A New Teacher’s Perspective on the Circle of Courage
George Blue Bird’s Circle of Courage hangs in the hallway of our Circle School. Everyday approximately sixteen heads march by the framed work but I doubt they notice. Their minds are in other places, understandably so since the school is within the confines of the Child Psychiatry Unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It daily hosts up to 16 inpatient and 5 outpatient students/patients from as young as four years old to just before their eighteenth birthday. These are children who desperately need gentle yet firm support to achieve balance in the areas represented in George Blue Bird’s art. Four educators are just a part of a team of doctors, nurses, therapists, para-educators and volunteers who work together to assist children in beginning to learn, in the brief time we have them, to belong, to master, and to grow in independence and generosity.
The average stay for a young patient is 3-5 days. Sometimes, caught in a system with nowhere else to go, a student/patient will be with us for months. Day treatment students can be a part of the school for several years. These are the discouraged and disenfranchised youth addressed in the book, Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future (Brendtro, Brokenleg, Van Bockern, 2002 ). And to be at our doors they are also in crisis.
I’m in my second year of teaching. Senior teachers at the school have modeled for me the positive culture that is the Native American philosophy of child rearing. I have been encouraged to belong in this new community. I am heading down the path towards mastery in working with youth in crisis. I feel more confident and independent in fulfilling daily tasks. I am learning to open the door of generosity as I share my own energy and skills with others in this setting.
When a patient/student is first brought to the Child Psychiatry Unit, most of them feel as if they belong to no one. They project guardedness or isolation. They have often been let down by parent or guardians. They feel abandoned. Some have disowned their families. They reject phone calls from home and denying family any contact during their stay. They are alone and in a strange environment.
I read the reports from doctors and nurses about a student before meeting them. I call their school to get a more complete picture of this person. With this knowledge I head down to the unit to escort my students to the classroom. I believe that the first few moments of contact are crucial to our relationship and how that student will begin to relate to others in the school setting. The most important part of my job is to make each student feel safe in my classroom and in my care. I make eye contact and greet each student by name. And I extend my hand to each new student. Once our eyes connect and we clasp hands, I can feel their anxiety lessen. The relationship has begun.
Once we get to class, I always take the time to communicate to new students, how their needs (bathroom, water, lunch, personal storage) will be met in school. I go over classroom rules and I remind them that this is a place of healing as well as learning. I tell them that the rules are in place for their own safety and healing. I let them know that they can positively add to healing of others. After about 90 minutes of study hall (individual assignments), we have a group class called Personal Power. Depending on the age and maturity of the group we cover subjects ranging from anger, self-esteem, bullying, distorted thinking, goal setting and personal power over thought and actions. Class is designed to encourage discussion as well as written participation. It is hoped that this is a time for positive connection among students, as they share their thoughts on these themes. I take time to listen and encourage all to participate within their comfort level. I make sure that each student receives positive comments/body language for any effort towards working cooperatively and sharing attention. I have witnessed many incidents of children showing great sensitivity to others who are also in life crisis.
Students at our school are always given a choice. They are given praise and more opportunity for choice when they show the ability to complete tasks assigned to them. As their ability to self-monitor and reflect grows, so does the opportunity to set goals for themselves within class, or for transition back to their lives outside the hospital setting. Students are asked to actively participate in working on their educational end report which is sent to their home school. They are asked to work to set clear goals for catching up with work missed or to define the educational environment that best supports their learning and positive behaviors. Some students are ready to reflect on the limitations past choices imposed on their lives. Staff always lends support in dealing with perceived failure and poorly expressed anger while teaching coping skills.
Last week a student confided that he felt terrible about some things that he had said to his mom. We talked about anger, and how to disagree appropriately with a parent and how to accept “no.” It was a joy to teach and practice with that young person how to apologize to his mother and see him shyly and eagerly practice concrete steps to resolve conflicts in his life. Doing so, he “tasted” the power of generosity.
At Circle School, students are shown how their choices can give them more or less independence. Most middle school students want to be independent. If a student has been involved in power struggles with parents, schools or law enforcement that have led to acts of aggression, it is helpful to guide them through their decisions to see if they are ready to grasp how their choices have led them to a more restrictive environment (the hospital) and what the long term implications might be for continuing on a non-cooperative path. An important part of this exploration is helping students identify their feelings and gently guide them to see their contribution to their current situation. Students are supported in taking personal responsibility for their life. It is important for these youth to know that the power of choice and change is always, in some form, in their hands.
In some cases, a student will go to a more restrictive environment. We lend an active ear to a student who is facing this big change in his or her life. We support the doctors in charge of the hoped for healing from trauma, addictions or the new diagnosis of a life changing mental illness. Our goal is for the student to achieve the most independence possible for their happiness as well as their safety and health.
The first step to experience generosity is to receive it. When a patient arrives at the hospital, they are poor in spirit, confidence, and trust. Staff works hard to create a responsive environment of “yes” to reach out to that young person. A peaceful environment that provides food and warmth makes a difference to many of the kids who stay with us. School work is given at that person’s level to succeed. Praise and encouragement are given for energy and focus towards its completion. As students participate in our group settings, they are encouraged to give to others first through peaceful cooperative behavior. As trust develops, individuals are allowed to assist in the classroom, either by supporting the teacher in small jobs, or by helping another student with group work or an assigned task. Confidence grows with these small acts that are so large to these world-weary kids. Sincere compliments are given to positive acts of kindness. Lessons are taught in how to give compliments. Students learn to give and receive simply and genuinely in this classroom exercise. Many have not had, or been able to hear, positive statements directed at them. While kids aren’t allowed to give things to each other, there is often the exchange of artwork or homemade bracelets that have been created in a unit of study. These are important symbols of a young person’s growing ability to reach out to others and to reclaim their place in the give-and-take world of other people. The bulletin board behind my desk is covered in these tokens from students who have left Circle School to rejoin their “outside” lives.
In my first year, I passed George Blue Bird’s painting of the Medicine Wheel that is the symbol for our school 180 times. I was assigned as and educator to over 200 students. Some left but then returned to become stronger and leave again. Others went on to more restrictive settings. Word came back that some had done very well and were not just surviving, but thriving. I greeted, learned personal stories and then extended my hand a last time to say, “Goodbye, I’ve enjoyed knowing you. And I hope I don’t see you again. Here, that is.” At this odd farewell, students look at me, and then return my smile with understanding. I am wishing them all the belonging, mastery, independence and generosity that I truly believe they deserve in their new beginning.