Work
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The Most Important Part of My Job

tuenight office kelly wickham spring valley

(Photo credit: Stocksy.com)

As a Guidance Dean at a middle school in Illinois, my office life is very different from what it used to be when I was a classroom teacher. Meetings, phone calls and e-mails between parents and teachers and me seem to take up a significant amount of time. As far as being out of the office goes, I’m not in it all day, either. Each day a full hour and a half is devoted to doing lunchroom supervision.

The lunchroom is where I do some of my best work. Though I will complain about that huge chunk of time when I’m not visiting classrooms where teaching and learning is happening, nor is it time spent in my office, it is uppermost in building relationships with students. If they don’t see me regularly, how will they trust me when they need a confidante?

Now, more than ever, this important part of my job becomes known. My students are tech-savvy and all have cell phones with access to social media. Yet social media norms are something about which they aren’t savvy or mature. The nastiness that comes with adolescence is transferred online in apps in ways we never had to deal with as kids. But it’s not just in what they engage in online; it’s also what they witness.

Naturally, they’ve all seen what transpired three weeks ago at Spring Valley High School, where a student was forcefully grabbed out of her chair by a school resource officer.

[pullquote]Right now, our children are hurting and confused. Some don’t even realize how much of the trauma of the last few years has seeped into their lives.[/pullquote]

The trauma of watching that, from the Black girls in my school especially, has found its way to my office all week long. These kids, who have witnessed both the video evidence as well as the ensuing arguments about “rotten kids” who “deserve violence,” has been on their minds and is occupying their every thought. They’re bringing it to my office and, magically, I’ve turned it into a classroom again where teaching and learning happens. When they have questions about things happening in the world like Spring Valley, I am honest about my own assessment, which is this: That student didn’t deserve that treatment.

Working with adolescents has forced me to research and understand their brains and work in compassionate ways with them about making choices. I never thought I’d have to have some of these conversations with them — that’s when that daily one and a half hours of lunch duty comes in handy. I’ve worked on getting them to trust me and come to me with concerns.

Right now, our children (and that’s the collective our) are hurting and confused. Some don’t even realize how much of the trauma of the last few years has seeped into their lives. A lot of conversations begin with them expressing their anger and end with them admitting that they’re really hurt. Transferring that to them, in a language that they understand, is what my job is all about.

I watch social media pretty regularly for this very reason. If I’m honest, I’ll say that I also enjoy knowing what’s going on in the world. But, from what I saw on the video of the girl who was forcefully taken from her seat in that classroom, we’re doing so many things wrong in education if this is considered acceptable. My gut reaction to it was of horror, and I couldn’t ever see myself approving of an SRO to treat one of my students like that. We’re extensively trained in non-violent crisis prevention, and our first course of action should be to prevent a crisis. Instead, that now-fired officer of the law caused trauma on that child.

But his actions inflicted it on other Black children as well, many of them girls who ended up in my office with delicate emotional issues for the last two weeks. My office, and the things that happen there, are a place where I must see beyond the school and look to the larger context of what is happening in American public education. While I was still in the classroom, I wanted desperately to be able to address those things that, frankly, didn’t always have a place in the classroom because curriculum demanded otherwise.

Ten years ago when I began my journey into administration, students weren’t having the same issues. Many of them weren’t connected online like they are today, and they certainly didn’t know national news as much as they did local news. One of the girls who came to see me this week couldn’t put her finger on her fears. When I pushed on her out-of-school activities, she said she was mostly online and I sheepishly asked, “So, do you know about what happened to that girl in school in South Carolina?” She excitedly responded, “Yes! Was it in South Carolina? I didn’t know that. The school? Are you talking about the school?”

It was in that moment that I realized the level of trauma heaped on Black school children in America — students who see themselves in these situations. Kids who look like them are being profiled, stopped-and-searched, killed on the streets for their innocence being replaced with “thug” mentality in the minds of others and, yes, even in schools where police are invited in to handle the discipline handed over by the administrators.

My office is less like a classroom and more like triage. We’re bleeding profusely in public education, and yet we only put on bandages.

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Kelly Wickham

Kelly Wickham is a social activist who does that work in a middle school as an administrator, as a writer, and as a speaker. She writes about education, race, and being a single teenage mom. Kelly has a combined family that includes 6 adult offspring. Her writing has appeared in Yahoo!, Huffington Post, and she's been a guest on NPR. You can follow Kelly on Twitter at @mochamomma.

1 Comment

  1. Rita Arens

    That video was awful, that situation was awful, and I’m not surprised at all your kids are traumatized by it. How could they not fear it will happen to them, especially in a place where they are a) required by law to be and b) supposedly a safe haven?

    You’re doing great work. I especially like what you said about lunchroom duty, because as all of our jobs become more and more measured by tests and metrics and goals, it’s easy to lose track that the hardest part of work is not the actual work but in getting along with other people and learning to communicate effectively with them, make decisions with them and implement those decisions in a productive way. Clearly that thread was lost somewhere in that school in S. Carolina.

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