By Yasamin Salari
Take a moment and visualize your personal stereotype of a “teacher”. Go ahead, I’ll wait...
I call to mind someone prim, restrained and deeply conventional. Even as someone with many friends in the field—most of them nuanced, energetic and creative people—the person I imagine doesn’t do fun things in their spare time. They mostly exist to make sure I’m paying attention to my penmanship (thanks Mrs. Cohn). I mostly speak to this teacher once a month to make sure I’m still getting my A. This teacher fears colors he or she deems “too bright.” They hear an amazing beat and feel…nothing.
Isn’t it interesting that in this profession filled with individualists, thinkers, and innovators, we tend to externalize so…uniformly?
I’ve seen it first hand. The best happy-hour conversationalist on staff shrinks down to the Ben Stein monotone from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when organizing class, mediating conflict, or discussing social/emotional learning. I observed a colleague*, new to the field but well-trained, watch a child spill a whole pint of milk because she wasn’t paying attention and say…nothing. She quietly mopped up the milk and carried on with the morning ritual.
To this point, I would like us to collectively consider how it affects our children to view some of their primary caretakers as emotionally monolithic or even worse—to not consider them emotional people at all. There is a devastating ripple effect when we remove our own emotional process from the emotional growth equation.
In service to illustrating these consequences, I would like to share a difficult story of my own. Using my story as a case study, I’m advocating for teachers to make space for emotions by narrating their process for their students and modeling the tools they use to maintain their own well being.
The Lesson Plan
There was a science lesson that I was very excited about. By popular demand, we were studying microorganisms. Ebola had devastated Africa and many of my students were either first generation African Americans or had themselves recently arrived from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Naturally, they were curious, frightened, and fascinated by this terrifying disease and wanted answers.
We were in the phase of the lesson plan studying more benign creatures. Ten Petri dishes were populated with yeast at exactly the right timing and temperature to rapidly reproduce under a microscope. Instructions were on the board and I had done a pre-teach of procedures and guidelines for microscope use.
My students had been asking for this all week. They were so excited to finally get their hands on some “real science,” as they put it.
The pre-write was going smoothly and the hypotheses were handed in, with coherence. Until that kid (you know the one) knocked over all of the Petri dishes into a bready, fermented splatter on the floor.
My heart dropped into my stomach, closely followed by a warm rage that washed over my face. My lips scrunched into a wrinkly line. “Come ON Eric. Seriously?” I growled in my head.
This shouldn’t have happened: the countless reviews of the expectations; posting instructions above each station in cutesy, colored fonts. We had passed the halfway developmental point of 4th grade when this should be no problem. “I don’t teach Kindergarten” was and is my favorite maturity prompting phrase.
The worst part was that he didn’t even look sorry—he actually maintained the usual smug grin. I’ll just admit it. I didn’t like him. Before that moment I tolerated him. But in that moment something turned, and the dislike became personal and genuine.
I opted to do exactly what my colleague with the milk carton did—just silently mop it all up. But the incident stuck with me. Much later I figured out why the exchange didn’t feel complete.
From the outside, forgiving and forgetting seemed like a mature solution…but let’s look deeper into what was motivating each of my moves.
The Actual Lesson
The less attractive but truer version of events is this: I used a façade of calm to create an insincere teachable moment.
And, as we all know, children are sharks—they can smell one part insincerity in a million parts good intention. What he heard was: “Ok, its ok.” What he felt was likely: “I’m ignoring you and your needs because I’m clearly angry and I’ve given up on even trying with you.” This suspicion is supported by the fact that Eric stopped talking to me altogether after that day. He mostly just avoided and mutually tolerated me.
Another facet is that I pitted the other children against Eric by playing the bigger person. Literally. There’s nothing that decades’ edge that turns sarcasm into a weapon. “Guys, guys. It’s no big deal” was an exact lie. This lie, more than anything, served to frame ME as the awesome person. It was self-serving in the extreme. And childish.
Because children, disliking the struggling member of the pack, play right into the cycle I was perpetuating. “Oh my gosh Ms. Salari!” my favorites (we’re being real, here) groaned, “Don’t worry, we’ll help.” They scrambled to clean it up.
The gifted stayed valued and the struggling became isolated.
I roll my eyes at myself look back. This was not my best. It was a coping mechanism. My approach was passive-aggressive. I just really didn’t feel like dealing with Eric anymore and I resented needing to
teach down to his level of social and emotional learning. We’ve all been here.
Now, a few more years into teaching, I know a bigger truth: we don’t teach developmentally appropriate patience practices often anymore. It’s entirely likely he never learned how to take his time and be careful.
Let’s take a moment and do what teachers do best: let’s consider the student.
My lobotomy of that exchange robbed Eric of an opportunity to atone for something and to grow his empathy. A mistake like this could have fostered a moment for the two of us to interface honestly—one person to another—without classroom politics interrupting. He could have felt truly forgiven and welcomed back in.
Here’s how I would do it again, given, I don’t know, maybe a magic school bus that travels back in time:
I would put the rest of the class on computers, calmly assuring them that these things happen and that we can do the experiment tomorrow.
I would say publically and without shame that I am upset with Eric and that the two of us need to talk.
I would pull him aside, look him in the eye and tell him, step by step, everything I had to do to prepare the yeast sample.
I would communicate honestly that it was really hard for me to watch him mess up all of my hard work with his carelessness.
I would help him clean it up. Not do it for him, but help, so that the consequence is logical, but I am still being supportive.
Finally, I would require that he help me set up the Petri dishes for the next day, and pass them out.
This sequence puts the focus back on the task at hand. The point is that the class was not able to learn the lesson plan because of Eric’s lack of social and emotional development. Now I understand better that until kids like Eric have their emotional growth needs handling as well as possible, the rest of the class will not be able to learn.
Takeaways: Personal and Professional
Here is the other major consideration in the exchange: me and my emotional health.
In masking my feelings I robbed Eric of a critical growth opportunity but I did something worse to myself; I created the perfect environment for resentment to grow. Just like my little petri dishes of yeast, my resentment was warm, contained, and fed by the attention of the other students. I allowed myself to develop a fixed mindset about Eric that became a label. I shrunk my own capacity for problem solving and empathy.
To make this career sustainable, teachers have to so some social and emotional learning of our own. Critically, we have to collectively reimagine the idea that adults are supposed to be monolithic providers of comfort and warmth. Instead, we can model a process of transparency and comfort with our own imperfections, giving students permission to understand their own learning curve as being human.
As a teacher, ask yourself the following in the course of your interaction with a child who has recently made a frustrating mistake.
- Am I taking care of myself emotionally in this interaction so that I can continue this work? If not, how can I?
- What do I want (my student/s) to learn?
- How can I empower my student to learn this?
- What is the rest of class learning from how I handle this interaction?
These four simple but powerful questions can organize and decompress the chaotic moments of frustration we all experience in classrooms.
Be real. Say how you feel. Be imperfect.
Do it for you or do it for them. But do it. Because if you burn out you won’t sustain this work and we need you, with all your expertise and humanity. Now more than ever.
*This observation is anecdotal of course. If you are one of the yoda-level teachers I’ve met who bring their entire nuance to the classroom while supporting kids, this post isn’t for you. Also, call me. I want to learn.