Intercultural Responsiveness
A Blog By Tom Altepeter

The Lessons We Learn

LessonsIt was growing close to the end of another one of those days. The ones that seem to suck the life out of you, and give you some pause as to why you do what you do. The ones in which you’re dealing with things instead of working on things. I was tired, and my level of understanding – even tolerance – was diminishing rapidly.

So, when the young man brought from our intensive learning center was refusing to come back to my office from the front area, I have to admit I had to remain seated and take a few breaths. Mustering all I could to be at my best, I walked up front and sat near him, attempting through calm words to get him to come to my office and converse for a while. He did, and after I let him alone to cry for a bit, he told me he felt he was ready to talk.

As I suspected, he had cussed out a teacher. In this case, it was a substitute who had received his wrath. He knows how to come up with some fairly rich language when he’s frustrated, and this teacher certainly got a healthy taste of it. I made one statement (“Talk to me about what happened.”) and asked one question (“What do you want to do about it?”) in the course of our conversation, and I did not say or prompt anything else.

But, it was what he did – not the teacher, not me – that made a real difference in the course of events. He owned his behavior, he explained it to me, and then he decided what he wanted and felt he had to do more than anything else was to have a chance to talk with that teacher and apologize for his actions. After retrieving the teacher, I sat silently as he gathered himself and spoke to her about what he had done, and that he felt absolutely awful about it. His heartfelt apology, I could tell, moved her, and my eyes welling up with tears, perhaps noticeable, made it obvious that he certainly moved me.

My work affords me the opportunity to interact with a tremendous number of youth and adults, unfortunately most often when they are frustrated. I’ve noticed that students tend to be fairly easy to work with, and that adults tend to be more difficult to work with. I’m sure there is much to say here about the role that power has in this dynamic, but let me keep it simple. We’d love to take credit as adults, but here’s the truth: They do it not because of us – They do it in spite of us.

Just this school year alone, I’ve had to directly address a couple of upset adults who used inappropriate language – including not only foul words, but also racially charged and insensitive words. There has also been a situation where an adult representing our school district publicly insulted another adult representing our school district, using a derogatory word. Here’s how those panned out: Dead silence when one was addressed by me, a response of disdain from the other addressed by me, and absolutely nothing happened publicly with the other situation.

I walk a fine line in my role, but I never have and I never will be afraid to call myself or others out. If we’re fearful of this, it’s because we lack the courage to own our stuff, apologize for it, and change it. My very best example this year of what should be standard and expected behavior has come from a young boy in our intensive learning center, and that should send a powerful message to all of us about spending less time pretending to know it all, and more time learning all that we can from all of those around us.

One Response to “The Lessons We Learn”

  • Kathy Mayer says:

    This made me cry — with joy for that child’s maturity and growth — and for all the teachers and educators who try so hard.

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