Three weeks of classes have passed. I’m not sure how many of these lessons I’ve taken with me into the classroom. It’s hard to say what you’ve learned until you reflect on your thoughts and actions. With the whirlwind that is the beginning of the school year, I haven’t had enough time to reflect on what’s new about the situation that I’m in.
This year is new for me because it’s the first time in my teaching career that I’m returning to the same school and the same program. My comfort and confidence in myself as a teacher are different this year, as is my focus. In many ways, I’ve been given a second go at a program that I develop through last year.
What these lessons have taught me, more than anything else, is that the world is connected in any number of ways.
The Cats Will Act Out of Turn
Everybody acts out of turn. Cats and students are no different. “Perfect” behaviour is boring.
Riel is vocal. He will definitely let you know when he wants something. He will meow for as long as it takes to get your attention. Only when you leave the apartment does he stop. Well, you no longer know if he’s trying to get your attention. When you come back, there is little better than hearing a fifteen-pound cat galloping in your direction to greet you. He will meow with delight and rub his cheeks against whatever part of your body he can reach, even if you are carrying four grocery bags and trying to untie your shoes.
Mikka is a bit different. He is more calculated, less emotional. Sure, he has his moments, but he isn’t as “in your face.” If you put your feet up on the centre table, he’ll give you a minute to settle in before crawling up and laying across your outstretched legs. When he’s dissatisfied, like he is after a night spent without a meal, he’ll meow a meow that reminds you of your grandmother trying to explain the importance of being a good person.
These two boys are brilliant. Sometimes, in my calmer moments, I can’t help but be amazed by each of them. Mikka, without any teeth, will clean a bowl of dry food faster than I can pour myself a bowl of cereal. Riel, with his nimble nature, will surprise me by sitting atop the refrigerator, arm dangling lazily.
Together, they are a bit of a mess. Mikka hisses. Riel swats. Mikka runs. Riel chases. Mikka hides. Riel paces. I turn to my girlfriend and look at her questioningly. We both have no idea what to do.
Here’s the thing: every time they act out of turn, we have to deal with it right away. When Mikka hisses we have to shut it down before he’s had a chance to unfurl his tongue. When Riel starts climbing the screen door, trying to get in, we have to send a quick mist of water his way before his nails retract into his paws.
Clapping works. As does raising a voice. The spray bottle produces a mist that would comfort you on a hot day but strikes the cats with a shock.
Students, for their part, act in the same way. They are all trying to figure out how to navigate their world. To them, the world is still an experiment. They live with wonder, something that has been educated out of us adults. Numerous times, I’ve been told that kids like – need – structure and clear guidelines. In fact, they want it. It’s that structure that allows them to act right.
I was never one for getting in trouble. I would rather avoid a conflict than face one. Not that I haven’t navigated my fair share of challenging situations, but I don’t like getting in trouble. Too often, I trust that people will figure it out on their own. When I ask students for feedback, they often tell me that I’m not strict enough, that I don’t follow through on consequences, that I give people too many chances.
My response is almost always the same: “Why do I need to call your parents or send you to the office in order for you to figure out that what you did wasn’t right? We had a conversation about why it wasn’t.”
My best guess is that words aren’t yet real to many students. Our cats don’t quite understand what I’m saying to them, either. Because students are still exploring their worlds with wonderment and excitement, the world isn’t as tangible to them as it is to adults. They can still fall off of the playscape and go to class; a single ice cube is a cure for most of their physical pains. Most adults complain about the limits of their benefits plan.
I worry about what impact I have on my students. I don’t want them to ever stop being the people they are. I want them to be as fully as possible. I want them to be proud of who they are. What I also want is for them to have the skills to navigate the world that they live in, which includes all of the people who they will interact with. Rules provide us with predictability, something that most people enjoy. The skills I try to help my students develop are for those times when what they predicted would happen didn’t.
The only thing that I demand from my students is reciprocal respect. I expect the same from our cats. Some relationships are one-sided.