Sounds Like You Have a Problem
By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
“Can I use the phone to call home?” Jeremy asked the middle-school principal one morning. “Depends on whether or not your need fits the phone criteria,” Mr. Watson told him. “What do you mean ‘criteria’? What is that?” Jeremy asked.
Mr. Watson simply pointed to the sign that was attached to the office phone. It read: “This phone will not be used to create a problem for someone else.”
“I need to call home and have my mom bring my white shirt,” Jeremy explained. “I’m in choir and we have a performance this afternoon. Mr. Olson won’t let me participate unless I have a white shirt. Then I’ll get a zero for the day for nonparticipation.”
“Bummer. Sounds like you have a problem,” Mr. Watson responded.
“Yeah, that’s why I need to call my mom. I want her to bring me one.”
“That would be creating a problem for your mom, and that violates our phone policy,” Mr. Watson informed him with equal amounts of concern and empathy. “What do you think you can do to solve your problem?”
“There’s nothing I can do. I guess I’ll have to take a zero,” responded the dejected sixth-grader.
“You always have more choices than you think you have,” Mr. Watson told him, using one of his favorite Teacher Talk phrases.
“Can’t think of any,” Jeremy mumbled weakly.
“I’ve seen a lot of middle-schoolers forget things over the many years I’ve been here,” Mr. Watson informed Jeremy. “Want to hear some of the choices I’ve seen other kids your age come up with?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, I’ll throw out some ideas. If you think of any, you mention them, too. Let’s see how many possible solutions we can create.”
“I’ve seen some students check in the lost-and-found to see if there are any white shirts there. That’s one possibility. One girl checked with Mrs. Ammon, the art teacher. She brings in old white shirts from time to time to use for students to cover up with so they don’t get paint on their school clothes. Maybe she has one that is not too paint filled. Mrs. Conroy, the physical education teacher, gives white t-shirts away from time to time as gifts. Maybe she would loan you one.”
“Or I could see if Mrs. Connors is going home for lunch today. Her son is my size and maybe she’d loan me one,” Jeremy added.
“Or you could get some white paper from Mrs. Ammon and cut out a white shirt. Maybe Mr. Olson would let you stand in the back wearing a white paper shirt,” offered the principal.
“Well, there are a few possibilities,” summed up Mr. Watson. “One of the things I know about you, Jeremy, is that once you see choices you’re always able to find one that works for you,” he said as he began to launch into his often-employed one-minute problem-keeper/problem-solver lecture burst.
“We have two different kinds of students at this school, Jeremy,” Mr. Watson stated. “We have problem solvers and problem keepers. Problem solvers look at all the possible solutions, pick one, and implement it. If it works, they feel empowered. If it doesn’t work, they often pick another one and implement that. On occasion, problem solvers use three or four possible solutions and none of them work. But do you know what? Even if no solution is successful, the problem solvers often feel better and more powerful. That’s because at least they did something. They didn’t just give up. And many times one of the solutions does help them solve the problem. Then they really feel empowered.
“We also have problem keepers at this school. Problem keepers look at the possible choices and say to themselves, ‘None of these will work.’ They walk around feeling sorry for themselves and blame other people for the predicament they created for themselves. They hold mini-pity parties and get others to agree with them about how awful and unfair the situation is. They end up feeling like a victim and don’t experience a strong sense of personal power.
“Guess who we let choose at this school whether they want to be a problem solver or a problem keeper?”
“That’s right. We let the students pick which one they want to be. And who do you think gets to decide in this situation whether to be a problem keeper or a problem solver?”
“Right again. In fact, the first thing I’m going to ask you when I see you tomorrow is, ‘Did you decide to be a problem keeper or a problem solver?’ And I’ll want to know how that choice worked for you.”
“Jeremy, I know you can handle it. I’ll be at the concert this afternoon. I hope to hear your clear voice singing out with gusto. Create a great day.”