Sometimes I forget how often I need to speak tolerance to my co-workers rather than to speak about tolerance to them. By this I mean that when we’re having a talk-back session after a particularly hard day and my co-workers and I are frustrated with a particular student (or group of students, more often), I don’t need to say, “Remember, this girl is raising her younger brother and she has no reason to trust adults,” or “We know that this family is experiencing homelessness right now, and in the past that’s been tied to this child’s behavior.”
Instead, I need to hear my co-workers’ frustrations, and my own, in a way that helps us all feel heard, and validates our feelings, before we come to any conclusions about next steps with a youth. For the examples above, this might mean instead of saying:
“Remember, this 13-year-old girl is raising her younger brother, and she has no reason to trust adults,” I might say, “It’s hard to hear someone cuss you out and then still speak to them with respect, especially when it upsets the adult-child balance,” or simply, “It sounds like your need for respect isn’t being met when this child talks back.”
And instead of saying, “We know that this family is experiencing homelessness, and in the past, that’s been tied to this child’s behavior,” I might say, “We’ve discussed in the past how this child exhibits a higher need for attention when their family is in transition. How can the rest of the staff support you in giving this child positive attention?”
My responses could take on many forms. The important part of these interactions—and what I must constantly, consciously, work on in my interactions with my co-workers—is to remove blame from the child and to help my co-workers feel heard and supported. I can make the effort to model active listening and nonviolent communication and to make these resources available to my co-workers. I’ve donated copies of Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit and Living Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg to my workplace, and I regularly distribute copies of articles from the Teaching Tolerance blog that speak to experiences we have with the youth in our care.
And, I’ve worked consistently to form relationships with my co-workers that extend beyond a purely professional relationship. As a staff, we speak frequently about our own experiences in school and in our families of origin. We talk about personal difficulties, because we understand that the division between personal and professional is rarely clean-cut in a community with a strong oral tradition and in which racial tensions have been high for half a century.
We also understand that many of us are choosing to work with this population of highly under-resourced, “at-risk” youth because of similarities to our own stories and that, because of this, we might be triggered by something a youth chooses to share with us.
This personal connection allows me and my co-workers to help one another identify if we’re overreacting to a particular youth because of something in our own past or present. It also allows us to reach out to one another, and support each other, in a way that speaks tolerance rather than to simply get through each day by speaking about tolerance without modeling it or turning it into action.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.