Infusing Joy Into the Cinderblock Walls of a Detention Studio

Erin Kemp, Entry #4

This year for Mother’s Day, I received a card that read, “If you don’t break some of the rules, you’ll miss all of the fun.” A Hallmark quote that many of us have seen before, I’m sure, but this year it struck me with special meaning. My husband and I have definitely adopted this belief in parenting (we have an energetic, and hilarious 15-month-old daughter named Maya), and despite the open opportunity for criticism from others, we’re likely to let Maya to choose her own clothes, suck on her toes, go barefoot, and make giant messes with bowls full of lentils and sand… just because it’s fun! I think of myself as a laid back and down to earth person, and I wouldn’t change anything about my role as a mother.

Recently, though, the image that I’ve always had of myself, one that was still holding strong in my home life, was quickly disappearing into a no-nonsense, disciplinarian teacher at work. In my role as the Art Therapist at a Juvenile Detention school, I was becoming known by my students as uptight and nagging. (I should note here that the staff at the Detention appreciate and almost adore this persona. They love my consistency and diligence about counting materials and enforcing rules that are mandatory throughout the rest of the center, i.e. students do not move without permission, curse, or talk out of turn.) Now, anyone who knows me would say that referring to myself as an authoritarian is an absolute joke and that my version of authoritarian is likely an extremely watered down version of what most people would think of when they hear the word.  Still, during our spring break in April, when I finally had time to step away and reflect, I decided that I just wasn’t ok with this.

I was a therapist, first and foremost, and although I love my job and the opportunity to work in a teaching role in a studio setting, I needed to find a better balance between pushover (a word I often used to describe myself during my first months at this job) and disciplinarian. The bigger picture is that my students were not having the studio experience that I wanted them to have, and 90% of the time, they did not leave my class feeling relaxed or refreshed. The well-behaved students were constantly frustrated with the defiant ones, and also by the fact that they didn’t receive nearly enough of my attention. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my students were responding to my own tension and anxiety. Instead of allowing myself to relax, have a sense of humor, and break some of my own rules every now and then, I was constantly redirecting students for profanity and inappropriate conversations, drawing gang-related images, or flat-out not participating.

I knew I had to talk to the detention staff if I was going to make any progress. As my teacher personality had evolved throughout the school year, the staff began to let me take an independent hold of the reigns of my class. And while I appreciated this shift in trust and control, I knew I needed to define our roles and ask for their help when it came to enforcing the expectations. We decided that I would always give a warning and allow the opportunity for a student to change their behavior. I would give them space or work with them one-on-one if they desired. After that, it was in the staff’s hands, and I had the freedom to work with the other students or enjoy the beautiful silence of everyone hard at work on their art. I knew I had to preserve what I knew best… creating a safe, creative space, and I wouldn’t allow the detention state of mind (see April’s entry for more on this) to get in the way.

Just yesterday, I was reading an article by Richard Curwin about connecting to students in urban schools. The writer urged teachers to “decrease the threats, and increase the joy” in their classrooms. Threats are easy to come by in Detention. Students can easily rail off the immediate consequences they’ll receive for just about any behavior. They don’t need me to remind them of the rules; they know them. And now that my eyes are wide open and I’ve taken a deep breath, I’m able to spot the times when they’re “acting up” is really just asking for help.

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