“I Don’t Need Help”

Friday, January 6th was a big day for thousands of elementary aged students and teachers across North Texas and I am not talking about the anticipated release of the “Work-in-Progress” A-F report card system which dropped today. Shortly after noon, soft and fluffy snow flakes filled the skies, shifting any focus students and teachers may have had on learning to an instant obsession with what was happening outside. Students faces were pressed oh so gently up against doors and windows trying to find the best vantage points while others, who were dressed appropriately braved the wind chills to experience the feeling of snowflakes landing perfectly on faces staring up into the snow filled skies.

While classes across North Texas and more specifically at Sigler Elementary were gawking in awe at the snow flakes, there was one class that was experiencing a separate set of emotions. Earlier in the week a teacher and I had scheduled a time for me to come down and facilitate a restorative circle or what this classroom calls a family circle. If you follow my blog, you will know I recently shared a post about empathy and how we, as educators can play a vital role in developing this awareness among our students. (Miss my post on empathy?) Read it here: Building Empathy…Changing Behavior…More Questions Than Answers

My prior discussions with this classroom teacher led us to scheduling a family circle with students to discuss how it is completely acceptable to need help, how we help those who may not request the support, how it feels to receive help and what we can begin doing immediately to help those around us. Now, I will be the first to tell you I am a novice when it comes to facilitating these restorative circles but what happened in today’s circle took me completely by surprise.

Prior to the students sharing, we reviewed the agreements they had previously discussed, including the mutual trust and respect needed to speak from the heart during our time together and the option students have not to speak and passing the talking stick (soccer stress ball) to the next student. In my efforts to lay the ground work for responses I was hoping to hear from students I discussed how I need help as the principal and how I have an amazing assistant principal who is able to see when I need help, sometimes before I recognize it myself. I discussed how it was OK that I ask for help and I discussed how once the help was received it would be a tremendous breach of trust if the person who helped me, then went behind my back and made fun of me for needing help. I really thought I had my bases covered. Then the students started talking.

Most of you know, I am the principal of a Title I, bilingual campus with a high percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. It would be naive of me to think students in schools contrary to this do not have social emotional concerns, but after having spent years serving schools with a variety of demographics, I believe my current students carry the weight of the world and have limited tools to handle the weight appropriately.

“I do not need help.”
“I tend to be independent, so I do not see why I would need help.”
“Why would I help anyone? No one is around helping me.”
“I will help someone if they ask.”
“I lookout for myself.”
“I help my sister, but that’s my job.”

These are 8-9 year olds you guys. What?!?!

Each time I heard a statement similar to the ones above, I felt as if I was being punched in the gut. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to convince these students how wrong they were. Instead, I allowed them to speak and wait for the next person to share.

It was about this time, the teacher had to excuse herself because the emotion of hearing some of her students feel as if they did not need help, they did not want help and they were not willing to help their peers whether someone asked for help or not had just become too much. It took everything I had to fight back tears. I was jealous of her. I wanted to cry. Seeing her cry made be want it even more. Yet, when her students saw her crying…not a one had a tear in their eyes. Maybe they didn’t understand? Maybe the depth of the conversation was to much? I refused to think they do not care. I believe they do.

I asked, “How does it feel to know your comments, your “I do not need help” statements impact your teacher so negatively? How does it feel to know she cares about you so deeply it brings her to tears?

At this point most students began passing and did not want to comment. Had it gotten too deep? Had I taken it too far?

I ended the circle on a soapbox, using some of the statements as a platform to let these students know the adults at Sigler do not see being a teacher as their job. As a staff, the teachers at Sigler make a choice, each day to come to school to help them.. We do not expect students to ask. We will help, regardless if students think they need it or not. We will help students even when it is hard to. It is not our job. It is our calling.

Finishing with eyes filled with tears, I let the students know if they had something to share, something they did not want the whole group to hear, I would make myself available to talk with them individually. Three students stood up and wanted to speak with me one on one.

I talked with each of them, saving one young man until the very end. To be honest, 95% of the “help” talk may have been intended for his ears, but clearly it was a message we all needed to hear. As I got down on his level, he broke. The tears fell from his face and he simply said, “I get it. I understand what you are trying to do. You are trying to help me.” The tears that are filling my eyes now are the same tears that we shared together in the hall. Tears falling in the hall, while the snowflakes fell outside.

A breakthrough? Maybe. Are we done? No way. We still have work to do.

All the work teachers have to do weighs heavy on their minds, daily. Who has time to stop the instruction and have “family circles”? Y’all…these family circles are the instruction. I learned more about this group of students in 30 minutes than I had learned all year. If we do not take the time to learn about our students, build empathy and help them build empathy for others, we are failing them.

I need them to “get it”. We need them to “get it”. We cannot fail.

In closing, I want to share a quote that was shared with me this week that is a call to action. It reinforces this work and the work of so many other teachers who refuse to fail their students.

“Welcome to success. Say goodbye to failure because you are not going to fail. I’m not going to let you fail.” – Marva Collins

4 thoughts on ““I Don’t Need Help””

  1. Matt, I appreciate the context and methods used with students to discuss empathy. We know that students do not learn behavioral/social skills (ex: empathy, integrity, perseverance) the way they learn math. As a result, we cannot teach these skills the way we teach academic skills. Students must “experience” these skills in a productive manner, which allows them to develop an understanding of what they look/feel like in real life. Taking opportunities to have discussions about real behavior, via restorative circles, or some other means, is a great strategy to help students have these true learning experiences. Well done!

  2. Matt, such a powerful post. I feel like we have the same population. I'm in southern California in a rural, low-economic farming community. My students are much like yours. And unfortunately, they do have the weight of “their” world on their shoulders. One day in their shoes would change us completely. Our school houses are many times a safe haven. A place where kids can truly be kids. Clearly, Family Circle is a time to plant seeds of encouragement, understanding, and empathy. Big hugs to you and your staff for loving your students like your own. I always tell myself that if one person or student is touched, then I've done my job. We never know which one it is, so we must always do, and be, our best. Your time with the class was an ice-breaker. The breakthrough is sure to come. PS: Give your teacher a hug for me.

  3. Thanks Matt! Breaking through to the hearts of those difficult kids is the hardest thing to do. When you do it's wonderful, you can make such a difference when they know your on their side. I wish there was a skeleton key to reach every kid but ever child is different, what works for some doesn't for others. Keep sharing those strategies, love that you make it ok for your staff to ask for help too!

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