I write this article tonight emotional, tired, and sick at heart. I have witnessed a somewhat violent domestic incident, and I just kept thinking about the young children in the house.
Not all students come to school the same
Tonight is a school night, one where many children are already asleep or are busy preparing for school tomorrow.
Some have done their homework, maybe watched some tv and read a book. Some might have even read a book with their parents or siblings. Others helped out with the dishes, or brushed their teeth on their own for the first time. Chatted with their friends online, packed their bag for tomorrow, and gone to bed reasonably content. They get a hug and kiss good night, are told that they are loved, and go to sleep happy.
These kids will be fine at school tomorrow. Sure, they might get in trouble for chatting too much, or for not finishing something on time, but overall there is nothing of concern.
That’s not the case for all of our kids.
That’s probably not even the case for half of the kids some of us teach.
A significant proportion of our students are coming from difficult homes.
Homes where mum or dad (or perhaps both) aren’t around enough. Where they are too busy to be concerned whether little Johnny has done his homework.
The incident I witnessed tonight started out with some mildly-raised voices from a neighbouring house. It was obvious mum and dad were having an argument. I ignored it and went about my work. I know these people have their issues, same as any relationship, and sometimes arguments just happen. Their problems, not mine, so ignore it and move on.
Very quickly however, the raised voices were shouting, screaming, swearing voices. Many c-bombs were dropped, along with every other swear word combination you could think of. Mostly one-sided, but I could hear others answering back just as angrily. He was calling her all sorts of horrid names, questioning whether she loved him, saying how he doesn’t even care any more. She was trying to keep him calm, but eventually just stopped responding, at least not loudly enough that I could hear. This continued for about half an hour on and off.
I was concerned about the people involved – it’s never nice to be in or witness a domestic argument. The adults seemed to be holding their own against one another, and it didn’t sound violent, even though the language they were using was atrocious.
There are three children there, all in lower primary school or kindy. I knew they were in bed, having heard them being yelled at a short while before all this started. They are yelled at on a daily basis, and this yelling almost always includes swearing. I knew that they wouldn’t be asleep though, no matter how quiet they were. How could they sleep with that happening between their parents? Every person who has witnessed their parents arguing knows all too well the feelings of fear and confusion. How you try to make yourself as small, unnoticed and unheard as possible. You make no noise whatsoever, perhaps out of concern that the anger will be turned on you. But they were smart enough to not leave their rooms from the sounds of it.
Then the shouting, screaming, swearing voices start throwing things around. It sounded like doors were slammed shut and open, things were thrown around and possibly off the deck, glass somewhere shattered. All this interjected with more yelling, more swearing. This is the first time I’ve seen any evidence of this sort of violence within their household, so I was hoping it would be short lived and not aimed at an actual person. No one sounded like they were being injured at least.
After a particularly loud bang (it sounded like the table being thrown off the deck) I decided to call the police, scared enough by the noises I was hearing to be genuinely concerned that someone was going to get hurt. I didn’t want her or the children to end up on the news, injured or worse because of domestic violence. I called 000, knowing how quickly violence can escalate. They arrived about 15 minutes later, and calmed down the whole situation. They stayed in the house for almost half an hour, talking with everyone, making sure no one was injured, trying to resolve whatever they could.
After they left, the house stayed quiet. He started yelling at her to ‘leave me alone’ and slammed something at about midnight, but that lasted less than a minute and it was quiet again after that.
All through this all I could think about were the children inside that house. What must be going through their poor little heads? I am so thankful they weren’t hurt, but all it would have taken is one of them leaving their room and walking into the line of fire at the wrong time.
Beside the potential for physical injury, their emotional state would have been an absolute mess. Their home doesn’t sound absolutely fantastic at the best of times (they are often sworn and yelled at – “Put your f****** shoes on right now or you’ll get it), but this was on a whole new level.
Why Teachers Need to Care
Those poor children will have gone to school the next morning in a very delicate state.
They would have been tired from being kept awake and being woken up.
They would have been scared about what they witnessed, scared about what it all means, scared that they’re going to go home tonight and have the same thing happen again.
They would have been confused about why it happened. Were they the reason mum and dad were fighting? Did they do something wrong? Is it because they didn’t eat all of their dinner?
I doubt they would have been able to focus and engage properly in class. They would have been moody, possibly snapping at their friends and not following teacher instructions. Classwork might seem pointless, food might seem unappetising. Their whole world has shifted because of this one incident, and their teachers don’t even know it. But their teacher might be the only adult in the whole world who is kind to them and who cares about them (or so it might seem in their eyes right now), and as that person their teacher holds a lot of power over these children’s well-being.
Students rarely come in to class and explain to the teacher that they might be a bit off today because something happened at home last night. If you’re lucky, they might feel quite close to you and be comfortable enough to share that information. But 9 times out of 10 they don’t even want to think about it, let alone discuss it with someone. Especially someone who might judge them for it, or ask more questions. As these children are quite young they might not even know how to talk about such a thing.
On the flip side, some students have no problems what so ever telling you every little issue, real or perceived, that’s going on in their lives. You need to be extremely careful in these cases that the information is passed along appropriately, if necessary.
If the teacher doesn’t know this story, they might assume the student is mucking up because they are being naughty.
But by God is it important to remember that every single student sitting in your class is a human being. Even more important is remembering that they are young human beings, ones who haven’t learnt yet how to deal with difficult situations.
They come to class with the weight of the world on their shoulders, and yet are expected to sit and engage and follow instructions and be nice and answer questions and so on. But sometimes all of that is the furthest thing from their mind. Why on earth should they care about the atomic number of hydrogen, or how to add two numbers together, when they’re worried about being beaten at home, or whether mum and dad are going to have another huge fight tonight, or are so hungry their stomachs hurt because they haven’t eaten in two days.
Every single one of your students has a story. And every single one of those stories is just as important as the other ones.
Remember they are young. For some of them, having their friend not talking to them is literally the worst thing that has ever happened, and so they act accordingly. They’ve not had to deal with a situation like the one I’ve described above, and yet they might act out in a similar way as another child who has, simply because it is the worst for them personally.
If you are willing to accept that there are reasons behind every kind of behaviour you see in your students, you are much better equipped to help them.
If you aren’t willing to get to know your students, get to know their personalities, and understand that there may be things going on in their lives that will impact on their behaviour, then I’m sorry but teaching isn’t the right profession for you.
That doesn’t mean you throw away the rule book and never discipline them, but you do still need to act with kindness.
If a student is acting out of character, being overly difficult, completely switching off, the best thing I’ve found you can do is simply walk up to them when the rest of the class is working, squat down next to them and quietly ask them if they are ok, if something is going on, or if there’s a reason why they are behaving the way they are. I have yet to have a single student respond very negatively to this approach. Most of the time my students have responded by saying no, everything is fine, sorry I’ll do some work now/I’ll stop talking/etc. A few times I’ve had students respond by saying everything isn’t ok, and then you can move forward accordingly. But always ask. Always ask.
The worst thing you can do is punish without a second thought. You have no idea what’s going on with your kids most of the time, so don’t assume they’re being naughty for the sake of being naughty. (Unless you know their personality well enough to make that call, in which case proceed with all the discipline necessary!)
I say all this coming from a school where a lot of the students don’t have responsible parents, some don’t have parents at all. Some go through incidences like the one above on a regular basis. Some are in foster care, and keep getting shunted around the system. Some have lovely families and no issues to speak of.
You need to accept the diversity of your students, and be willing to work with them. Beyond everything else, this is the most important part of our job. We are there for the students after all.