Engagement, Equity, Well-being

The Power of Why

On Instagram, a quote from Stuart Shanker’s Mehrit Centre pops: “It’s not misbehaviour, it’s stress behaviour and how you react will make all the difference.”

I philosophically believe the statement. As a Vice-Principal, I work with my staff to build a welcoming and understanding school. But I saw the true power of that message the day my daughter quit her job.

Sixteen was tough. For my daughter, it brought an utter disconnect from school. There were suspensions, missed credits, and daily attendance calls. We had loud fights, and I’d let her go for a walk afterwards because she needed it, even though I was scared she might not come home.

School has never been easy for her. At age eight, she was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder, which affects the nerves running between her ears, blurring the sounds before they reach her brain. Because she can’t process sounds clearly, it is hard for her to decode words and writing is difficult.

In Grade 8, there was a test she didn’t study for and failed dismally. She told me it was on Lois Reilly and the Mets. I searched my brain for any knowledge of a Lois Reilly in Canadian History, and the Mets… all I could think of was the baseball team.

Slowly I connected the dots. “Do you mean Louis Riel and the Métis?”

That was it. In class, she had worked on writing the notes while the teacher had talked. She couldn’t focus on both. It was all in her Individual Education Plan, but her disability is invisible, and often people only see a disengaged teenager. People don’t understand her needs, so she shuts down.

Her work life was good, though. McDonald’s hired her, and she liked it. She loved the kitchen camaraderie and the money. McDonald’s was structured. First, she learned the deep fryer, then the grill, and then the prepping area.

This success gave me hope. With work, I saw the girl I’ve always known.

Then they moved her to the front counter. Some voices were easy for her, but some she couldn’t hear at all. Stress seeped into her workplace. I told her to explain her situation to the manager, but acknowledging differences is hard at 16. She started showing up late and missing shifts. Then she no longer had a job.

Months later, she was hired at Subway for one three-hour shift a week. When people ordered specialty sandwiches she couldn’t remember the toppings, and when she asked her co-workers for help, they told her to read the support sheet. But with a line-up of people, processing written instructions was stressful. The complaints about work began.

Circumstances didn’t help. She traded one shift, but her co-worker cancelled en route. The next week, she wrote her schedule down incorrectly. Her boss texted her halfway through the shift, and she was hysterical.

“I’m going to get fired. I’m not ready for a job right now.”

I managed to get her to text him back, but he wanted to speak with her.

“I’m going to quit,” she said. “I can’t do this.”

On the phone, she took full responsibility for missing her shifts. She apologized and then gave her two-weeks’ notice.

And instead of accepting her resignation, her boss asked her why. He told her she’d been doing a great job and that both customers and staff had said positive things about her.

She told him everything. She told him about her hearing and that reading instructions when there was a line-up was stressful. She said the shifts were too short and too few, so that she had to re-learn everything each time. She said she’d mentioned she couldn’t work Tuesdays but kept getting her shift on Tuesdays.

Then he asked her what she needed.

Her answer was simple: longer shifts, more of them, and Tuesdays off.

He said he would work on it.

I cried from the other room.

The impact of that simple “why” was monumental. His questions gave her dignity and respect. She was able to acknowledge her challenges and identify what she needed. He listened to and supported her.

I wish for that in her classroom. I wish her teachers would ask her why, and that she felt comfortable enough to share her reality, but it doesn’t happen. Yet as educators we have that power. “It’s not misbehaviour, it’s stress behaviour and how you react will make all the difference.” It’s truer than we know.

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, June 2020

Meet the Expert(s)

Stefanie Cole

Vice Principal, Durham District School Board

Stefanie Cole has been an educator for over 25 years, working with the Durham District School Board and living in her hometown of Uxbridge with her supportive husband and three children.

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