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The pandemic took anything that was challenging already in schools and poured gasoline on it. The embers were smoldering, but COVID really lit things on fire. This year was absolutely the toughest year I’ve ever had in education, and probably the most difficult time in education since we sent kids to Vietnam.
Let’s talk about just the masks. After a year and a half of being stuck at home, our students had to reacclimate with only half their faces showing. Kids were learning how to coexist and they couldn’t even get the facial cues they needed to read each other. That caused a lot of frustration and a lot of miscommunication, and that’s when bad days happen. We had a lot of fights over things that were 99.99 percent about very little: One kid stepping on another kid’s sneakers. Someone looking at somebody the wrong way. Somebody being friends with the wrong person and other kids deciding to get physical about it. When you’re young and under toxic stress, the slightest thing can trigger you to erupt and lash out.
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Rather than punish kids or try to cure the problem, our job is to help them get through it. The number one thing a kid who is dealing with trauma or toxic stress needs is a loving, caring, reliable adult. And so we have to be that. But that’s a tough thing to navigate when you are feeling responsible for their behavior. No matter what’s going on with the child, the adult has to recognize: This is not about me. More likely, it’s what we call ACEs—adverse childhood experiences. Could be somebody’s father was yelling at them. Could be someone close to them is on drugs. Could be their family is going through a divorce. But it’s easy to get drawn into a drama. Being African American, and coming with my own experiences, I might hear a kid use a racial slur or other hateful language toward another kid, and that riles me because I know what it means to be a victim of that, right? But I still have a responsibility to address it without personalizing it. That would make the situation worse. The good news is that kids generally, when they’re calm and not in an audience of their peers, can talk through anything.
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We ended the school year much better than we started. Kids who came in with a ton of bluster worked out their stuff and actually apologized to people. We saw fewer fights. Our baseball team got into the state finals. Kids want things to be normal. They don’t want to be upset and anxious and angry. If we can ride pressured moments out with them, maybe be an ear for a kid, make sure they have food to take home, recognize that there’s a bigger picture of who this child is, and always seeing beyond our own scars, we can get them to a good place.
Dr. Harrison Bailey III is principal of Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and was named Pennsylvania’s 2021 secondary principal of the year.
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