Frozen Fish

In Leanne’s grade-two practicum class, she noticed that kids fell into “silly” behavior and that this often spread throughout the class. This prompted her initial questions:

  • Is behaviour contagious?
  • Why are some students ALWAYS on task while others are never on task? Bored?
  • Is it the class-climate created by the teacher? Is it due to a lack of respect or the home life situation?
  • Can removing one student from the equation stop the silly behaviours of others?

In their first meeting, Leanne’s mentor listened carefully to understand the background story.

Mentor: Tell me a little more about your topic of contagious behaviour.

Leanne: Well we were doing this Roots of Empathy program… and the lady who runs it… told [the class], you know, behaviours are contagious. So if one of you is sitting on the carpet I see that lots of you are acting silly. And it was just something that I thought was an interesting thing to say… And then my mentor teacher kind of kept with that throughout my practicum. It was like, when one was silly, I was like okay, what did we say about silly behaviour – da da da da da. (in comic voice) It’s not helping anybody and…that kind of thing….

The mentor encouraged Leanne to find her own way through her topic, describing various explorations such as creating a movable mind map, talking with a thinking friend, following hunches, or developing a vignette (with words or creative imagery) of the classroom setting. Eventually the conversation moved towards a touchstone story that was a rich entry point into an underlying and important issue.

Leanne: I don’t know if this is appropriate or not but sometimes our little boy with autism was away and the days that he was away the class just seemed to have an overall quieter, more calm tone. And again it was something that I didn’t notice until [my mentor teacher] one day was like, do you notice anything today? I’m like, well they’re being pretty good today. She said, do you notice who’s away today? And I was like, well that’s really interesting…

Mentor: So you may want to take some time to write about that and maybe you draw/paint two pictures with your words or you could collage or do whatever you want. [Describe] what did that look like and feel like? What did the other one look like and feel like? Paint those pictures so that then you can look at them a little differently once they’re on your paper.

Leanne: I was going to ask you if that’s okay that I do that.

Mentor: Which?

Leanne: Talk about the little boy… I won’t use his name… But it’s okay if I look at that aspect of it?

Mentor: Of course.

Leanne: It’s not kind of like I’m blaming – I’m not trying to like blame it on him kind of thing but -

Mentor: Oh no.

Leanne: But it’s just, it was interesting ‘cause we noticed it several times.

Mentor: What we’re doing here, it’s not a judgment thing, right? It’s trying to sort it out so you can be a better teacher and have things work better in your classroom. So yes, if you’re going to end up sharing that story with the class you need to be very careful with how you share that story. In terms of your own exploration of it, be as honest as you can be… look at those things that are niggling you – like – what’s going on there? Unpack that.

Leanne: Yeah ‘cause I wanted to check with you before I wrote about it ‘cause I didn’t know that was okay and I didn’t want to cross any boundaries and you’d be like, oooh this is a little too…personal, kind of thing.

Mentor: …Sometimes when I do this kind of work I’ll keep the name the same when I start writing, just because I kind of need to remember who that person really is… But then if I’m going to share it with anybody I just change the name, right? …As teachers what we’re trying to do is really understand what’s happening. What happens of course is we turn things into gossip; patterns of labeling kids, and all that stuff is definitely something you want to be paying attention to.

Leanne: Yeah, yeah, and I don’t want to do that because he is a lovely boy and I have a lot of fun with him but it was, you know, five times a day [he would have a] blow-out when he was at school.

Mentor: Yeah and so you’re just trying to paint a picture of what you saw. And of course…it’s not necessarily how they would see it or how your mentor-teacher would have even seen it, or how the parents see it, right? So keep in mind it’s only one of those perspectives. But then you know, spell it out a little bit, see what it is, the picture of it, right? …However it works for you.

Leanne: Cool.

They went on to talk about how Leanne could let her questions guide her in this inquiry journey, and the mentor again gave numerous ideas for ways of proceeding. By the second mentor meeting, Leanne had created a movable mind map around her initial question, and had come to realize that she already knew that yes, behavior was contagious.

Leanne: When I was thinking about it in my experience, it is like when one starts talking, they all start talking; or if one’s silly they’re all silly; or if it seemed like certain days if we [said] if we get this job done quickly we can go outside for ten minutes and then they’d all [move] quickly so I just don’t know if it’s a good question anymore.

Leanne and her mentor went on to discuss how teachers set the tone of the classroom by their own actions and gradually, the conversation went back to the boy with autism.

Leanne: And it seems like as soon as you have a kid that you know is consistently behaving badly almost, it’s not like you’re picking on them, but it seems like any time they do anything, you’re on them. Where if it’s another kid maybe that’s always well behaved, you might just let it slide. And I think that’s kind of interesting too.

Mentor: What I used to try and figure out is how can I take the energy of that kid and how can I have a relationship with them? Because they set the tone in the class too… and how do you use that momentum for the kind of tone that you really want and not the kind of tone that they’re trying to set?

Leanne: Yeah, exactly. And then there’s the question about the autistic boy… cause he’d come in…and [he would be] just a big explosion, he’s on the floor, rolling around, screaming, crying, and that’s first thing in the morning and that’s how the class starts for everybody else too. All the other kids go ohhhh, you know? But even though the teacher did an autism unit at the beginning of the year and we had to have a couple of talks with him a few times while I was there, we’d get the [aide] to take him for a walk just because [the other kids] weren’t being respectful, they’d put up their hands and [say disrespectful things]. And we’re like, is that helping right now, did you need to say that? Like he’s on his square, leave him alone, just ignore it kind of thing. So I don’t really know where I want to go with this guy and it’s bothering me cause I think the idea of it’s good and I just don’t know what to do with it.

Mentor: So I think you need to explore why you care about this. There’s some reason that you care and…it’s a fascinating question…. It’s more of a question perhaps of what can I do about it or what do I want to do about it? …One way you could proceed, is to sit down and write for 20 minutes just everything that comes into your mind about that autistic boy and the interactions other kids had and what the other kids said and what wasn’t said and how you felt about it as a teacher in that classroom. And from there you might start to see more of where you need to head now. Does that make sense?

Leanne: Yeah, ‘cause I feel like I’m just all over the place, like I have all these little points but none of them are really going…like they’re going somewhere but they’re not going somewhere, if that helps?

Mentor: Yeah, you’re in the murky swamp.

Leanne: Yeah it’s like I know that it’s contagious; I just don’t know why I want to know – like I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.

Despite clear encouragement and numerous entry points, Leanne left this line of inquiry and did not go further down the intriguing path of the boy with autism. Leanne soon changed her topic to the tone of a classroom, asking:

  • How much is the tone set by the teacher?
  • How is a good teaching tone established and what does this look like?
  • How do you harness disruptive energy to make sure the underlying tone of the classroom is not disrupted with it?

While these questions are potentially very useful, Leanne stayed in a somewhat superficial inquiry space:

I became uncomfortable talking about the student with autism. I feel that my lack of knowledge and experience in this area is partially what made me feel awkward about it, but also guilt played a role. I felt bad discussing him and his behavior issues. Although it would have made a great class discussion about labeled and unlabeled children it was something I did not want to bring up…I am simply not comfortable enough…because it is such a sensitive issue I know too little about.

Leanne’s guilt and lack of knowledge made her unable to fully explore a very important educational topic. When we analyzed this transcript, the TI research team noticed how often the mentor, like a person fishing, threw out line after line for Leanne to grab, but she took only a nibble. Leanne was like a fish, frozen to the same safe spot. Her GIC was an interesting conversation around classroom tone and energy flow, but her heart questions around autism were left unattended; her worries left her unwilling to take this risk.