When I was a student, I went through my days knowing that I had a place in my school building. There is no doubt that I was awkward, but I navigated the system of education with relative ease as a reader, a quick learner, and a rule-follower. These are gifts I was given because my mom was a teacher and understanding how school works was part of my birthright. If Mrs. Pate had asked me what I was doing in the library, I would not have felt accused or confused. I would have explained what I was doing and gone on my way.
This is not the case for everyone. Of course I didn’t understand that instinctively, but I have seen it go down, these students who don’t know the protocol or who get in trouble with one teacher for doing what another teacher asked. I used to ask these students what they were doing in the library in what I imagined was a welcoming tone, but the responses I got were often angry and defensive. “My teacher sent me down here!” or, “I’m supposed to be here!” It did not seem to occur to my students that I asked that question of everyone. After enough tempers flared I realized that something had to change and that something was probably me.
The trick is to be welcoming but also firm. I will probably always let you check out a book (I am a softy in that way) but don’t think I will let you get on the computer without a note. What I have settled on is Hey, whatcha need? and I say it approximately 500 times a day. The answers vary wildly from the good (returning/checking out books, working on projects) to the bad (broken tablet) to the ugly (got kicked out of class or maybe just walked out depending on who is doing the telling). But I think I am not exaggerating when I say that choosing my words and my tone carefully has made a difference. There is a softening in my students’ faces and their shoulders when they know that I will give them a chance, that I will hear them out. Sometimes I send them away just the same, but it hardly ever escalates anymore.
These teenagers who let me practice on them have taught me how to parent my own kid because they teach me every day about their own humanity. They have thoughts and feelings that are so different than mine, and realizing that continues to give me patience I did not know was possible. They taught me the value of deep breaths and carefully choosing my words.
Hey, whatcha need? is my one good phrase, the trick I pull out of my pocket that keeps things calm and carrying on, at least most of the time. It is not fancy or particularly articulate, but it has changed the way that I start my conversations with students, and that is good enough for me.