Now I found myself furiously researching major Jewish holidays before class and hoping the kids didn’t know more than I did.
I managed to muddle my way through the year. I’m reasonably proud of the fact that the class didn’t break me until our final session.
A boy wearing a princess dress taken from a box that clearly said ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ hitting his twin sister over the head with a purse.
A girl in a pink t-shirt tapping relentlessly on a fish tank screaming ‘HI FISH’ as the tank’s resident fish swam about in a confused terror.
A girl pushing a truck around the room chasing a boy and ocassionally bashing it against his ankles as he screamed out ‘BOOO!’
One kid huddled in the corner drawing.
I tried reigning them in by threatening to take away snack time. I tried using my Adult Voice, bellowing out ‘Settle Down!’ I tried wheedling, cajoling, bribery. None of it worked. Chaos reigned.
Finally, spirit-broken, I sank into a child-sized chair at a child-sized table and muttered: ‘Ok, you win. I give up.’
To my surprise, the boy wearing the dress stopped hitting his sister. ‘Are you ok?’ he asked.
I looked up. The other kids, sensing that something had shifted, also stopped their mini-rampages and gathered around. Within moments, they were all seated at the table attentively.
It was more orderly than many board meetings I’ve attended.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘All I wanted this year was to teach you all a few things, have some fun, and build some mutual respect. So, my question, I guess, is where did I go wrong? What could I have done better?’
There was a moment of silence as they contemplated.
A contemplative moment of silence for these kids constituted a minor miracle.
Then they began speaking. And listening to each other.
One suggested that I had been too easy on them.
Another chimed in to share that they needed more structure. He’d really liked the times when I’d read them stories.
A third built on the idea saying that she’d appreciated how nice I was, but sometimes they needed discipline because, after all, they were just kids.
I sat there, slack jawed, as these suddenly articulate young people schooled me. Leaving my questionable classroom management tactics aside for the moment, here’s what I learned in this spontaneous crash course on leadership:
- Regardless of their age, people respond to transparency and authenticity. As long as I had on my ‘teacher’ mask, the kids didn’t respond. The moment that I sank into the chair, accepting that I had no idea how to manage the class and revealing a bit of humanity, the group gathered around. And when I asked for their input, they displayed every bit as much wisdom and self-knowledge as any group of adults I’ve worked with.
The class jumped at the opportunity to be of use. They knew what they needed in a teacher and a leader. All it took to access that wisdom was me recognizing their inherent wisdom in a moment of human vulnerability.
- Kids of all ages respond to stories. When one of the students mentioned that he’d enjoyed the stories I’d read them, it reinforced something I already knew (but sometimes forget): people respond to stories.
No matter how chaotic the class became, the students would always gather around with rapt attention the moment that I declared (in my Adult Voice): ‘Storytime!’ For the next 20 or so minutes, they sit silently as we went on a journey together. This wasn’t a fluke–I’ve written elsewhere about the science behind this phenomenon. Stories bring people together and focus attention.
- Incentives can work. . .but may have drawbacks. Early in our time together, I incentivized the class by offering them donut holes in exchange for good behavior. It worked! They were so fixated on the promised sugary treat that they forgot to be pint sized terrors!
My brilliant tactic lasted until the parents, puzzled at how hyper their kids were at the end of class, found out about the sugar. Shortly thereafter, the head of the school contacted me to gently, but firmly, put an end to the practice. Which was fine because, frankly, it had been having a diminished effect.
When not coupled with the chance to be genuinely heard and respected, the incentive lost its power leaving a trail of sugar-addicted children in its wake.
It’s been over three years since I taught that class and, frankly, I haven’t worked with kids under the age of 15 or so since. But I often remember that final class with much gratitude when confronted with a contentious client or an unruly group of start-up founders. Instead of trying to force order or accord, I think of how helpful the kids were when asked for assistance and simply look at the folks I’m working with and ask them what they need.
More often than not, it works. And I get to keep all the donut holes for myself.