Stop. Listen. Know when and how to advocate.

It is the second week of school and I am greeted at breakfast by a child with sad eyes. “Please don’t make me go to school Mom. My teacher is mean!” And with this she bursts into tears.

“Wow, this is the first I’ve heard about her being mean. What did she do that’s mean?” I ask.

“It’s hard to explain, she’s just mean. Please don’t make me go back!”

We move to the couch where where she can cuddle next to me. “Can you tell me what happened yesterday?”

“She said she was going to really push us hard this year and make us move out of our comfort zones! I don’t want to move out of my comfort zone!” There is another round of tears.

“And you’re already uncomfortable because you’ve had to change schools?” Her head nods inside my hug. “And you’re sad because you didn’t get the teacher that you already knew at school?” She nods again. “And you’re worried because none of your friends are in your class?” Another nod. My husband gives me a look clearly indicating that he doesn’t believe I’m improving the situation as the tears continue to flow. When the they slow down I try a few different approaches. “Have you thought about why your teacher might have said it?” I ask.

“Because she’s mean!”

I try a different approach, my teacher approach. “Did you know that learning is all about pushing yourself farther than you thought you could go and that’s not always comfortable but when you show yourself you can do it, it feels good?”

“Learning should be fun, not scary! And her face and voice was mean when she said it!”

“Can you show me how she said it? I want to hear her mean voice.” My daughter turns to me with a scowl on her face and  says “I’m going to push you hard this year and get you out of your comfort zone!”

“Whoa that is mean!” I say, “Let me try.” I put on my best scowl and with a bit of a growl in my voice I say, “I’m going to push you hard this year and get you out of your comfort zone!” She gives me a deprecating look, “That’s not it!” I try again, each time a little sillier doing my best Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck imitations. Before long we’re both laughing. “Did you know, when I was studying to be a teacher I was told not to smile before Christmas?”

“That’s dumb! Why would they tell you that?”

“I think it was because they thought that some kids wouldn’t take you seriously if you smiled too much and then they would ignore the classroom rules. It’s hard to get things done if students aren’t following rules.” She gives me a thoughtful look before wandering off to get ready for school.

If you look up the word advocate, it is all about speaking; speaking in favour or in support of something. But perhaps this is where we miss the mark. I could have gone to the teacher and shared with her extensive research on the importance of building trusting relationships in the classroom or conversely I could have told my daughter that life is about learning to work with many different kinds of people and asked her to give the teacher a chance. Both would have been advocating but both would have been far less successful than simply listening and hearing with my heart. On many days, this will be enough…but not always.

I can’t tell you the number of times in my role as coordinator for the Gifted Program that I have been told that my intense, highly sensitive students need to learn coping skills if they are going to survive in this world. We ache for these children as we work hard on strategies to help them cope and while these strategies can be important, we must not forget the listening.

Let’s imagine you speak up about something that is really frustrating or hurtful (and there are many ways you speak out, not just with words) and no one hears you.  You may be tempted to raise your voice and before long you are screaming and have created a major incident. So you are told that when you feel like screaming there are many things that you can do to keep yourself from screaming and thus avert future incident. Still no one knows what prompted you to speak in the first place. Maybe you just needed someone to listen and help you understand the intensity of feelings that you experience. Maybe there are things that you just don’t understand and it’s frustrating because you’ve always been told you’re smart. Maybe some of the things that happen in this world just don’t make sense and are you the only one who sees it?!? Wouldn’t you want at the very least, someone who listens? If we are the ones who take the time to listen, we will know if we need to take further steps.

Which brings us to the students who have stopped screaming. The students who have learned strategies to cope while trying to deal with the frustrations and hurt on their own. The ones who may take a long time before they trust that you are actually interested in what they have to say and willing to listen. The ones who may need us to begin speaking on their behalf because when listening won’t be enough. Now we must learn the hard work of advocacy, the work of changing the environment (when necessary) that prompted  and perhaps ended the screaming in the first place.

Advocating. When we believe we are right, we tend to like the sound of our own voice and yet here is a time we must listen once again. Until we can understand the mindset of the individual or organization that we believe is failing to meet the needs of our children, it will be difficult to advocate for change. Dr. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, established a online community called The Society for Organizational learning where you can find protocols for balancing inquiry and advocacy. As I read through the conversation templates I realize that I still have much to learn about advocacy, especially in a time when it feels like so many of our conversations have become restricted by time and utilize abbreviated forms of communication.

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