This post is the first in a series about my experiences as the Grace-on-the-Hill instructional assistant and intern at St. Andrew’s School in Richmond, Virginia.
“Miss! It’s not fair! This is SO DUMB that you are making us do this!”
Strong words for a ten-year-old, particularly when yelled in my face at 7:25 a.m.
I didn’t have to ask what Stephon was upset about, though. I’d recently instituted a change in the way the students were allowed to play basketball during pre-school recess, and it had not gone over well. At all.
I was the only adult supervising upward of 50 kids every morning, and the raucous pushing and fighting during scrimmages made me want to pull my hair out. The kids weren’t safe – I was constantly breaking up verbal disagreements on the basketball court, which kept me from watching the kindergartners closely on the equipment. After consulting with my supervisor, I’d issued a decree that students were to separate into two lay-up lines and take precisely one shot each. This, we were sure, would keep disagreements away from the court and would allow me to watch our little ones more closely.
We were right, I guess. Disagreements were kept off the court – because my precious students moved them onto the playground. They refused to do lay-ups, and I could certainly understand why: these kids live basketball. Growing up in inner-city Richmond, they found basketball to be the great equalizer and found intense inspiration in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. They scrimmaged all the time at home, so to be demoted to lay-ups offended them deeply.
So when Stephon expressed his frustration over his morning oatmeal, I had to listen. He absolutely had a point – it was dumb. It was a rule my boss and I had come up with together in her office out of desperation, and it did nothing to address my actual problem. Scrimmages weren’t the issue; sportsmanship was. I was at a loss for what to do.
That’s what I said.
“Stephon, I feel you. But I have no idea what to do. I am in charge of keeping everyone safe, and I can’t figure out how to keep the basketball court calm enough that I can watch the little kids too. If you can come up with a solution, I’m game to try it.”
Stephon sat down beside me on the cafeteria bench and thought for a moment. He called over his best bud, Joel, and they conferred.
“Miss McPherson. What if we’re in charge? We can still do lines, but we’ll mix them up so the little kids can play too. And we’ll make sure everyone gets to take a turn and doesn’t get rude.”
I was sold, and we instituted the change immediately. By giving the authority to come up with a solution to these two fifth graders, I made them leaders, and they stepped up to the plate. For the rest of the year, we had minimal problems. It wasn’t a fairy tale, and I still had to deal with the occasional spat over someone’s sideways look at someone else’s KDs. But in the end, Stephon and Joel were able to model good behavior on the basketball court because they felt like they were trusted leaders and they wanted to live up to my expectations.
It was a powerful moment for me to realize that my tendency to micromanage doesn’t serve me well. I felt like I was the adult, the teacher, and so I should have all the answers. I didn’t ask anyone except the assistant head-of-school, a 60-year-old white woman who knew very little about sports. When our solution didn’t work, I kept trying to force it to until Stephon confronted me.
My spur-of-the-moment decision to ask him to come up with the solution introduced me to the idea of giving students autonomy over their actions, and I have used this in so many other situations since then. I’ve found that when elementary students know you think highly of them, they rise to meet your expectations. Pulling a child aside or doing a whole-group discussion and genuinely asking them how to solve a problem has yielded some of my best moments in a classroom.
I’m not perfect, and to base my classroom management on the idea that I am is inherently flawed. There’s no reason to pretend to students that I don’t make mistakes or that I know all the answers. A situation will certainly arise during the year that shows them otherwise! By treating students with respect, being honest with them, and establishing a culture of collaboration, we can all grow.