?

Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The Principal in Grade One

I've mentioned the school's principal before, and I want to briefly (for me, so yes, this is long) step outside of the grade one classroom (again), and speak a little about Jane Fletcher.

(The reason I use her name now is because she is retired, and nothing I say can be dragged up anywhere in the line of her work.)

I had very little reason to interact with her until grade one (and the end of junior kindergarten, as previously mentioned), but I noticed something pretty much right away: She was always in the school yard if the kids were in the school yard. She was in the yard before the school bell rang and the kids entered at the start of the day; she was in the yard during lunch hour; she was in the yard at recess. If it wasn't snowy or rainy enough that the kids were kept inside, she wasn't inside either.

I wouldn't say that she always looked like the friendliest person in the yard.

But you know what? I wouldn't say that I ever did, either.

The kids knew her on sight, and they were accustomed to her presence--which is not, imho, why she was there. She was there because if she was going to adjudicate the various conflicts that inevitably arise in any school yard--and in any classroom--she had to be familiar with all of the kids under her very broad wings. She had to see them play, had to see who they played with, had to see what their behaviour was like.

I believe that at least half of the reason there was so little bullying at all in the school was because of this. Children know when they can push; they know what they can get away with. Conversely, they also know when they can't get away with anything. One of the most intimidating Kindergarten teachers, a woman who used to sweep nervous mothers of four year olds out of her class with her broom--and no, I'm not making that up--was also a woman who seemed like an authoritarian dragon. But the kids never felt she was 'strict' or scary after the first few days. They knew what all the rules were, they knew what all the routines were, and they knew there was no variation, so after the first day or two, no one tried to get around her at all. They settled into the known with confidence. Had she been my son's first jk/sk teacher, I think he would have had an easier time at school in the beginning--but she wasn't, and I made the mistake of thinking that because she looked so severe she would terrify him; I thought she wouldn't be understanding enough. I was very wrong. She was, in fact, the teacher who twice rescued him from Library Hell Meltdown, because her children were so well-behaved she could leave her teacher's aide in the class while she walked with my very upset little boy.

Jane was not quite as terrifying (and as I was one of the mothers swept out of the classroom, I think I can say this without doubt). But she was just as consistent. Her constant presence made her approachable, in the end, and her consistent reaction, the predictable anger, strongly sent the message that she was both vigilant and completely serious. One of the boys in my son's class pushed him down the asphalt playground hill that existed at that time, and the supervising adult the other children reached first (my son was crying on the ground) was in fact Jane Fletcher. She didn't bat an eye, and she didn't hesitate--at all. The little boy was sent home for the remainder of the school day--and kept home the day after as well. One of the other mothers told me she'd phoned his mother at work and told her that she was, in no uncertain terms, coming to pick up her son, take him home, and keep him home the next day. I actually heard about this three days after it happened from one of the other mothers, as my son pretty much never spoke about his school day unless something else reminded him of it (an event, sadly, not his parents asking); she didn't react because I, as an angry parent, demanded it. She reacted to one child pushing another child down the asphalt hill, hard enough to cause him to fall from said hill to the bottom. Period. And every child of any age in the schoolyard who was watching that day knew it.

But they also knew that had it been reversed -- had my son pushed the other little boy down the asphalt hill, it would have been me who got the icy phone call, and me who would have had to come and get my suspended-for-the-rest-of-the-day son. Because to Jane, it was totally unacceptable behaviour. If there was a problem that might lead a child to enraged frustration and eventual violence as a response, the child was expected to go to her first. The children did. They did, because she treated their concerns with respect.

She was an enormously observant woman, and she paid attention to all the little currents in all the social groups of all the various grades--and there was no real way to do that if she wasn't exposed to it, day in and day out. Some principals prefer to be administrators. Jane was there for the kids.

She was also there for the teachers.

If a teacher had or developed problems with one or more of the students in their classes, Jane was the court of last resort. But she was the court of last resort, and she had a very strong Zero Tolerance policy. My son's grade one teacher actually asked me not to take an issue with a student in her class to Jane because the teacher felt she could resolve the issue with a little bit more time and focus--and there would be no room for subtlety if it was escalated.

But: every teacher who required support from the principal got that support. I imagine, however, there was also pressure from up top to deal with the classroom in a way that would lessen the need for Authority from Above. This last part, I'm less certain of, but I do know one thing: All of the teachers were well aware of the difficulties my son, and other children with differing developmental behaviours, had, and they were strongly encouraged to be both creative and tolerant in their approach. I'm absolutely certain a different principal, or perhaps one who was just more burned out, would have lumped many of the difficulties as "behavioural", and settled on discipline which would not, sadly, have worked.

I have heard so much about stupid applications of Zero Tolerance; I'm sure we all have, if we spend much time on the internet. But… it helped my son. How? Well, there were rules, and the rules were applied across the board. It made those rules accessible to him. He grew to understand -- quickly -- that if there had been trouble of any kind, he could find Jane Fletcher and tell her about it, and she would pretty much instantly drag every child in question into her office to have a little chat.

It made him feel safer, because she listened, and she reacted. She never just patted the upset children on the head and told them to calm down; she respected every complaint as it came in. I'm sure this must have caused her a lot of extra work, because I'm certain there were abuses, but the thing about rules or lack of rules is that there are always abuses in either direction.

He was not the only child who felt safer, though. I think all of the children did.

Jane was, and had always been, on board for my son; she'd done most of that work behind the parent scenes, but as we became more involved with the classroom requirements in grade one, we had more of a reason to speak with Jane. She watched my son. She knew, for instance, that the noisy stairwells bothered him so much he couldn't enter the building until they were empty. She didn't shout at him, didn't give him grief, and was never impatient; she waited.

But she did phone me the first time he actually walked into the stairwell with the tail end of the pack that was entering the school.

My son also had more exposure to Jane Fletcher because of gym.

Let me explain this. One of the difficulties ASD children frequently have is poor motor coordination. My son had this, and an unfortunate ability to zone out and become less than ideally aware of his surroundings.

So when hockey was being taught in the gym class, an extra adult volunteer was required pretty much exclusively for my son. My son loved hockey, because it was running around with a stick and trying to hit something. That wasn't the hard part, for him.

The hard part was that he wasn't always aware of where any of the the other kids were, and sometimes he'd forget that he was, oh, carrying a long stick in his hands. So if the gym teacher (different person from the grade one teacher) blew the whistle to halt the play, he'd be last to notice, and he'd frequently just spin around and head to wherever the kids were going.

Sadly, he could do this and hit three kids who were also heading in that direction, but were standing too close to him. I was there twice, and I did see it in time to catch the stick. The kids knew he wasn't hitting them on purpose by this point -- but really, it didn't matter; a face or a stomach full of hockey stick, even the little ones, is upsetting regardless. If I, or his volunteer, were there, we could keep an eye out, we could touch him and pull him back and remind him of the hockey stick and the kids all around him. Could, and did, because it was necessary about 50% of the time.

However: Gym class was teacher prep time for my son's grade one teacher. So she couldn't be in the class and still get the prep work done. I worked two weekdays out of the home, so I couldn't be there all the time, either. And this meant that my son couldn't play. He was crushed about that.

Worse: they had to have somewhere to put him, and he did not like the librarian very much at all (for some reason, if he was going to melt down in a major way, it was during library period on Wednesday afternoons), so…he had to sit gym out in the principal's office. And he was terrified and unhappy about it.

But.

What he discovered on his first visit was that it was a very quiet place, with a very quiet adult who he did trust doing work behind her desk. There were a few toys in the office, and he could play with those, and did. The second time he'd had to sit out, he came home and said, "Ms. Fletcher says sometimes it's nice to have company because she mostly has to work alone all day in her office." He was testing the words as he spoke them. "It must be true, though, because she wouldn't say something like that if it wasn't true."

I actually asked my son if he remembered anything about this period - because his memories of the earlier years are very spotty. He said:

I always felt it was normal and safe in Ms. Fletcher's office, even though I knew everyone was afraid of her; I remember the atmosphere in the office was pretty imposing, or at least circumstantially so, because you'd see people sent to it or people sent there.

It was a normal place to me.


She knew that my son had problems sitting still and problems being quiet--but he was always quiet and peaceful in that office; it was an entirely safe space. So she knew, watching him there, that when he felt safe, he was actually a very well behaved, very peaceful little boy. He didn't speak with her much because she was working; he didn't try to engage her in conversation for the same reason; he was content to play with the toys until he was called back to his grade one classroom.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
txanne
Oct. 26th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
"Ms. Fletcher says sometimes it's nice to have company because she mostly has to work alone all day in her office." He was testing the words as he spoke them. "It must be true, though, because she wouldn't say something like that if it wasn't true."

That's one of the finest compliments I can imagine. I hope I can be like Jane Fletcher someday.
(Anonymous)
Oct. 26th, 2010 04:38 am (UTC)
I really like hearing what your son remembers... and again, thank you for these posts, they are incredible.
-lauren
(Deleted comment)
dansa
Oct. 26th, 2010 06:26 am (UTC)
Totally got a lil teary for that. Thank you for posting (as always). We have a phenomenal principal right now, so I'm absolutely not going to even vaguely complain, but I envy you guys. =D
mtlawson
Oct. 26th, 2010 11:41 am (UTC)
He didn't speak with her much because she was working; he didn't try to engage her in conversation for the same reason; he was content to play with the toys until he was called back to his grade one classroom.

Michelle, did your son learn early on to be quiet when an adult was working, or did he naturally fall into that?
msagara
Nov. 1st, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
Michelle, did your son learn early on to be quiet when an adult was working, or did he naturally fall into that?

He never learned it at home; we couldn't work while he was awake until he was five years old. So I think it must have been something he picked up there. Which is fair. He could understand the changes in rules that followed a change in environment -- other homes, school. But he would have been six years old by this time, and the office could be an intimidating place.

On the other hand, as he got older, he understood that "wait fifteen minutes" meant exactly that. He could wait because at the end of the period, we would then do whatever it was we'd committed to doing. One neighbour asked me about this, and how it had worked -- but it worked from the ground up, and sadly, the neighbour frequently told their own child "when we get home", but then failed to do whatever it was at home, which meant the child then became unwilling to wait -- at all. Again, from the ground up.
wldhrsjen3
Oct. 26th, 2010 12:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing these posts.

And wow ~ Jane Fletcher sounds like an amazing principal and a wonderful person.
estara
Oct. 26th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, that sort of principal makes a difference all the way through school. They're rare.

I wish I could manage to be consequent all the time. I'm working on it, though. Sometimes parents broadside me because the rules can't be meant for their little treasures, surely. Sometimes I don't stand firm enough. But I'm working on it and when I look back I can see I've gotten better.

I am so in envy that you had parents volunteering to help in school. We don't have that.

I don't teach primary school or kindergarten though - my boys are 10 to 16 years old.
controuble
Oct. 29th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
he wasn't always aware of where any of the the other kids were, and sometimes he'd forget that he was, oh, carrying a long stick in his hands.

Oh, yes! This is still my son to some extent and at that age it was way more than 50% of the time. No situational awareness whatsoever. One of his therapists noticed his lack of body awareness and tried dance/movement therapy, but I don't think it helped very much.

She was an enormously observant woman

Yes, this is more what I meant when I said I am not a people person. I am not very observant. I will always wonder if I had been if he would have been diagnosed earlier instead of being treated for behavioral issues for several years.
msagara
Nov. 1st, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
One of his therapists noticed his lack of body awareness and tried dance/movement therapy, but I don't think it helped very much.

My son's doctor told us to try one of three things: Tae kwon do, Karate, or soccer. So we did that; it was interesting. I ended up taking the class with him, which confused every other child present, because I was clearly not a kid. What was interesting was that like me, he learns mostly kinaesthetically. He can't translate what he sees done into physical movement -- and most of the teachers teach entirely by showing what they want done, and at that, not slowly.

If a teacher was willing to move his arms or legs into the correct positions, he was fine, but many teachers in this day and age are understandably wary of touching any small child.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 1st, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Thanks
These posts are so meaningful. I didn't actually start reading this blog until I saw a link to it from your other one. I was hooked into it for the start, and now I come back religiously to see it continued. I am so impressed and heartened by it that I shared it with my mom (who is a sixth grade teacher, and who has known the pinch of a school that is not entirely supportive) and my sister, who is a new mother.

As I read these, I feel more and more that not only are you a supremely favored author, but you're also a really cool person. I'm glad you posted these, and I am glad I decided to read them. Thank you so much for sharing.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )