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Celia Carrillo

Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, Lee Mathson Middle School, San Jose, California

Textbooks, dress codes, district policies, and learning strategies have changed a great deal since Celia Carrillo began her teaching career in 1965. Likewise, student populations worldwide have countless times trashed and reinvented their languages, uniforms, codes of ethics, and priorities in the last 34 years. Amid all the turmoil and transformation, however, one aspect of education has remained constant: Kids need hugs.

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Carrillo, a dedicated teacher in a low-income area of Silicon Valley, says children need and deserve respect, positive reinforcement?and unconditional hugs if they are ever going to learn to resolve their conflicts. Every fall, Carrillo establishes a policy in her classroom that dictates the tone and success of the entire school year. She is strict, but loving. Critical, but understanding. Protective, but eager to share. And she has a wealth of knowledge and experience to loan out, not only to her students, but to anyone facing an impasse or communication breakdown.

What problems arise more frequently in the classroom?

I have a real strict policy with my kids. It takes me about two to four weeks at the beginning of school to establish the policy. I just lay down the law that no one will call anyone names, and I just push respect, respect, respect. I’m not saying I get the best kids, but by the time they leave my classroom everybody wants to have my kids because they have learned respect and manners. If I never teach anything else, I will instill respect and manners because I don’t feel I can teach until I create that atmosphere in the classroom. I believe that if I respect my kids, they will respect me and I have never found that to be any different.

Once they are outside, I hear a lot of name calling, and that is because kids allow themselves to be called names. That’s very common, but hopefully by the end of the school year, you will find that some kids do not tolerate it anymore and they have learned to walk away. In the classroom, I don’t have many discipline problems. It is very rare for me to send someone to the office. I have learned this through the years. It’s not something I was born with, and they don’t teach you this in college. For the most part, kids are starving for affection and for respect. They are so used to getting yelled at at home or with their friends, when they find you are not yelling at them back, they appreciate it and they learn to respect in turn.

Before you know it, they are saying to each other, “That is not appropriate behavior. That is not allowed in here.” It’s really rewarding to hear the kids say that to one another.

How do you step in to help your students with problems without getting tangled in the issue yourself?

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Sometimes it’s hard not to get involved because they go to the heart. You know that some of these kids are defenseless. For the most part, I just try to teach throughout the school year how to deal with our problems. I share some of my problems — if I don’t have any currently, I create them or I come across problems that I remember from way back when. There is not one person who doesn’t have problems. They feel that if you have a job and you have money, you don’t have problems. But that is not the case. If anything, we probably have more.

For the most part, my kids come from low-income homes, so they have to deal with a lot of issues at home. Some of them can cope, and some of them cannot.

Do you find yourself acting as an advisor in the off hours?

Are you kidding? I’m a doctor, nurse, psychologist, advisor, mother. A lot of the kids just come to me and say, “Can I have a hug?” As teachers, we are encouraged not to touch the kids, but you’ll find that a lot of teachers just turn their ear to that because kids need to be hugged. Even some of the boys will say, “Can I have a hug today?” Parents are too busy today to go around hugging them and patting them on the head. It’s not that they don’t love their kids, they just aren’t aware that they aren’t doing that as often as they should.

What methods do you have for dealing with parents who are unhappy with their child’s progress?

I try to let them know that the kids have growing pains of all kids, and that there is a lot of pressure being put on them. They need someone to listen to them, read to them, hear them. Parents are working full time, they have financial problems or other problems, and they don’t know that they aren’t listening to their kids. They just think that as long as they are providing a roof over their head, clothes on their back, and food on the table, they are being good parents. But it takes more than that.

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Sometimes you just have to remind parents to give their kids a hug.

I’ve had some parents who have said they will not tolerate anything lower than an A from their child. I try to turn that around and tell them that they are blessed with a gifted child, and that they should be grateful that their child is doing so well in the face of so much peer pressure. Some parents, because of their cultural background, don’t want to accept anything else. I always keep work available so they can see proof of what their child has done.

Maybe, just maybe, there is too much pressure being put on the child. Maybe there is not enough pressure being put on at home. How much television is this child watching? When you are in bed, is your child in bed? Many of my kids stay up all night watching television or playing Nintendo, so there is no interchange between the parents and the child.

What specific techniques do you use to resolve conflict between your students?

I have brought in kids for a one-to-one discussion at recess or after school and I have said, “OK, let’s just listen to one another.” Then I have each student present the problem. Then I have them reverse roles. Unfortunately, a lot of times they just think of violence — you smack, you hit, you kick, you tell them off, and that will settle it. But then we look at alternatives, sometimes just walking away because we need time to cool down. Sometimes I tell my students that I need a moment to cool down because I’m really upset. I do that so my kids know that adults go through this as well.

You don’t want to end up saying the wrong thing. You don’t want to smack anyone. You don’t want to throw things. Sometimes if you just sit down and count to ten or twenty, you can return and begin to talk about things. Body language says a lot, and I don’t want to get the wrong message across to the kids. That’s what they need to learn. You always have to maintain composure.

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Visit the Lee Mathson Middle School on the Web.

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