I’ve been teaching middle school for 12 years. I’ve been in an urban school in which 99 percent of students received free lunch for nine of those years. And I’ve tried a lot of classroom management strategies with varying degrees of success.
Admin told me to sweat the small stuff so I wouldn’t have to sweat the big stuff, but I just ended up losing my mind about how many girls were wearing nail polish (forbidden by the uniform code). I tried establishing clear classroom procedures and sticking to them, but I could never remember if two fingers raised meant a student needed to use the restroom or had a question. I set up a positive reward system and gained five pounds from fun-size Hershey bars, which aren’t even all that good unless they’re the almond kind.
These strategies work well for some teachers I know, but here’s the secret I’ve found for working with poor kids. You ready? It’s pretty simple. Always default to compassion.
A kid shows up late. “Everything OK? We missed you.”
A kid doesn’t have his homework for the fourth time this week. “Hey, is something going on that’s making it hard for you to get your work done? This is really important, and I want to make sure you’re able to do what you need to do.”
A kid throws a tantrum in class. “Wow, you’re really struggling with self-control. Can you tell me why? Are you hungry or tired?”
Because here’s the thing about poor kids; their lives are hard. Poverty is linked to childhood trauma. Some experts consider poverty itself to be a form of trauma. If a child’s family is struggling to make ends meet, there’s a good chance that Mom and Dad are under a lot more stress—if Mom and Dad are both around. The kids are likely expected to take on much more adult roles at home, making homework difficult. There’s also the fact that it’s tough to sleep if people are constantly screaming or shooting off guns in your neighborhood, and it’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry.
Starting with compassion increases the odds that you’ll find out what’s really going on and be able to actually help your students. A couple of years ago, one of my girls stopped doing her homework and paying attention in class. As a new teacher, I’d have assigned a detention and hoped that solved the problem.
Instead, I asked her what was going on. I found out that her dad—her sole surviving parent—had been arrested the week before for driving without a license. This seventh grader had been living on her own for close to a week, and getting herself to school on time every single day, but the food was running out and she was hungry and afraid. We bought her groceries and bailed her dad out, and her grades went right back to where they should have been.
Compassion also builds relationships with your students, when a more aggressive approach might burn bridges. Will they see you as a sucker? Yeah, it’s possible. But they’ll know that you’re a sucker who loves them and cares about their needs outside of school, and that counts for a lot.
You might worry that defaulting to compassion will encourage kids to make up a sob story to get out of doing their work or behaving. And I’ll admit that this has happened to me once or twice. Last year, a kid explained that he never had his homework because he was in charge of looking after his little brothers at night and putting them to bed, and he didn’t pay attention in class because there was never food for breakfast. We scheduled a conference with his mom. She brought in a delicious homemade breakfast burrito—which he refused to eat because he doesn’t like black beans—and informed us that he didn’t even have little brothers.
As long as you follow up with what the kid claims he or she needs, you’ll generally find the truth. And I’d argue that if you’re going to make mistakes—and you are definitely going to make mistakes—it’s better to err on the side of understanding than to be overly harsh.
We read a lot about the school-to-prison pipeline and the needlessly punitive discipline policies we often inflict on our most vulnerable students. Compassion is the way out. I don’t promise it’ll solve all your classroom management problems, but it’ll go a long way. Treat a kid like a decent person and, more often than not, he or she will act like one.