyone…everyone but jacob…who i called up to my desk…

here’s what happened…

me: hey, i wanted to talk to you about friday and what went on…

jacob: o.k….

[i breathed in]

me: i wanted to apologize for what i said, for how i acted…

jacob: hey, d., it’s no problem, it’s all good, man…

me: no, it’s not o.k….it wasn’t o.k. for me to talk to you like that, it was disrespectful…telling you to ‘shut up’…you know, it’s not something i usually say, i broke one of my own rules there…and, i’m sorry… 

jacob: no worries, d., we’re good…but, i really appreciate you saying that anyways…

then, he left the room…

in the silence of the room, i knew that joy had been right…that i needed to do something that i didn’t want to…even though it was the right thing to do, even though i knew i was the one who made the mistake–in how i responded to him, in how i used my voice…because despite that saying we all learned long ago: sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me…we found out, pretty early on in life, that that saying is bullshit…words can hurt, words can cut deep…and saying the words ‘shut-up’, like i did, may not seem like an offense to some…but, i knew it was just that–it was a violation of a rule i have for myself, as a professional educator–a rule i have for myself as one who ‘herds cats’ professionally (especially since a good portion of the kids we work with are ‘talked to’ like that at home)…and like i told jacob, i broke it…and because of that, i knew i had to apologize…

so, with that…how have you used your voice?  how will you use your voice in the future?

important questions to ask, because in this line of work–herding cats…your voice can be a force for good or for ill…

[interestingly, the next day, when jacob and his class returned again…the air was a lot lighter…the edges had been softened…and jacob regarded me a bit better than he had in the past, more positively, i could feel the difference…]

“success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”                                                                                       ― winston churchill

tradecraft…your voice (part VI)

i spent three years working in youth ministry (christian setting)…

well, what does that mean?  

it means that you work in a youth program at a local church…planning and organizing activities, events, community service projects and opportunities for spiritual growth and development–for elementary, middle school, and high school youth–basically, you try to connect to children and youth in a church setting…

it can be a great job because of the relationships that can develop with youth and families in the church community…you can connect with individuals and families at a level that is just not possible in some settings and that is an amazing thing…but it can also be a challenging job…because most parents and families have really high expectations about what they think you should be doing for their kids (this is especially true in churches with large youth programs)…and it’s been my experience that, while a parent might be hesitant to approach a pastor with a complaint or criticism, they don’t have the same restraint when it comes to you (the youth director) and they’re very likely to let you know what they think of you and your work (sometimes, in some of the most un-christian ways you can imagine–where is the love?!)…i’ve worked in prisons and in churches and the same ‘rule of thumb’ applies to both settings — watch your back...i am certain that there is a sociological dissertation waiting to be written on “life behind the scenes at a local church”…

anyways, we’re movin’ on…

one summer, we (the senior high youth director and i–i was the junior high leader) took a group of 40 high school students and 12 adults to new york city for a week (our church was based in omaha, nebraska)…the week was primarily focused on community service projects…there were also some recreational activities mixed-in during the afternoons and evenings…for fun, we went to central park, times square, the today show, battery park, chinatown, and the statue of liberty…and we also went to ground zero (not for fun, but just to see it…the location where one of the 9/11 attacks happened–it was the kind of thing that knocks you on your ass when you see it, i’ll never forget it)…anyways, our service-partner organization in new york city was called ysop (ysop = youth service opportunities project)…so, while we were in new york city, we stayed at a hostel and each day ysop would send us out in small groups (by way of mass transit) to a different work project in a different borough (the bronx, queens, brooklyn, etc) in new york [their main focus is to send out volunteers to work with the homeless and the hungry–which is what we did!]

quick note: i’ve participated in a lot of service experiences in my life…and this one was, by far, one of the best mission trips i’ve ever been on…ysop runs a highly organized, efficient, and ‘legit’ operation…i would recommend their organization to anyone wanting to bring young people to serve in new york city while fully experiencing the realities of the boroughs…check ysop out at:  http://www.ysop.org/

[i know…there’s a lot of background to this story…but, we’re getting there...to ‘the voice’ part, i promise…hang tough;)]

so, it was wednesday…mid-week in our experience…we had been working hard and playing hard (seeing a lot of sites), and it had been an especially hot and humid week in the city…it was the moment, during these kind of trips, when little ‘flare ups’ start to occur between ‘kids and kids’, ‘kids and adults’, & ‘adults and adults’–it is bound to happen…in this particular case, we were all en route to public transportation (making our way from the hostel to the ysop office) and one of the kids (named aron) in the youth group asked the senior high youth director if she would alter the plan slightly for the evening so we could stay out later in the city…walking en masse, like this, we were quite the sight (moments like these made me feel bad for nyc:) …anyways, aron and the senior high youth director were at the back of the pack and i was at the middle, with some other kids and adults up in front of the herd…as aron and my colleague were talking, the conversation became more and more ‘heated’ (i heard most everything that was said; i think this is due to my bionic ears…but seriously, the tubes i got when i was a kid did something spectacular…could it be that my military doctor who implanted the tubes in my ears was a part of a covert government program to engineer super soldiers?!  we can rebuild you…🙂

basically, aron was asking to alter the plan for the group and my partner said, “no–not happening”…it came out very sharp and i cringed a bit when i heard the tone of her response…in her defense, she was as hot, tired and impatient as everyone else in the group…aron was agitated, too (at his limit)…normally, a great kid–positive, smart and not easily disgruntled…but, in this case, he wouldn’t let it go and huffed up towards the middle of the pack…mumbling his distaste about the decision to some of his peers…

after a few minutes…he must have caught sight of me walking nearby because he was suddenly at my side…and i could see a little bit of fire in his eyes…it was something i had seen before…it was the kind of look you see in a kid when they’re going to openly challenge you, to push your limits

then, he spoke…

aron: can i ask you something?

me: sure.

aron: what would you do if we all took off running in different directions right now?

[at that moment, i stopped walking…then, he stopped walking…and there was a “pause”…warning bells went off in my head…and then, the  little voice in my head said, it’s a trap…don’t take the bait…]

me: well…i’d probably head down to times square and enjoy my free time…

[i held my serious face for as long as i could…which wasn’t long…then, i busted out laughing…he did too…]

after a minute, he spoke again…

aron: that’s probably the best thing i’ve heard this morning…awesome…

then, he sped up to some friends near the front of the pack…

he didn’t take off, neither did any of the other kids…but, it wasn’t really about ‘making a run for it’…he was just testing me… he was looking for a fight, he was looking for a confrontation (with me, the only other ‘official staff member’ on the trip)…in this case, he was looking for a fast ball and i threw him a curve…it helped that i had heard the earlier exchange and some of his grumblings–so, i had a bit of a head start on how to respond to him…what to say and how to say it…to defuse and disarm him...how to use my voice in that way...

it’s something you can learn to do, too… it’s a skill you can develop…

in time…

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!)

tradecraft…your voice (part III)

when you witness someone use their voice like i mentioned in the last post, you feel like you’re seeing something extraordinary…something that borders on the supernatural…

here’s a story from the trenches that illustrates what i mean…

years ago, i worked at cooper village–a juvenile group home in omaha, nebraska (i love omaha, by the way, it’s one of the easiest towns to feel at home in–show up twice at the same bar in omaha and you’re a regular–can’t beat that!  of all of the bars i visited in omaha, my favorite (hands down)…was the homy inn (classic)–two visits were just not enough when it came to this place, cheers!:)

anyways…at this juvenile group home, we worked with a variety of kids who had low-level criminal offenses on their records, other delinquency, alcohol and drug problems, and family issues…it was a minimum secure group home…

one day, a kid comes running down the living quarters hallway–he is shouting and swearing just outside our staff office…trailing behind him, is his staff (our living unit was connected to their housing section and today the door between the residences was open, which was common)…so, upon hearing this, my partner and i come out of our office and approach the youth, thinking ok, we’re gonna have to take this kid down… restraints/ ‘takedowns’ are a part of juvenile justice-fun!:) …but before we get that far, we get a knowing look from his staff (dom)–his eyes say, wait…all the while this kid is pacing back and forth–swearing and muttering that he’s gonna hurt someone…

at that point, dom takes up a position nearby and begins talking to the kid (close enough to jump in on a takedown, if needed, but not too close–like us, he was giving the kid some room to move…the habits of nonverbal interaction)…immediately the kid dials in to dom’s voice and what he’s saying (though the kid is still pacing)…dom continues to talk to him in a calm, reassuring voice…

dom: i know about the phone call you just got, i understand why you’re upset, i would be upset, too…

the kid paces and swears some more…

(dom sticks with it)

dom: i know you’re upset, but right now you’re ‘still good’…you haven’t let it get the best of you, you haven’t let it ‘get out of hand’…it’s what you do next that matters the most–you know that we’ve got an event scheduled for tomorrow and right now, you’re on the list for an off site trip to the library–that hasn’t changed, yet…i know you want to go on that trip, i know you want to get off-site for a few hours, so let me help you get there

the kid is now moving side to side, facing dom–the kid is still agitated…still looks like he could escalate and ‘take it to the next level’ at any moment…bounce off the walls (or us) and what not, a la parkour

(but, dom is persistent and continues)

dom: i want you to listen to me, i want you to follow my instructions, ok?  i am going to help you, i want you to lay down on the ground, i want you to lay down on your stomach…

i’m thinking, yeah right–let’s just grab this kid…come on?!

…a couple more minutes go by and the kid is still upright, moving side to side (and still upset)…so, dom repeats his directives…then, the unbelievable happens–the kid complies!!!  he crouches down on his knees, puts his arms out in front of him, touches the ground, and eases himself down (on his stomach)…

dom: that’s good, that’s right…now, slide your arms out a bit, that’s it–now, turn your palms up…good…

the kid continues to comply (and is now laying on the ground in the typical restraint position)…

dom: relax, just breathe…that’s good

dom crouches down next to the kid and continues to talk to him, continues to calm him down…fifteen minutes later, the juvenile is calm and back in control…dom helps him up and they walk back to his housing unit together…

later, i found dom, shook his hand and told him, “damn, dude…i’ve never seen anything like that–awesome–nice work!”–it was the coolest takedown i’d ever seen…honestly, i was still in shock and thinking, what just happened?!…he had taken a kid down without raising a hand-he had taken a kid down with just his voice…

skills and tactics like this have been referred to as verbal judo and such a designation is appropriate…

critics might say…”well, dom had a rapport and a relationship with the kid and that’s why he did what he was told”…i wouldn’t disagree with their emphasis on “the two R’s”–they are definitely an important part of the de-escalation process–but, how do rapport and relationships happen?  through communication, social interaction, and repeated verbal exchange…rapport is established and relationships are built…”the two R’s” are part of the communication continuum, if you will…and when combined with the words, tone, and volume of someone who knows how to talk to others, how to use their voice effectively …sometimes…amazing things can happen!

tradecraft…your voice (part II)

communication is one topic that is so important to working with kids (or to working with people, in general) that spending “just one” post on it won’t do…so, welcome to this mini-series on your voice

and i can’t talk about the power of your voice without making mention of or tipping my cap to one of the most powerful voices i’ve ever met–the voice of my mother-in-law…

this woman can talk, i’m pretty sure she invented words–and, if not words, persuasive speaking…by merely saying, ‘hi, how are you?’ (press play on the minnesota accent) she has been moved (instantly) from coach to first class seating on a plane, been switched from an average hotel room to the penthouse suite, received free food and drinks, you name it…it won’t surprise you to know that her voice has had the same effect on our kids, their cousins, and other small ones…with her words, she can move and direct them in ways that i never knew was possible…it is unbelievable–she has a gift and it is something to see! one of the things that makes her voice so compelling is the fact that she uses it to (authentically) engage and connect with others–what happens is a kind of instant rapport…you feel like you’ve known her for years…

the way she talks is impressive, and honestly, it reminds me of something i’ve seen before…when a guy named obi-wan kenobi…used the jedi mind trick

importantly, your voice is a tool you can develop and fine-tune, over time–something that will serve you well in this kind of work…whether a coach, youth director, juvenile justice worker, teacher, etc…your voice can redirect and focus, inspire and influence, de-escalate and manage,  instruct and build up kids that you are working with each and every day…your voice can be a powerful force

tradecraft…your voice (part I)

i remember inviting my parents to come to a soccer game that i was coaching…

i had visited my parents at their jobs, and i thought it was ‘pretty eye-opening’ to see them in action–they worked hard, enjoyed what they did and had the respect of their colleagues…nowadays they’re retired and living in a retirement community that caters to veterans/ex-service men and women–so they spend their days driving the posted speed limit-“13 mph” (they live in one of the colonies), drinking margaritas at the daily happy hour event, and loungin’ in their soft clothes🙂

anyways…back then…i wondered what they would think of me as a coach…

they showed up before kick-off and stayed for the whole game; afterwards, my mom said (wide-eyed), they really listened and responded to you?! …it was a compliment, but she sounded incredulous, almost like she couldn’t believe what she saw:)

truth be told, i didn’t know i had it in me either…i didn’t know that i was capable of “coaching” until i started doing it…interestingly, she identified one of the most important tools available to someone who herds cats for a living…

communication

at that moment, i realized that i had this tool in my toolbox–i could talk to kids, i could encourage them, i could motivate them…i could use my words, i could use my voice–to influence them (and i liked it)…

i think apollo creed liked it too…

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