Sunday, May 1, 2011

"I love you, but I can't talk to you right now"

My first year teaching a little friend made me a "puppet" at the art center during free choice time. He'd used a purple foam flower, attached a close pin to the bottom, and drew two eyes with angry eyebrows and an angry mouth. He said it was me when I used my mad face.

It was my first year and I'd taken a lot to get to the point where my mad face was extremely effective, so I attached the puppet to my badge. The class loved it. Instead of me having to use my actual mad face at them I could just flash the puppet. They'd immediately know I was giving them the evil eye (even those who had difficulty reading my actual facial cues knew it meant they were on thin ice) and would stop their behavior.

The next year I overheard one of the most amazing teachers in my building say she writes the phrase "I love you but I can't talk to you right now" on her writing workshop conference hat so that children knew not to bother her when she was conferencing. I kept playing that phrase over and over in my mind. I love it- it acknowledges the person and that you still care about the person, but also sets a limit.

I told my class that my angry purple flower meant just that "I love you, but I can't talk to you right now."  Just like the year before I wore it all the time, not just during conferencing. It was relatively small and just lived on my ID badge but was easy to flash when a child came to interrupt me when I was chatting with another teacher, another student, or just trying to organize myself for the next lesson. I did not have to turn and make eye contact with the child, I simply just picked up the flower and held it up so they could see it.
"Oh yeah," many of them would say, "You love me but you can't talk to me right now" and they'd go back to work.
For whatever reason they loved the saying too. I loved that they repeated it to themselves "You love me but you can't talk to me right now" as though they were reassuring themselves that I did in fact love them.

For me it worked better than a designated hat for writing or reading workshop because I was able to acknowledge their presence with an action (holding up the flower) without making eye contact. When I used a hat for reading/writing workshop I'd find myself stopping and talking to the child to remind them what the hat meant. Tapping the hat didn't get their attention, while holding up the purple flower did. Plus the purple flower was around all day so they saw it all the time and were less likely to forget what it meant.

I also paired it with a "notes for Ms. L" box so they could go and leave me a note about what they needed. For first graders I wanted them to write anyway, so writing their notes to me was meaningful writing. They had even more incentive really listen to the sounds in those words because they knew I'd be reading them when they were not around to translate for me. By the middle of the year most of them were leaving notes without me having to give them the "I love you" reminder.

Now that I work in 3 different classrooms it's hard to do something that consistently. I don't have the luxury of having those moments of whole group lessons where I explain procedures. And since I'm not in their rooms all the time it's not as consistent. As the kinders are getting more and more bouncy with spring fever- and more likely to leave their seats to "need to tell me something so, so, so important" I need to find a way to make it work... my end of year survival may depend on it.


Jenny said...

First of all, the idea of the puppet just makes me smile. It never ceases to amaze me how children take things on and go so far beyond anything we could imagine.

As a parent I've made a serious effort never to say, "I love you, but..." My sense, and I am not completely certain about this, is that adding 'but' to 'I love you' just feels off. I don't want to add any qualifications to my love for them. Reading your post has me thinking about this and I'd love to know what you think.

organized chaos said...

Hmmm... I've never thought about it that way before. I got the phrase from C. O., our former 3rd grade teacher turned LC coach.
I wonder if there is a difference between saying it as a parent and saying it as a teacher. The kids always seemed to relax with the "I love you" phrase. For some it seemed to calm them and reassure them that just because I couldn't talk to them didn't mean I didn't love them. I don't think it adds qualifications to love- it's not like I'm saying, I love you but you really need to lose some wait, or I'd love you more if you'd calm down. I think (hope) it shows that I love no matter what, but I can't give you what you want right now.
I don't know- it's interesting to think about.
I think as a teacher it wont do any long term damage- love with us isn't necessarily expected. With a parent I think it's different.
There is also something about tone of voice. Delivering it with an angry or frustrated voice will only take away from the sentiment, while delivering it with a calm voice adds to the reassuring-ness of it.
Plus a lot of my kids with anxiety need to learn the lesson that adults still love them even when they are not with them. I've written social stories about the topic for some kids.
But I don't know- I'll be thinking about this for awhile.