The Way Through

When people ask me what subject I teach, I never know how to respond. My teaching license is in English Language Arts. My master’s degree is in educational technology. In the past five years I’ve taught science, social studies, art, physical education, and more at our small school, where every teacher flexes to meet our students’ needs.

What I think I really teach, though, is how to get through. Conflict, adversity, anxiety – whatever the “it” is, I teach students to tolerate, regulate, and eventually move forward. Getting through is so much harder than going around, more complex, and ultimately a more necessary skill in life.

In the traditional public school, the response to conflict is “get out,” not get through. Leave the classroom if you’re disruptive. Take a suspension for a major breach. Thankfully, more schools are moving toward restorative approaches. Turning to inclusion instead of exclusion teaches students that it’s more important to work through as a community than to jettison the uncomfortable.

Working through truly is uncomfortable. Over and over, when my students get into conflict – with each other, with me, with their teachers – I hear “it’s whatever, I’ll just ignore it. I’m just done with this.” As most of us who have spoken similar sentences know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. So I fall back on some tried and true approaches to helping students build confidence that working through is possible.

 

First, here’s what I say to my students as we start the process:

 

  • “I care about you.” Unconditional positive regard from teachers and staff is the foundation. When teachers approach conflictual situations with “I still care about you; let’s try this again,” students begin to build confidence in the resiliency of true and caring relationships.
  • “You don’t have to be friends.” I almost never ask students to apologize to one another; I never ask them to mend a friendship. Instead, I focus on the true bottom line: we are a learning community, and when we’re here we respect the right of everyone to access their education. While rebuilding a friendship can be a huge, insurmountable task, reestablishing roles as classmates can feel more attainable.
  • “You’re allowed to be mad. Let’s find some different ways to express that.” One surefire way to lose the trust of a student is to invalidate their feelings. When we try too hard to get back to neutral, we miss the opportunity to work through what it feels like to be mad, anxious, or sad. This is the feeling of “meta-okay” and it’s something I try to foster during the working through. Working with the actual emotion helps students find a way to safely express it without harming the community.

 

Once the student is in a place to start the work, we do a process we call “repair.” Not apology, not punishment, definitely not discipline. The idea is to help the student work through mending some of the rifts in relationship and community. What this process looks like varies greatly depending on the nature of the rift, the developmental stage of the student, and the strength of the peer group to help facilitate the process.

 

Some ways this has looked include these, used alone or in combination:

  • The student using social thinking strategies to reflect on the conflict (social scripting, filling in thought bubbles in a cartoon, etc)
  • Writing a letter to the individual or group harmed, and either delivering it or reading it aloud
  • Drawing a timeline of the events in a conflict and identifying points where different choices would have made the situation smaller, rather than bigger
  • Education pieces about bullying, conflict, communication styles, and so on
  • Creating or repairing something for the community (fixing a squeaky door, baking cookies to put out at lunch) as a way to put something positive back into the group
  • Bringing the family and school team together to look at any bigger picture supports needed
  • Prepping for a facilitated conversation between two students or a student and a teacher
  • Mapping out emotions during a conflict and where self-care or regulation strategies could have had a positive impact

 

The possibilities are endless – we just strive to create an authentic experience of reflection and repair that helps the student work through the conflict rather than just go around it.

 

So what are the outcomes?

 

Sometimes, I’ve seen this process fail completely. The student wasn’t ready to take ownership, needed more of a break after a conflict, or didn’t have enough trust in staff that it was safe to work through. In these cases, we go back to core strategies of building relationship and awareness and try again.

 

More often, I’ve seen students struggle through the beginning stages of this process and then land somewhere solid at the end. Students use the structure and tools we give them to take ownership and make an action plan. I’ve seen students make themselves vulnerable to teachers and say “I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that.” I’ve seen students say to one another, “It wasn’t okay how you treated me, but I’m willing to try again.”

 

Most amazingly, I’ve seen students get into conflicts over, and over, and over again. I’ve seen them using the tools I’ve given them to work through, and then start to not need the tools anymore. I’ve seen them adopt the language: “repair,” “make a plan,” “respect your right to learn.” Through the repetition of the process, I’ve seen students internalize the process and come to truly believe that it’s possible to work through.

 

When we finally believe that working through is truly an option, we are more able to express our thoughts without fear of losing our place in community. We can be vulnerable and trust that the process will carry us through. We can tolerate pain, anger, and anxiety knowing that there are steps to move us forward.

 

We build hope.

 

And that’s what I teach.

Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.