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What Now? Strategies for Touchy Times
by Kate Ristow
As well-prepared as our lessons may be, we all know that working with kids can sometimes be a white-knuckle experience. We never really know how youngsters are going to react, what they are liable to do or say, or what sort of baggage they bring with them to class. The "what if" moments challenge us to remember that our students are more important than our lesson plans.
See the end of this article for ideas on how to address the “what ifs” with the catechetical staff.

Picture it: A classroom humming with attention and purposeful, productive activity; a room filled with well-behaved students who dive into the lesson and respond as if they are being watched by their parents (and possibly the pope) on close-circuit television; a session in which everything goes exactly as planned. Yet, every time I imagine this scenario, I am awakened by the reality of the “what ifs” of being a catechist.

As well-prepared as our lessons may be, we all know that working with kids can sometimes be a white-knuckle experience. We never really know how youngsters are going to react, what they are liable to do or say, or what sort of baggage they bring with them to class. The “what if” moments challenge us to remember that our students are more important than our lesson plans.

Here are some ideas for dealing with typical “what if” situations that may occur in your classroom this year. As you consider each one, think about how you would handle it with the young people you teach.

What if a student cries?

This is a very common occurrence in a primary classroom. The cause might be a stuck zipper or a tearful response to a new situation.

With young kids, deal with the problem directly. “Solve” it by going to the child and asking “How can I help you?” Tears are fairly commonplace with little kids so you usually don’t need to worry that your attention will embarrass the child. However, it’s a whole different story with older kids.

When you notice an older child wiping away tears, do not deal with it publicly. Finish up what you are doing with the class and get the kids involved in an activity—grouping them in such a way that will allow you to speak with the young person privately.

For example, you might call the student to your desk to “help” with some quickly invented task. Quietly mention that you noticed that he or she seemed upset. “Do you want to talk about what is troubling you?” Have tissues on hand.

The student might tell you about a sick parent or grandparent, or he or she may not want to confide in you at all. Be accepting of the response your question elicits. Let the student know you are available after class to talk. Then allow the child the time and space necessary to regain composure and to return to the group when he or she is ready. If the situation worsens, gently invite the child to visit the office. Follow the procedure for this situation outlined in your catechist handbook. Then return your attention to your lesson plan.  

What if a student gets angry?

Anger has no place in your classroom. Whether it is directed at another student, you, or a youngster’s frustration over something, it must be dealt with immediately. Get as close to the student as safety allows (if the kid is throwing things around, keep out of the line of fire; your mere presence likely is not going to resolve the situation immediately). In a firm voice, tell the child to calm down and tell you the problem. If the matter can be resolved without further disruption to the class (for example, separating two students), do so.

If you cannot resolve the matter without further disruption to the class, you have two choices: send the child to the office to deal with after class or isolate the child by moving him or her to the front of the room, within instant reach. Quietly tell the student that you will discuss the situation after dismissal. If the situation warrants, include the parents and/or your catechetical leader in the discussion.

What if a parent becomes angry with you about something that happened in class?
Ideally, you have established a climate that encourages parents to contact you if they have concerns or questions. If this is the case, parents who do get upset about an incident in class will let you know so that you can talk through it.

It is not unusual for parents to take issue with you over a matter of Church teaching that you covered during class—for example, that marriage is a lifelong commitment, or the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. Parents who are divorced sometimes feel that you are putting their child in the middle or making them feel anxious about their folks’ divorce. Families who do not participate in Sunday Eucharist celebrations may feel as if you are placing the burden on their child.

When you talk with a parent who is angry, point out your obligation to teach fully the beliefs of our faith. Emphasize that you do not single out any of the children. Be positive and let the parent know that you want to help him or her explain these complex issues to the child.

What if a student makes an obvious racist comment during a class discussion?
You need to respond to this while the student’s words still linger in the air. For a first offense, I might say something like, “Let’s remember always to speak respectfully about others.” For subsequent offenses, point out that the student’s words show a lack of respect. Ask the student to restate his or her point with different words.

Keep in mind that it is not unusual for kids to pick up prejudicial stereotypes and language from home. Young children may have no idea that their comments are inappropriate. You need to correct them gently but firmly. Older kids may use racial terms for the shock value. Don’t make a huge deal out of it. Simply say, “That’s inappropriate, Jake. Please don’t speak that way again.” Then move on.

What if, despite your best intentions, you inadvertently hurt a student’s feelings?

You usually can see the hurt immediately on the child’s face. If so, stop whatever you are doing and apologize immediately. Use the child’s name and say that you were wrong. Ask for forgiveness. Later, when you have a private moment at dismissal or at the time of the student’s arrival at your next class, reiterate that you spoke thoughtlessly and give the child a chance to respond.

If you hear about the hurt feelings second-hand (from a parent or from your DRE, who had a call from the parent), write a note to the student apologizing for your words or actions. At your next session, tell the class that something you said or did thoughtlessly in your last session hurt someone’s feelings and that you have expressed your sorrow to that student. Point out the importance of being responsible for our words and actions and that Jesus calls us to treat everyone as brothers and sisters.

What if your own emotions become evident?
This happened to me when I read Charlotte’s Web to fourth-graders—my first class of students. I completely lost it when Charlotte died. Some of the kids cried, too, but most were just bowled over—and somewhat disturbed—by my reaction. That night I got a bunch of calls from parents, as did my principal. Most expressed concern over me, but other parents were disturbed at my immaturity. I learned so much from that experience!

First of all, always, always, always pre-read anything you plan to use in class. Second, if you start to lose it (I think often of those catechists who taught in the immediate aftermath of 9/11), take a deep breath and stop talking until you are calm enough to speak. If the silence goes on too long, invite the children to bow their heads and offer a silent prayer about some related topic.

One other point: Don’t drag your personal life into class. Your students do not need to know about a family divorce, your worries over your wayward teenager, or the details of a parent’s infirmity or death. 

What if you realize, as you are teaching, that you have left at home a key component you planned to incorporate into your lesson?

Actually, this is a great learning experience for you! First, it will teach you to collect everything you need for class well in advance of your sessions and to keep them all in one place—a tote bag, a banker’s box, or a colorful milk carton. A catechist I know actually keeps her “teaching tote” in her car, adding supplies to it throughout the week. It wouldn’t work for me, but it’s a perfect solution for her.

Second, not having a needed item for a given week reinforces the importance of having a back-up plan: a worksheet that can be duplicated at the last minute; a game the entire class can play and profit from together (Wheel of Fortune/hangman to review vocabulary); or a small group activity the students can work on and complete (a mural of the Seven Sacraments, an examination of conscience based on the Great Commandment, or a song related to the theme of your lesson the students can listen to or learn). Your DRE can help you think of something appropriate for the latter—even at the last minute.

The important thing is not to panic. The students won’t have a clue that your carefully crafted plan has just blown up. Be confident in your ability to think on your feet!

Heading Off Potential Problems
Many awkward or potentially volatile situations in a classroom can be averted if you make continued efforts throughout the year to build community among and with your students. Here are some tips for creating a positive environment in your classroom.
* Have students wear nametags or make “name tents” for their desks (construction paper folded length-wise with the student’s name printed in large letters on both sides). Encourage students to call one another by name.
* Model the behavior you expect. Demonstrating that you value each student encourages class members to do the same.
* Set rules with the class that emphasize respect as the cornerstone of classroom behavior: listening to one another; raising one’s hand; treating others the way we want to be treated; being aware of the feelings of others; etc.
* Do frequent icebreakers and small group activities to enable kids to interact with different students from week to week. Getting to know one another well help students recognize the good in one another.
* Celebrate birthdays and saint-name days. This helps students appreciate that we are God’s gifts to one another.
* As a mid-year activity, write the name of each student at the top of a separate piece of paper. Circulate the papers and invite each child to write something positive about the classmate whose name appears at the top of the page. Then let each child read what was written on the sheet with his or her name. This is a “feel good” exercise that helps students find the positives in one another.

Kate Ristow
, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.

Addressing the “What Ifs” with the Catechetical Staff
It is often said that each of us has a “piece of the wisdom.” That is especially true of most catechetical staffs—composed of veterans, professional teachers, experienced parents, and individuals from almost every walk of life. Each member of the staff will have his or her own ideas on the best way to deal with the “what if” questions in this article—and others.

For a lively and practical activity at a catechist meeting, divide the staff into small groups of three to five people at each table, with catechists from different levels as part of each small group. Assign one of the questions in the article to each table or use the additional questions listed below:
* What if you are faced with a roomful of blank stares and stony silence after you’ve posed a discussion question?
* What if two students begin to argue over an activity they are working on in a small group?
* What if a student uses foul and inappropriate four-letter words during class discussions and in his or her casual conversations with classmates?
* What if a student shares gossip or too much personal information with the class (a rumor about a student in another class; a parent’s substance-abuse problem; details about a sibling’s love life)?

Challenge each group to decide on the best strategy for dealing with its assigned situation. Ask participants to role play how they would handle it. Allow time for the groups to prepare their responses and to share them with the entire staff.

Copyright 2017, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.