Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Is It “Us verse Them” in Your School?

Is It “Us verse Them” in Your School?

I refuse to perpetuate the “us verse them” mentality that I have encountered all my previous 7 years as a teacher. It is not always possible to break the “us verse them” mentality or cycle but where ever possible I try. I also refuse to perpetuate this mentality in my current role. I am co-principal at BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Service) Summer School at Wellsville Central School in Wellsville, New York. Currently, I am a graduate student at Niagara University and attempting to become a future school leader. As part of my internship I have given myself the humorous title of Co-Principal. It’s humorous because, Dan Denner, the other Co-Principle has been the principal here at summer school for 4 years, been a summer school teacher 8 years and has been teaching at Whitesville for 12 years.

We have about a dozen students that smoke across the street, off of school grounds and before school starts. The law is actually pretty clear about under age smoking and loitering around schools, but that is not a direction I really want to go in. I think for some school administrators I’m taking a “different” approach by trying to get to the bottom of why they smoke. I am trying to build a relationship with the students and it seems to actually be working. I often go across the street to talk to them. I affectionately say while crossing the street “Good Morning young lung polluters.” I often say, when I leave, “you young lung polluters have a great morning.”

As co-principal, I’m not sure what to do about it. Calling the police for loitering or underage smoking will, in my mind, not accomplish what I want. Getting the kids in trouble will basically continue the “us verse them” mentality and make them more untrusting of adults. Allegany County is the poorest county in New York State and many of these students have some financial difficulties. According the Ruby Payne’s research, “the only thing that can break the cycle of generational poverty is a caring relationship with an adult and education.” I have tried to create a rapport with the students who smoke and I’ve made efforts to try to guide them into caring about themselves on a very general level. We have also suggested to students about calling their parents and basically the students say “go ahead, cause that’s how we get them [cigarettes].” Nothing seems to work so, last Thursday I took the matter a step further. Near the smoking area I stapled signs to a telephone pole. Actually, they were just little fliers that had pictures of healthy lungs and smoker’s lungs. You could see the black asphalt lung compared to the red, vibrant lung very clearly.

I spoke to a summer school teacher, who is a teacher from Wellsville. I asked him if there is always a group of students who smoke before and after school and he said “yes.” I asked him why he thought they did this. I asked him if he thought it were just students making poor choices. He said no. It is different than that. He stated that it has to do with people not wanting to be told what to do. I agreed with his point. He said that no one likes to be told what to do and that may not be why students started to smoke but it is probably why students continue to smoke.

This morning (8/11/10) I asked multiple students why they smoke. Many of them mentioned that their parents smoked. They also stated that their lives are very stressful. I continued and asked, “what is so stressful about your life?” One student said he has school and a job and his job is stressful. He works in a local restaurant where the kitchen is extremely hot. I did say that other people have stressful lives and they don’t smoke. I also told this particular student about the concept of reframing. I stated that you should try to find something that you enjoy that is healthy and substitute that activity for smoking. So, when you get the urge to smoke you should maybe listen to music, eat raw carrots and read an extreme sports magazine, as a possibility. I gave them an example that is near and dear to my heart. My mother, Susan Weinberg, smoked and she is actually a cancer survivor. I went on to say that my mom smoked and I don’t smoke. I also talked about my own addictions with food. Basically I weighed 30 pounds more than I do now, and there are people all around me that eat foods that I want to eat but I make health choices much of the time.

I can here the “other side of the coin” arguments about my philosophy centered around student smoking in my head. Kids should be held accountable for their consequences. The law is the law. I understand this as well. I also know that when kids continue to smoke around me that it damages my authority. I realize that I am sacrificing my authority to build relationships with these kids for a greater good with the hopes of positive decisions down the road when these students become adults. I would also like to make it clear that this is in no way a cultural issue with the school or the town of Wellsville. I believe that the issue around smoking is deep ceded in poor economic conditions, living environments where this behavior occurs and a misunderstanding of actions and one’s health.

I mentioned previously how people don’t like to be told what to do and students are no acceptation. The issue that I am having internally is the idea of “us verse them” and students learning that people in the future will tell you what to do. Students also need to realize that every time someone tells you what to do, it is not always “us verse them.” With that said, no matter what job you have, and there are different degrees of politeness, future employers are going to tell you what to do. A part of me thinks that students need to get used to people telling them what to do or they will never keep a job.

Let’s face the facts. These students are not going to quit smoking at noon today because I had this conversation with them. Really that is not my point. I am hoping that someday, maybe 10 to 15 years from now, that one of these students say “hey, remember that Mr. Weinberg? He was interesting. Do you remember the pictures of lungs he put up?” And I hope that after all the things they heard, seen or experienced pushes them over the edge and my efforts contribute to them making the tough decision to try to stop smoking because someone cared and made an effort.

I would love to know your thoughts on this matter.

If you are a student answering, just leave your initials, or at the most, your first name only. All comments are moderated before they go up on this blog.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Rick. I still struggle with this addiction as a 57 year old and advocate not starting said addiction. I don't want to be a smoker but it is extremely difficult to quit. You are right that people telling you to stop is not going to make it happen, nor do I believe it's only a matter of will power. With any addiction, once it's got you, it can be a lifetime of recovery. I hope your method has an impact and they stop before it's too late.

P. Nevid said...

First of all, I would like to applaud you for not calling the police. Kids, especially the demographic that you have described, have a hard enough time making their way in the world without actually being thrown into the "school to prison pipeline." Your talking to the kids about making positive choices instead of smoking is a philosophical approach used to treat adolescent substance abuse with the Adolescent Community Reenforcement Approach (A-CRA) that highlights youth and family strengths. Youth are given positive choices and prosocial activities that will (hopefully) replace their need to use. Kids all over face similar challenges and those of us in the adolescent substance abuse treatment world constantly hear about the stressors of youth peoples lives, i.e. being shot at; parents, friends, and relatives incarcerated or dead; not understanding school because of undiagnosed learning disabilities, etc. We also get frustrated with educators, because we also feel like you don't get it. All you care about is that kids behave well and get good grades, which can be hard to do with all the environmental challenges. So thank you for getting to know these kids.

Anonymous said...

If any of the students who smoke are taking math class, ask the teacher have them figure out the cost of smoking over say 30 year. That $ amount probably will equal a new car or something of value.

Anonymous said...

I'm playing 'devil's advocate' a bit here, but as the principal/school leader, isn't it your responsibility to enforce School/Board policy? What is the policy for for students smoking across the street? As the principal, are you obligated to call the authorities? Note: These are not loaded questions.

Judy M.

ItIsIRick said...

Judy. Thank you so much for reading and then responding to my blog. You have always been a great supporter of anything I have written. You are right. My job is to enforce board policy. The BOCES summer school is just a guest in the building and we must follow the rules of the school. I want you to know that I have done my research on this issue. Just today, I spoke with a Wellsville principle who works in the building during the regular school year. She said that when it comes to the smoking issue they have tried everything. Basically, they have asked the students to move and not stand in front of the school. There were concerns about how the school would look to the community with students smoking in front of it. Then the students went and smoked in front of the neighbors houses and that caused problems. The principle said that basically the rules that govern smoking on public/non-school grounds is not enforceable. I guess that I was a bit wrong when I said the “law is very clear.” The rules may be clear but it’s complicated. The principle I spoke to hates the whole smoking situation.

Here is another thing to consider. I am interning as a principal. Now might be the best time to be a bit experimental and give different things a try. Honestly, I do care about these kids. I have always found that the students who make the worst choices were the most challenging and the ones I spent most of my time trying to help. I also very much enjoy them, as well.

I just don’t want to make these kids more distrusting of adults, police or other authority figures. Building trust instead of destroying it will open the door someday for another caring adult to influence these student’s lives, hopefully for the positive. I hope I have answered your question.

ItIsIRick said...

Cindy, Thanks so much for reading and responding to my blog. I think we all have struggles with addiction in someway or another.

Anonymous said...

Rick, you are are on the right track! The question should always come down to, "What matters most?" What matters? The policies of the school and the laws of the village or the lives of those kids? My, oh my! How quick we are to judge! I respect the way you are going about approaching this issue. The RELATIONSHIP you establish with these students, even for this short time, is the most important thing you can have done.

I could go on and on and on... and here is what I would bet a large sum of money on... if you were to look at WHY these students are in summer school it would have NOTHING to do with smoking. (I know, shocking!) I would bet that at least 80% of these students struggle with dyslexia. Anyone wanna take that bet? "I would rather be considered 'bad' than be thought of as 'stupid.' Been there, done that- with style! And we know that if we looked at those parents, who also smoke, they would have struggled in school as well.
So, let me reiterate... What matters most? Our view of what we think a student should be OR the student him/her self!!!!
Pam (I'll bet you guessed that!)

ItIsIRick said...

P. Nevid. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. Thank you for the kind words about my attempts to "get to know" these kids.

The most interesting thing I thought you said has to do with "teachers not getting it." I can see where you are coming from. My daughter is 8 years old and very active. I am sure that she would be diagnosed borderline Attention Deficient Disorder. I feel that many of my daughters past teachers should have used a more kinesthetic teaching approach instead of requiring her to sit still, be quiet and work on worksheets all day.

On the other hand, teachers have a lot of stress now too. Basically, the classroom teacher is responsible for the safety and education of all students. The stress centered around state assessments, making annual yearly progress and keeping their job is enough to make teachers their students learning at all costs and the easiest way they know. Many teachers that I know do get it. They understand the concept of mandatory reporter and refer students, whom they see are having issues, to counselors.

I know that the smart readership of this blog will concur when I say our educational system could improve and relationships can make a difference.

Don said...

Very good writing and you obviously are passionate, articulate and idealistic. All good traits for an educator and one entering administration. I read your post this morning and have contemplated it at different times during the day. How do you respond to a situation like student smoking in an intelligent and thoughtful manner that is likely to produce a change in the behavior?

Calling the police is definitely out of the questions because it invites hostility and rebellion both of which will only make matters worse. Some of the children who might otherwise hear your message will continue to smoke in defiance of your forceful action.

I'm a student of the Tao and inclined to look in that direction along with my idealism. Martial arts too uses the antagonists own power or force to defeat the opponent. One of my favorite quotes from the Tao-te-Ching is, "the soft overcomes the hard." This is from Chapter 78 of the Tao. You wont be able to scare these smokers as they are addicted but don't realize and the addiction blinds them to the truth of their action. Rational arguments will not prevail and that is the paradox of those who try to help addicts. Therefore I think that Love, lovingkindness and acceptance might help these troubled youth to see that you really have their best interests at heart. We all want quick fixes and there really are no quick fixes. Are your efforts in vain? Hardly! You have raised an important issue and invited a conversation that needs to occur in the community.

Candace said...

What an interesting discussion. My dad, a State Supreme Court Jude, smoked all his life. He died at 61. Just before he died he was a candidate for open heart surgery; then during pre-op, a routine Xray revealed a spot on his lung no one had noticed because it was "in the shadow of the heart." I've never forgotten that phrase. He tried to quit, but couldn't. I guess I feel that our society has a lot to answer for...yes, I know, we comprise that society,...but collectively we have allowed people, kids, access to these deadly poisons. In fact, until very recently we actually encouraged smoking. If cigarettes were arsenic, some people would still smoke...but I'll bet not as many. Maybe if we took a page from AIDS activists and handed out nicotine patches, etc. like they handed out condoms, we could start making a difference. I've never been a fan of scared straight programs, but maybe if some kids actually met people suffering from lung cancer, emphezema (sp?), etc. it would start them thinking. You are doing somethng similar with your posters. We have all been guilty of self-destructive behaviors, but these don't define us as people. What if the school actually created a safe zone for smokers, where the price of admission was to educate yourself and others and maybe set small, achievable steps....