What I am Learning from Troublemakers

This year, I am teaching seniors, many of whom I taught when they were in ninth grade. This fall we read Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and took a field trip to see the film adaptation.

As a white woman, I have learned not to be surprised anymore by the trauma I feel in my own body when I am navigating a world that is racialized. I also have learned not to ignore it. Some of the scenes and chapters of the story were quite triggering, and the plot featured in the story is very far from my own lived experience.

So, for my seniors, most of whom identify as students of color (30 out of 33), I can’t begin to imagine the human reactions that brimmed to the surface for them as they participated in watching this story unfold.

This same month, I have been reading a book for a graduate course called Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby. It is a must-read for educators or people who work with kids. I found threads of my own personality in many of the teachers and students and parents. The book features four students typically labeled as “troublemakers” and asks us what we can learn from them.

Ever since I learned more about trauma and how it affects our bodies and behaviors, I am more adamant that I challenge myself to think “what happened to this person?” instead of “what is wrong with this person?”

Troublemakers actually come in multiple forms. Non-compliance in class doesn’t always look like yelling profanity, slamming doors, or fighting. It can also look like zoning out, escaping on a phone to avoid real feeling, disengaging completely, or saying something you don’t mean but haven’t been taught what else to say.

Troublemakers are often the source of blame for teacher headaches, myself included. I notice with one of my black, male seniors that even saying his name triggers him, regardless if I were to say something positive or constructive. He goes on automatic defense at the sound of his own name, which I wish could be his most treasured word he hears.

Troublemakers often get isolated, left out, or removed from the community. It’s an enormous task to invest in the lives of thirty humans at the same time. And while breaks are necessary for everyone for our own self-care, time spent away from the group is missed instructional time and further suggests that these troublemakers don’t belong.

Shalaby has so many remarkable insights, but one quote that really resonates with me this week is this:

“Children, human as they are, require and thrive on attention- loving, generous, patient attention in which they feel seen, heard, and understood. But school is a crowded place, an increasingly sterile place, and too often a place in which children are expected to pay attention, not get attention” (p. 112).

All of the humans we know have a deeply rooted desire to belong and feel worthy of love. Many of our actions have this same desire behind them.

In my marriage, I sometimes catch myself utilizing a very harsh approach in conversations where when I take the time to follow the harshness to its root, I can name that my harshness was really a misguided attempt for desperately wishing to be loved for who I am and to feel connected to my spouse.

In my classroom this year, I am hoping to notice the anger and harshness in my students. Before I ask them to step out or challenge them, I want to practice looking for the hurt they might be experiencing that is being disguised as anger and the sadness that is woven into the outbursts.

When we returned from the theatre after seeing The Hate U Give, I observed that some of my students didn’t engage the way I imagined. Several were quick to be on their phones during discussion, and I wonder if it is because they aren’t ready to truly name the feelings that emerged for them while experiencing this story.

I also observed raw anger from a black, female student who honestly took out all of her frustration with the system, the United States, police brutality, segregation, all of it, on another student who wasn’t ready to really engage at the same level of critical thinking as she was.

Now that I’ve been thinking about Troublemakers, I couldn’t help but see my student’s explosive words as a reaction to her breaking point from the trauma she was feeling from what she saw in the movie and what she sees daily in her own life.

When the people in our lives are non-compliant, it reminds us of their power. And for a long time, I didn’t want to let go of even an ounce of authority I might grasp as the adult in the room. Now, I’m noticing a shift. We all have the freedom to not engage in something that we’re not ready for, not okay with, etc. And I don’t need to be afraid of the power my students display.

I want to play an active role in preparing my students for the “real world” where disputes will inevitably arise and sometimes the status quo will need to be questioned. I want them to feel they are full human beings whose voices and lives matter. And when they fall short and make mistakes, which they will, I want to model and train them as Shalaby says ” with discipline, yes- but not with punishment” (p. 114).

Who can you be softer towards? Where do you see pain dressed up as hostility and anger? Who are the troublemakers in your life? What can you learn from them?

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