When Monica Nawrocki moved from a regular classroom setting to the Regional Support Centre in Selkirk, Manitoba, she worked every day with a population of students who had been labeled “bad.” She thought she was simply going to learn new skills as an educator.
In fact, what she learned went far beyond words, definitions, skill, strategies, or philosophies. She learned about relationships, about herself, about the miracle of human resiliency and about the ability to change and grow. This frank and practical memoir is a reflection on her learning in seven years at the Centre.
The eleven short chapters work through the topics of communication, conflict, anger, and problem-solving. Each chapter shares actual experiences and reflects on what worked and what did not. This book is alive with story; real children in real situations with a real teacher. Nawrocki shares her experience with a surprisingly open heart. It is a quick read which promises to make you laugh, cry, and rethink some of your assumptions about how we approach troubled youth.
About the author
Monica Nawrocki has more than 20 years of experience in teaching and working with at-risk youth. As a teacher/counselor at the Regional Support Centre in Selkirk, Manitoba, she learned that empathy, love, and flexibility in the middle of a crisis is a tremendous opportunity for so-called “bad” kids to learn the important life skills that will lead them to success. She has written both fiction and non-fiction and now lives and works on Cortes Island, BC.
Excerpt: Thanks for Chucking That at the Wall Instead of Me: Teaching At-Risk Children and Youth (by (author) Monica Nawrocki)
CHAPTER ONE: SETTING THE SCENE AT THE CENTRE: TALKING UPSIDE DOWN
I did not aspire to work with at-risk children. I did not streamline my education in that direction, I did not seek out employment opportunities in the field. I worked in regular classrooms for about eight years, and one day someone called me on the phone and said, “Hey, you should apply for this alternative position in our school” and presto, my life took a new direction. I applied for it because I needed a job and thought I must have a shot since they called me and encouraged me to apply. I went to a job interview at seven o’clock in the morning (NOT my optimum time), on the very last day of school in June. I was clutching a cup of coffee and contemplating the wisdom of the previous night’s festivities. The hiring principal started off with a fairly benign question that sounded enormously complex to my sleep-deprived brain, so I suggested he start over and maybe ask me my name or something like that. I got the job.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. Sylvia Bastable, one of the women on the hiring committee for that job, who would eventually become my boss, mentor, and friend, said she could see “the humour” from the start. My humour helped me tremendously through this professional and personal journey.
Sylvia also said that from that first meeting, she saw in me what she called a “counselling personality.” During the following years we had many discussions about what exactly that meant (and how big my caseload should be as a result). Eventually I came to understand what she was getting at. She was perceptive to see anything at that early stage, though, because I was unaware of any interest or aptitude for working with difficult kids. I think what she saw was compassion. Everything else, she figured, she could teach me. She was mostly right.
So I began my journey in working with at-risk students. The job was working at a junior high school as a transition teacher with a group of seventh graders who had been identified by the sending elementary schools.The schools felt that this group of kids would have little chance of success in junior high without some intervention.
That first year was one of trial and error. Lots of both. I learned a tremendous amount, but was always frustrated with the job. What I couldn’t see until much later was that I was trying to create a unique program with the same old tired building blocks I’d hauled around since university. You know the old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I was looking at the problems the kids were having from the wrong viewpoint. I thought I was responsible for their change. I worked my butt off and even experienced some feelings of “success” as students improved behaviourally and academically. But I nearly killed myself and I don’t think many of those changes were long-term.
What I did learn that year was that kids in the classroom who look like “troublemakers” are gifted, sensitive, potential-packed little souls, often hurting, and always desperate to succeed, regardless of the fact that their actions might suggest exactly the opposite.
At the end of that eye-opening year, I had the opportunity to go to Maryland to participate in a week-long training session in Life Space Crisis Intervention. That was the turning point for me. That was when my perception shifted so that my job looked different. I left my hammer there and got some cool new tools.
Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) is about talking with children and youth in crisis. The idea is that the middle of a crisis is a great learning opportunity. That in itself was a shift in thinking. I had always thought that dealing with crisis was about calming the waters as quickly as possible, figuring out who was the instigator, and administering a fair and meaningful consequence for the misbehaviour. I came to realize that with most kids, a crisis is a predictable and repetitive part of a cycle of ineffective behaviour. For young people to be able to change a pattern of behaviour into something more effective and socially acceptable, they must see that pattern. The best way to show them that pattern is for a caring adult to wade into the middle of a crisis with them.
The September after my LSCI training, I began working at the Regional Support Centre. The RSC is a small centre for students throughout the Lord Selkirk School Division in Manitoba. Typically, a student whose behaviour is becoming unmanageable in the regular classroom may be referred to the Centre. Students attend there for a minimum of eight weeks, although some remain for as long as three years. The goal is to help them identify their patterns of behaviour, make changes, and reintegrate into their home schools. This “simple” prescription can involve a myriad of different approaches, and can include numerous professionals from within or outside the school division. Rare cases may be placed in the hands of medical professionals. The Centre is a place where crisis is not feared, and where kids are viewed with compassion and treated with dignity regardless of how outrageous their behaviours might appear. It is here that my education really began.
Nothing in my university schooling prepared me for what I experienced at the RSC. The first time a student threw a binder across the classroom, yet managed to “problem solve,” (deal with it, accept the consequences and end the day with a smile), I knew things were going to be different. I was on board! The first time the binder was directed towards my head and was accompanied by some choice names for me, I was far less on board. It took a while, but eventually I could be just as happy about a positive resolution when I was the target of the aggression. I guess that was the first big lesson of the RSC: you can’t take it personally. That binder and all the others that followed it were not about me, and if I hadn’t gotten past the “righteous indignation,” I would have missed out on everything.
My stories are all set at the RSC, and the lessons I learned came from there, so I want to paint a quick picture before we continue.
The year I joined the staff at the RSC, there was one classroom with a teacher/counsellor and a teacher assistant (TA), plus a director, who was also a teacher and counsellor. Seven years later there was a director, three classrooms, each with a teacher and full-time TA, and varying numbers of other TAs depending on funding for individual students. For example, a student whose needswere severe enough to qualify them for Level 3 funding would have a full-time TA. As a result, the group of three I joined in 1995 was a team of eight to ten (depending on the clientele) in 2002 when I left. Class sizes ranged from six to ten pupils on average. The two directors of the Centre, first Sylvia Bastable and then her partner, Bob Bastable, both created and continue to encourage a team approach to dealing with students. All staff deal with all students, and staff consult together weekly to discuss students, progress and strategies. Less formal debriefing and consulting happen constantly.
In addition to the three classrooms, the Centre has a common area with a ping pong table and couches, a kitchen where everyone eats lunch together, an office, bathrooms, a meeting room, and a Quiet Room. The Quiet Room is in the elementary classroom and is available for students to take a timeout of their own choosing, one suggested by a peer or adult, or one chosen and enforced by an adult. The students are welcome in all rooms at appropriate times and are remarkably respectful of these boundaries.
Kids at the Centre quickly learn that problem-solving is a requirement. They learn that their behaviour will draw very different reactions, or lack of reactions, from the adults here, as compared to those at their home school or their home. They learn that there are very few non-negotiables and that whatever happens, they will eventually have to talk about it. Not hear about it - talk about it. No one requires eye contact and “sitting up at the table.” Kids talk from the floor, from behind the couch, while sitting on their heads, through puppets, with fake voices, in the car, through notes, while drawing, on the swings, through locked doors, and on the phone. But they talk.
The result of talking: being heard. That is one of the main things that is different for kids at the Centre. With the luxury of time not afforded to our counterparts in the regular system, teachers at the Centre can usually take the time or make the time to listen. The feedback from students confirms that this simple concept has a powerful impact and the knowledge that they will be heard is a necessary part of the change process.
One fruit of listening is understanding. To hear a student explain an event, with a few questions here and there, is to gain insight into the motivation behind the behaviour.
The Centre, with its intimate setting and family-like feeling, is where I got my education as a teacher. Let me tell you a story or two …