I’d been doing class meetings for several years and was pretty proud of the results. Bullying was down and my fifth graders were using assertive language. Still nothing could prepare me for the class meeting I had one day.
Now I work in a community with gangs, poverty, and drug abuse. And like many teachers I don’t want to know every sad story. Some are so heartbreaking it makes it hard to teach. But this one year I had students facing extreme challenges that were effecting everyone. One little girl had gone from Student of the Month to a gossipy taunting bully. Another joined in on the bullying while her grades kept dropping until she was two years below where she’d been before.
I wondered why?
The school counselor and their parents soon answered these questions. The girl who had become a bully had recently walked in to find a family member hanging from the ceiling, the victim of suicide. That compounded with a single parent household and other relatives in gangs made her so angry she lashed out at whoever was nearby.
The second girl had a father who’d been arrested for gang activity in a loud raid on her home. His arrest was in the papers and she was so ashamed that she could barely focus in school. She often started to cry in the middle of class and asked to be excused. I tried my best to comfort her or distract her with a joke or interesting work.But when a child is missing her Daddy there is little a teacher can do.
Neither of these girls shared their pain with their classmates. Both were too ashamed.
One day the tension felt high so I called a class meeting. I cautioned the kids about the rules saying that this was private, not something to gossip about. We could share with our parents but not on the playground. Then like I often do, I started it off with acknowledging how proud I was to be their teacher, how honored I was to be part of their lives, and how much they meant to me.
I smiled at the girl whose father had been arrested and passed her the talking stick. She whispered in my ear, “I want to share about my dad. What do you think?” I told her it was up to her.
She turned the talking stick over in her hands as she spoke. “I know I’ve been fighting with some of you guys. I’m sorry. But it’s because I’ve had hard stuff to deal with. My dad got arrested and I don’t know when he’s coming home.”
We all chanted, “Thank you for sharing as she started to cry in the arms of the child next to her.
I acknowledged her for being so brave before the girl who found the deceased family member had a turn. She looked at her sobbing friend with wide eyes and shared. “I haven’t been acting great. But it’s because I had a loss of my cousin.”
What happened next gave me chills. Three more children shared how a parent was in jail and how that loss haunted them. Other children tearfully shared their parents’ divorce and how lonely they felt. But as we went around the circle so many of these ten year-olds told their grieving classmates how sorry they were. Time and again I heard, “I’m sorry for your loss and I’m here for you.”
We passed the talking stick around multiple times that day and each time we did a new child revealed loss or pain. Each time we did his/her classmates spoke up in loving support.
And when we were finally done I held the talking stick and said, “We’ve discovered something very special today. That we all have sad things to deal with. Things that are out of our control. But we also have this amazing communityto support and help us. I am so proud of how brave and kind all of many of you were. When you’re sad, remember this support and let it hold you up.”