In the last 15 minutes of chorus yesterday the students needed to finish a few pages in their sightreading packet. They were all scattered around the room as they worked with their friends, free from their chairs on the risers. I was walking around to each group explaining the details of the assignment as questions came up. I was vigilant in making sure the students had 4 beats in each measure in their 4/4 time examples, encouraging them to check each other’s work.
There were a bunch snacks underneath the desk in the chorus room that were leftover from an event that we hosted over the weekend. They were hidden, but apparently just enough in view that it caught the eye of one of my middle school singers. About 5 minutes before the class ended I was quietly told that one of my students (let’s call her Lilly) was taking the snacks and hiding them underneath her sweatshirt on the floor. It was very sneaky. If nobody said anything I probably would not have noticed. I discreetly went over to Lilly’s group and asked if any of them needed any help. I moved her sweatshirt so I could sit down and there were the snacks. She was totally busted.
I have a good rapport with Lilly. She is a great kid, a good singer, an athlete, and has a fun sense of humor. She struggled last year in 7th grade with detentions and ISS, but she is doing much better this year. Lilly’s grades do not reflect her potential and it is pretty transparent that she has an inner conflict between wanting to do well at school and filling the role of what other people think of her- more of a tough slacker. But she is so much better than that.
When I discovered the stolen snacks, she shut down. “Why did you take these?” I asked…”I’ll just put them back...I’m sorry…” she said. But I kept going “You are so much better than this choice you made. I know that you are better than this.” That’s when she got defensive “You don’t know me!” she said pretty loudly, all the while looking at her paper, avoiding eye contact. Her response surprised me. I didn’t know what to say. I do know her...I know her as my chorus student who is kind, thoughtful, and a leader in the alto section. But in that moment I realized that I really only know a small part of who she is. I don’t really know how she is in other classes or at home. I certainly don’t know how she sees herself, and as an adolescent that thought might change four or five times a day! So I said, “I accept your apology, and I know that you won’t do it again. Finish your work please.” I walked away unsure if that was the best response. Lilly’s behavior was a choice - a mistake and not a character flaw. It is important that she understands the difference. This was a bad choice; She is not bad. It’s a small shift in language, but a very powerful distinction. Making an apology is a good way to move on. A mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that trust is completely broken and consequences like detention are not always appropriate for every infraction. She needs to understand all of this.
Being an adolescent is hard. Teaching adolescent kids is also hard, and in situations like these it is sometimes difficult to know what to do or say. I have learned over the years to be firm, but kind (like one of my favorite characters, Mary Poppins!) Structure and clear expectations for behavior are incredibly important, but so is granting grace when circumstances call for it, and having the wisdom to turn a misstep into an important lesson; You might have made a mistake, but it doesn't define who you are.