I would usually say that I’m pretty good with classroom management, steady and even-tempered with kids, making approximations with student behavior where I can. Usually I can have a quiet conversation with one kid while the others keep on dancing. It’s easy to weave in a quick little talk that changes behavior so that we can go on with our game. I’m good about setting out the rules and procedure before the activity starts and following through so that everything runs smoothly.
But something very different happened that day.
Something in me snapped and everything ground to a halt.
The backstory is that I was taking a class period to show my student teacher the super fun folk song “Chicken on a Fencepost.” I love this song and my kids do too! I usually teach it to fourth grade and we learn the history, sing through the song, and add a circle dance/game to make things even more interesting. I was bringing the song back for one day with my fifth graders so that my student teacher could see another example of the Orff process with an older grade. I wanted him to get an idea of how to teach the song, add rhythms, include some instruments, and get everyone working together. I figured it would be a home run lesson. My students already knew the song, had tried out the instruments, and even knew the dance. We were just doing it again because it was so much fun and there should have been no issues.
We were half-way through the lesson and things were going great. Students were singing and using body percussion. Several students had moved to the instruments to add an accompanying bordun and we were just about to add the dance. I gave the students the instructions to stand up and make two concentric circles. I even brought out a visual and intentionally divided the class into the two circles so that they wouldn’t squabble about who would be in which group. They were moving into position when I turned around to check in on the kids playing the bordun. The instruments weren’t quite together and it was the bass metallophone who was just a little off. I took 15 seconds to walk over and check in with the instruments and when I turned around to head back to my circle dancers I saw it.
There in the inner circle a girl was pulling her hand away from a boy and making a disgusted face. A girl right behind her in the outer circle saw it happen and followed suit, starting to pull her hand away from the boy that she was standing with. That’s when everything fell apart. I raised my voice.
Not in this classroom. That will not happen in this classroom.”
Everyone stopped and looked up. A room that is usually bustling with sound and excitement was completely silent. I let the silence sink in. I made eye contact. I showed my frustration in my face. I let kids think. And then I started talking.
“You do not pull your hand away from another student in this classroom and make a face of disgust. You do not turn your back on another kid in this classroom.
If someone comes to you and holds out their hand, you take it.
I don’t care if they are a boy and you are a girl.
I don’t care if they are a girl and you are a boy.
I don’t care if they look different than you.
I don’t care if you don’t like them.
I don’t care if they haven’t washed their hand in weeks.
I don’t care.
If someone comes to you and holds out their hand to ask to be your partner, there is only one answer.
And if you are not willing to reach out your hand, then you can leave this room.
If you’re not willing to share in this moment and join together, then you can go to the office, or in the hallway, or back to your teacher, or anywhere but this room.
We are all together in this classroom. We are one unit. One family. When you pull your hand away that tears this family apart.
You may not mean it, but when you pull your hand away you’re saying:
‘Eew, you’re gross.’
‘Eew, you’re not good enough to be my partner’
‘Eew, I don’t want to be with you’
‘Eew, I don’t like you’
That is not respect. That is not treating people royally. That is not being kind or a good citizen or a good friend. That is being a bully.”
Then I paused. And let them breathe. And let myself breathe. Then I softened and continued.
“If someone comes to you and holds out their hand to ask to be your partner, there is only one answer. That answer is yes.
I don’t care if they have the filthiest hand that they haven’t washed for weeks and weeks. I buy my hand sanitizer at Costco and I buy a lot of it. I’m pretty sure that we can clean off any germs that you may or may not catch. If you think the other person’s hand is legitimately gross then at the end of class you are welcome to get as much hand sanitizer as you want. You’d better believe that I’ll be getting some. I know exactly where your 5th grader hands have been and I’m going to be using a bunch of hand sanitizer to clean off the germs from your grubby hands.”
We smiled. We relaxed. We breathed again and then I went on.
“In a few seconds I am going to let you make a choice. You always have a choice.
You can choose to be a part of this group, this family, and these circles or you can choose not to.
You can choose to take the hand of the person next to you, or you can choose to turn away from them.
You can choose to make this moment matter. You can choose to make the most of your time. You can make that choice. Or you can turn your back on your classmates.
You are who you choose to be.
I want you to make the right choices. The choices that help you grow and the choices that make everyone feel included. I’m going to turn around and help our instruments get started again. When I turn back I hope to see that you have made a choice to be a part of this class.”
I’m not sure what made me so emotional in that moment but something just bubbled up and soon all the commotion focused in. I truly believe that teachers, especially teachers of the arts, are given a huge gift to shape the lives of the little people in our room. My hope for each of my kids is that they grow up to be respectful, open-minded, caring, thoughtful, and loving individuals. If they also grow up to have a love for (or even a respect for) music, that’s great too.
I try to make moments matter in every class period. This little speech took 4 minutes, tops. But I bet you anything that those kids remember it. I hope they remember me, not as the teacher who went nuts and shut down the class, but as the teacher that cared about how they interacted with one another. I hope they remember me as the teacher who cared for every kid and reached out his open hand.