The Transformation of Sister Isabella

I don’t remember my Kindergarten or first grade experience in detail. I only remember spending the days reading, painting, playing, and taking naps. I remember receiving lots of affection and caring from my first teachers, Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Murphy. All this changed when I was in second grade.

My parents enrolled me in a Catholic school and the first day started with arguments at home. I was ready to go to school and was wearing my favorite blue jeans and beloved Spiderman T-shirt. When I sat down for breakfast my mother explained that I had to wear the school uniform. She asked, “Do you remember when we went to buy the uniform? It is used by all the kids who go to your school. You also have to wear it.” I knew perfectly well that I had to wear the uniform, but I hated it. The shirt looked like a woman’s blouse and the pants were a shade of blue so horrible that I got chills putting them on. Worst of all was the shoes I had to wear. My parents had decided that I could not wear tennis shoes. Instead, my dad got me a pair of black patent-leather shoes to wear with my uniform. I was sure that all the children would fall down laughing when they saw me in this atrocious uniform and shoes. Though I made all the excuses I could imagine in a desperate attempt to avoid this fate, I left the house crying and complaining about the ugly uniform and the horrific patent leather shoes.

I arrived at the school and as I looked around, everybody else was wearing a uniform. I thought, “Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. At least I don’t have to wear the girls’ uniform, theirs is even worse!” Then I noticed that all the boys had tennis shoes on. Nobody but me had the disgusting patent-leather shoes. I tried to make myself invisible and prayed for the day to end quickly. When the bell rang, the door to my room opened and my teacher, a nun named Sister Isabella, came out to greet us. I had never seen a nun so close and I was amazed. She was tall, pretty, and elegant. Her brown habit was stunning. She seemed so perfect and beautiful that I imagined that the Blessed Virgin Mary had come down from heaven to play the role of my teacher. Unfortunately, this vision was not going to last for long.

The first months passed without incident. School seemed easy to me because I already knew how to read, write, and do calculations. I finished all my assignments quickly and often found myself with nothing else to do. There were four other boys who sat near me that I gravitated to. Before long, I became very good friends with Jerry, Troy, David and Felipe. As soon as we finished our assignments we would talk. Sister Guadalupe reprimanded us for misbehaving and for distracting the other children. She warned us that if we did not behave she would punish us. I didn’t think my beautiful and heavenly teacher would really punish us, so I kept doing what I had been doing. Soon, Sister Isabella began taking away our recess time, giving us more homework, or making us stay after school for detention. I figured that as long as I was doing all my work and getting good grades, everything would be fine. This illusion was short lived.

One afternoon after lunch, Sister Isabella called all five of us to the front of the class. She began to talk about our behavior. Se said that we were a bad example for the other students, that we did not respect the rules of the class, and that our behavior was sinful. She said that we had no discipline to resist the temptation of sin and that for our sake she would help us develop this discipline. The longer she spoke, the more nervous I became. Something very bad was about to happen and that there was no way to escape the unknown punishment that was looming. I glanced over to her desk and saw a wooden paddle. My whole body began to tremble and I struggled to hold back tears. I got into my fair share of mischief at home and my dad spanked me for it. Never before had I been punished physically by anyone else and certainly not with a wooden paddle! The paddle was about eight inches long, five inches wide and one inch thick. I saw that it had holes and I imagined this would make it hurt more. The paddle was old and looked well-used. I wondered how many other children had suffered this pain. The five of us began to exchange glances and although we did not speak a word, we shared our thoughts without difficulty. We were all afraid and we did not want to be punished in this way. We were not bad as the teacher said and we did not deserve something as cruel as this. In those silent looks we made a pact not to ask for mercy, not to make gestures of pain, and above all, not to give Sister Isabella the satisfaction of seeing us cry.

One by one we had our turn. First she hit Jerry and then Felipe. Although they did not cry, their eyes were full of emotion. I thought that they must have felt pain, shame, and regret but their eyes showed none of this. It was something else I was seeing, but I could not identify what. Then it was my turn. When I felt the paddle smash my bottom it hurt a lot. The pain changed to rage and hatred. At that moment I understood that this was what I had seen in the eyes of my companions. Then it was Troy and David’s turn. When she thrashed them I felt more anger and hatred. Looking at Jerry and Felipe I knew they felt the same. Sister Isabella sent us to sit down and we did not utter a single word the rest of the day. I spent that afternoon thinking about the paddle and the pain that the nun caused me. It was no longer a physical pain, it was now a hurt that penetrated my soul. I looked at Sister Isabella and she did not look pretty to me anymore. Her appearance had changed and I saw her as an ugly and mean woman who hated children and who enjoyed hurting them. To me, she was the sinner. I decided that I would not bend for her and that she would not defeat me. If she had to paddle me every day for my behavior, so be it.

Sister Isabella paddled me many more times that year and each time my rebellion and the anger I felt for her grew. After that first paddling, I never felt like she cared for me or tried to help me. I gave her a wide berth as often as I could and wished for the year to end quickly. I never got paddled again after second grade. Although I got punished lots of times for talking too much and other minor mischief, I liked all the teachers I had from 3rd to 8th grade. Some teachers were kinder than others, some were more strict, but I felt that each of them cared about me and was genuinely trying to help me and my classmates. The negative feelings for Sister Isabella never faded, even now some 40+ years I still harbor some resentment.

Connections to my Professional Learning

I originally wrote this story in Spanish more than 20 years ago for a Spanish Writing Project I joined to improve my Spanish writing skills. I don’t recall what my intentions were for writing the story, but I’m sure it had nothing to do with connecting my personal experience to my professional work as a teacher.

Times have changed and now I routinely connect dots between my experiences and the experiences of others to all manner of topics related to learning, and student learning in particular. One theme I have been pursuing for some time is relationships. The importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher has been articulated beautifully by educators including George Couros, Sir Ken Robinson, Jimmy Casas, Jay Billy (The Innovator’s Mindset, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, Culturize, Lead With Culture respectively).

When I think about Sister Isabella and my experience in second grade, it is so obvious that our relationship was damaged. Looking back I have no doubt that Sister Isabella had good intentions. I seriously doubt that she intended to be cruel towards me. I was disruptive and caused problems for her in the class. But I didn’t see it that way as a seven year old, partly because I was a seven year old and partly because of how I felt. What might have happened had Sister Isabella opted for a different method to address my misbehavior? What if her response to the misbehavior had been informed by a Restorative Practices approach? This kind of approach is based in teaching rather than punishing and gives the student a chance to learn from mistakes and restore damaged relationships with others.

What if…

These thoughts made me think of Sister Isabella in a new light. I can’t know what her why was nor can I know what her practices were informed by. I thought about my own journey in the classroom teaching grades 1 through 6. What method did I use to address classroom behavior? What was it informed by? The truth is, it was mostly a traditional approach and it was informed in large part by my own experience as a student. I had not read books about different approaches nor had I made connections with other educators that could have been enlightening.

I recently read Better Than Carrot or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management by Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. The book unearthed memories about my classroom practices and reminded me about Sister Isabella and my second grade story. It was the catalyst for writing this post.

The following passage really resonated with me:

“…traditional discipline efforts focus on determining guilt and punishing the offender… the offender receives an undesirable consequence that typically involves shame, isolation, and exclusion.” p. 107

It perfectly describes what my 7 year old self experienced. When I think about what I “learned” from the experience, it sure wasn’t positive. I didn’t acknowledge my behavior, consider any harm I caused, or make plans to make amends. My reflection caused me to think about Rita Pierson’s Every Kid Needs a Champion TED Talk. This sketch note created by Sylvia Duckworth beautifully illustrates key points from the TED Talk. Thinking back to my experience with Sister Isabella I am struck by the thought that the experience was a missed opportunity.

Thinking about my current context as principal in an elementary school, I see many opportunities to continue building relationships with students and staff and to reframe how I respond to behavior with principles based in a Restorative Practice approach.

I will wrap up this post with one more passage from the book. After you read it, consider the implications for your educational setting. What does your current system teach kids unintentionally? To say it differently, are there behaviors we see that are perhaps an outcome of the system we perpetuate?

“Given the modeling with which they’re presented, it’s no surprise that many children learn to solve problems using rewards and consequences – through bullying for instance… when we misuse our power, we map a path for students to follow that is the opposite of what we intend.” p. 12

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