Thursday, October 23, 2008

Oh Be Careful Little Mouth What You Speak

I'm on my soapbox. Here. Online. In the real situation I didn't say a thing. I probably should have. I still might.

Once a week I teach Spanish to 3-5 year old munchkins at a local preschool. It's pretty goofy fun, even though it's a challenge to get up early and get everyone ready to go by 8 am. My usual preschool day is Wednesday. Another gal teaches the other classes on Thursdays. For some reason she couldn't make it today and I subbed for her.

In one pre-K class there is a boy. When I got to his class today, the teacher warned me of his ADHD and that he'd already had a melt-down that morning. I smiled and assured her I could handle it. Inside I thought that it was a little wierd that she would do that in front of the kids, though. It's not like she said it loudly and asked them to listen up, but pick up on that stuff. I also thought that after working with the preschool a little at the youth center(where I used to work full time), there was no way possible one ADHD 5 year old could get to me. At the youth center preschool, every kid had a meltdown every day, but that's what happens when you're a small child and homeless and have no stability in life. Man, do I miss those kids!

ANYWAY, we had fun Spanish times with this class. Was the little boy a saint? No, he chose not to participate in most of what I was doing and he got a little aggressive with the kid next to him once. But he didn't really disrupt anything and even volunteered to be first to answer one of my questions. Pretty normal behavior for that age, really. What amazed me was the comment made by the kid next to him. "He has problems." He repeated it at least 2 more times. Preschoolers do that when you don't respond immediately to what they say. I finally said, "No, he does not have problems. He is just choosing not to do what we're doing right now. I'm the teacher and that's ok with me." mind raced while I read to the class about tortillas. So this little boy at 4 or 5 has already been labeled as the "bad kid" or the "problem kid" and his classmates know it. Granted, I don't know the whole situation. Maybe this boy has created some huge inconveniences for his teacher and the whole class doesn't get to learn all of the things they could because of it. That is a difficult situation. I won't lie. Sometimes a particular child has caused in me some pretty huge internal AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! reactions. Sometimes the gut reaction is to employ physical discipline with gusto, but as a teacher you don't do that. Same thing with harsh words, whether they are screamed, scornfully whispered, or even implied. You don't do that. I met so many older children at the youth center who had been labeled as problems. Everyone got tired of them and gave up on them and the school they were at definitely didn't have the staff to give them the help they needed. Maybe no one walked up to them and said, "Hey, you're a problem and a failure and it would be much nicer around here without you," but certainly no one encouraged them to think otherwise.

I'm not trying to point fingers. If anything, the finger points straight at MY words, MY thoughts, and MY heart. I am not perfect at teaching or parenting. If I got unlimited do-overs in this area, I would pretty much use them all. I yell at my own kids when I get frustrated....especially when I see faults in them that are so very like my own. Even though I don't agree with what the teacher said today, I do empathize with her for constantly being in a situation that is not easy to solve.

And I'm not proposing a cure all solution for the kids that are so very "left behind" either. It's a complex problem that keeps looming larger as more and more children have behavior issues and disabilities and diseases that come from a society filled with families who don't know the first thing about God or how to follow his principles. And then we seemed mystified that our man-made solutions don't seem to fix the many broken things in the education system.

So where do we start? "We" being Christians who care about kids, I suppose. I know a lot of Christians who care deeply for children, but do not have any real grasp about how many children are in crisis in their own towns and cities. For example, in Terre Haute, Indiana, there are many schools with 80-90 percent of children receiving free or reduced rate lunches. One principal I talked to about tracking the number of homeless students in their school said that it would be almost impossible. "I have a whole school full of them." These are kids who have lived without running water or heat in their homes at some point. These are kids who move from house to house or hotel to apartment every few weeks. So many of these kids are exposed to violence, substance abuse and worse. And they are surprisingly normal and beautiful and resilient and have fantastic potential...but they have been labeled as the "bad" kids. They are the "problem" kids. And if they make it to a church program, I still see them being labeled this way, whether they come from poverty or wealth.

So I guess if I have any observations, advice, etc. after working with "at risk" kids at the youth center, it would be this:
1. Know that the kids that are hardest to deal with often face problems at home that would terrify most adults. Remembering that gives me a ton more patience with them.
2. Have you ever felt left out, hurt, or alone? This kid probably feels this way ALL of the time. And he or she is just a little kid. Be the adult that seeks ways to encourage a child through kind words and compliments. They get criticized too much already.
3. Churches, schools, and kid helping organizations are starved for help. You may not think you are good at working with kids. I certainly didn't think that was my strength and I still don't most days. But just spending time with a child and listening to what's important in their world is huge. Spending time is the way you show you care versus just saying you care. Donating money or things does help others out and gives you a good feeling. Don't stop doing that. But getting to know kids personally and being their champion is life changing for them and for you.
4. Pray for wisdom and for a heart that sees kids like Jesus sees them. can't go wrong there.

Ok, if you're still reading this, I didn't mean for this to be Beth's Manifesto on Kids, Society and Social Change for Christians. And I didn't think one little instance at preschool would cause me to devote a good chunk of two days writing this...but it is quite satisfying to see it put into words because I think on this a lot. Mostly because I used to be clueless and pretty judgemental about "those" kids with "those" parents. I came from an awesome family and thrived in the public school system. Working at the youth center opened some pretty blind eyes and I think a lot of people are still walking around blind. So if I have a chance to open some eyes, I try my best.

And in case you're wondering, when I said good bye to that preschool class, I specifically looked that little boy in they eyes and told him how happy I was to meet him. I got a big smile. I was very happy to meet him.

1 comment:

katdish said...

I'm glad you took the time to write this post as well. I have 2 kids, one of which has been diagnosed with ADD and Asperger's Syndrome (AS). AS is, to oversimplify a complex issue, extreme social akwardness. While my son is considered "extremely high functioning" and attends regular classes, he's just different enough to rouse the attention of any bully in the vicinity. My son is a baptized believer. His faith along with some good friends within the church plant have made the journey easier, but still difficult.

The eye contact and smile with that little boy is a seemingly small and insignificant gesture. But I'd be willing to bet it meant a great deal to him, and I consider you to be a hero.