Reach Out to Your Little Dreamers — Continuing the Disciplinary Implosion Posts

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I taught bilingual middle school classes and I am clear on an aspect of the DACA fight that escapes many of our nation’s leaders. The stress that comes from being a dreamer child? That stress can be hell on wheels in some classrooms.

Whether it’s worrying about being deported, worrying about mom and/or dad being deported, worrying about never being able to get a college education or a professional job, all that worrying bleeds out into classrooms all over America. It’s the girl silently crying in the corner. It’s the boys and girls who start using alcohol and drugs to self-manage anxiety. It’s that kid who blows up at you when you start discussing college options, because all of the best options appear out-of-reach. I’ve written other posts about life without that critical social security number.

In this set of posts for new teachers with classes that are spinning out of control, I will simply observe that dreams may be part of your problem. Please keep in mind when you give your “so you are ready to be an astronaut or even President” speeches that some kids in your room may feel zero hope that they can even be a registered nurse — the background check shuts that down — and those kids may only be further demoralized by your speech. If you have immigrants in your room, your pep talks must be crafted carefully.

Dreamers can be tough sells where education is concerned, and tough sells often create disciplinary challenges. You may not be entirely able to solve this fact, depending on who landed in your class this year. Here’s a list of a few things that may help:

  1. Sit with those kids who are struggling, and if they tell you they see no point in education, respond that they can never know when education will be useful. I had a story of a Spanish professor who had been thrown out of Cuba and lost everything, but then became a respected university professor in a small town in Washington State. “They can take everything away from you,” he said, “but not your education.” It’s true.
  2. Sit with those kids who are struggling and just let them know that their learning matters to you, enough so that you will set aside time to make sure that they have help as they master new concepts.
  3. Enlist your problem kids to help you keep classroom order. Sometimes kids will do for their teacher what they will not do for themselves. I used to look at assignments and think, “I wish you would do this for you, not me,” but as long as I got the assignments, I could continue to work on the pep talks.
  4. Call home. Get parents to start giving education pep talks, too. They probably have been doing so for years, but sometimes you will benefit if parents understand their son or daughter needs a “booster shot.”
  5. Depending on your student and that student’s mindset, you might point out that laws change all the time, and even if the law is one way today, that does not mean that law cannot change radically in one session of Congress. I ‘d say be careful with this piece of advice, though. Your doomsayers may come back. “Yeah, they might come for us next week!” These are scary times and your students do not see Congress as their friend.
  6. Praise real efforts.
  7. In practical terms, put your disaffected dreamers near the front, and preferably not together. My seating chart would put those dreamers with hardworking students. You want elbow partners to model the behavior you are looking to create.
  8. Don’t forget to share the load. The social worker and counselors can provide a great deal of help.
  9. Remind yourself of the social forces affecting your classroom. Your classroom does not behave like Ms. Smith’s when you were in school? Your students are probably not Ms. Smith’s students — and some differences in class composition can be determinative in terms of disciplinary challenges.
  10. On the other hand, if Ms. Smith’s class looked a lot like your class, maybe you should go find Ms. Smith and ask for her advice. I guarantee you your old teacher will be happy to help and grateful to know you noticed how well her efforts worked. The odds are good that she will be delighted to see you. Teachers love to discover they inspired the kids in their care to become teachers themselves.

Eduhonesty: This post is mostly targeted to teachers of middle school and high school students, but younger students with older siblings may be grappling with dreamer challenges as well. That little girl who tells her older brother she wants to be a doctor or teacher may get slammed with the “You have no social so you can’t!” message. I would not bring dreamer issues up with younger kids, who may be blissfully oblivious, but I would be alert to the concern with even the youngest kids. A preschool class I taught in last year had two fathers facing deportation.