25 Styles Personal Uncategorized Weekly Post Why 2.0

Saddness, suffering, wisdom, and my dog

Every man has his secret sorrows that the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.
Longfellow.

I have 100 students.It is very easy to cruise through the year without ever getting to know many of them. That is the reality of an in and out 45 minutes a day schedule. I have quiet kids and loud kids. Kids who do extra work and kids who hand in nothing at all. Kids who talk all through class and kids who are barely audible. Kids who are very happy and kids who are very sad.

It is hard to tell which ones are happy and which ones are sad. You might think that is a silly statement, but what you see is not what a kid is feeling. The book bag the kid brings to school is the tip of the iceberg of the emotional baggage they might be carrying. If you think about it, we make plans for our class based on the assumption that each kid is happy. We give grades, due dates, and comments to kids assuming that everything in their life is fine. And even if it is not fine, even if their life sucks, we still hold them accountable to the dates and guidelines that we set assuming they were fine.

Over the last decade I have become more in tune with the emotional well being of my classes. I realized that there might be a week or more when a certain kid does absolutely nothing because all they can think about is being evicted from their house. I realized that for two weeks a kid might just need a safe place to come in and sit and not have anyone getting on his back about anything. I realized that just because your parents divorced 3 years ago, doesn’t mean it still isn’t painful…especially after father’s day. I realized that a kid yelling at me doesn’t need me to yell back or to be given a detention to teach them a lesson, but needs a sign that someone in this world still loves them.

I didn’t realize how any of the pain my kids were feeling impacted their school life until I had periods in my life that made me suffer with emotional pain. Every period of suffering in my life brought more clarity to my understanding the plight of the kids whose suffering I had never noticed. While good times made me happy, suffering made me a better teacher. If you made a list of the events in your life in that you gained the most wisdom from would they be sad or happy? I did not gain wisdom from buying a new car, but gained a lot from driving around in a car that always broke down. No wisdom from having plenty of money, but a lot of wisdom from having none. Some wisdom from having a baby, but a whole lot more from the death of one.

With each struggle that I go through, I use it as a reminder that out of 100 kids many of them are also struggling. Struggling with things that they have no control over, and living a life they have no control over. They still have to meet the same deadlines that everyone else has to. Before someone says “well that’s how life is,” it’s not. During each struggle in my life I was able to ask for extensions for deadlines, delegate parts of my job, and when it was really needed…I showed a movie.

Last week my dog died. She was my buddy for 15 years. I was very, very sad. It gave me a wake up call to keep in mind the struggles that my kids are going through. Unfortunately when my life is good, I forget that not everyone elses is good. My dog’s death reminded me to keep alert for sadness that might be disguised by a smile, or sadness that is represented by a missing assignment. I know my kids were certainly surprised last week when I made every kid sit in their seats silently during bus announcements after two kids were found in the hallway. I overreacted. I was not reacting reasonably; I was reacting out of my pain. Not one kid could say something because I was in charge so no one could “punish” me for my outburst and mistake. I was reminded that most kids misbehave for the same reason. They are reacting in reaction to some pain. Sometimes it is as obvious a stake through the heart, but other times it is a small sliver that is undetectable. Sometimes it is with a frown, but many times it is with a smile. Sometimes it is followed by an I’m sorry, but the one that gets teachers the most and makes us forget about the kid, riles our emotions, and causes us to react instantly to the action is when it is followed up by an “I don’t care.” “I don’t care” is the phrase kids use when they care deeply, but don’t have any words to express the emotions behind their actions.

We should all look at our “classroom management plan” that we have established in our classes. When we implement rules that are created to stop actions and ignore the pain, we are basically creating a system set-up to suppress emotions. Bottling up pain, just leads to more problems. Is your “system” built to suppress actions? Or solve the underlying cause of them? When a kid says “I don’t care” is your system set-up to punish, or support. Coerce, or connect.

Every student has their secret sorrows that the world knows not; and often times we call a student a bully, lazy, dumb, uninterested, careless, unmotivated, stubborn, trouble, rude, difficult or needy when they are only sad.

9 comments

  1. Paul,

    This is an amazingly honest and touching post. Very sorry about your dog….Very happy that you look inside yourself and try to see kids for the mound of baggage that they are. One of the things I always tried to have people understand when I led an At-Risk team…”If you had that kids life and experiences, you would act the same way.” Not that I want to make excuses for kids, because there is some control that can be exercised, but they are kids and have volatile emotions.

    Thanks for this gentle and loving reminder. You make us all more humane people. I am so glad I read your blog regularly!

  2. I am actually reading a book right now called “Teach With Your Strengths”, How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. In the first chapter of the book it said exactly what you were saying, in different words.
    I too lost my dog this year. It near the end of the first nine weeks and it was sudden and unexpected. She died about 15 minutes before I left for work, it was terrible. I cried for days, and the kids connected with me. I have always tried to find common connections with kids and to be acutely aware of how they were doing, I am very good at looking through the mask that kids wear. It is amazing the impact we can have on kids when they see that we do really care about them and even share. I think teachers lose sight that kids have problems too, because our adult problems seem so large.
    Thanks for this inspiring post, and I feel for you in the loss of your beloved pet, I know where you are, I still cry and it has been 9 months.
    A fellow caring teacher
    Beth

  3. I am so sorry to hear about your dog! You are so right about how much our students are affected by their feelings and events surrounding their lives. Sometimes we just have to step back and let them get through these things instead of pushing, forcing, and insisting. We should empathize and encourage.

  4. That’s all true.

    On the other hand, I’ve got lots of kids who come through my classroom who have almost no control or stability in their lives. One of the best things I can do for them is to give them the structure that they are missing everywhere else. Some of my students desperately need someone to hold them accountable – to say, “Hey – I see you and I respect you enough to hold you to a reasonable standard. I’m here to help, but you have responsibilities to meet.”
    A lot of these guys have never had a role model of responsibility and need a structure somewhere in their lives to help teach them that. The really hard part is trying to figure out who needs a break and who needs the structure.

    I don’t know if this is related or not, but I thought you’d appreciate this story:

    I had a girl in my homeroom and Social Studies class this year – let’s call her Meg – who meets the world head-on. Everything is a personal challenge to her. That can be a good thing, but she has always had trouble distinguishing between a challenge and conflict.

    Throughout the first half of this year, Meg fought me on EVERYTHING. I couldn’t make any kind of statement or give any directions without her getting in my face and challenging me on it. I worked really hard at not taking it personally, but I also made sure that she kept things school-appropriate and was respectful. I called HER on any behavior that wasn’t worthy of her. It was a rough five or six months.

    By the end of the year, these head-butting sessions had really decreased and we had even gotten to the point where we could kid around with each other a little.

    About a week before the end of school, she came into homeroom with her end-of-year portfolio. One of the essays most of our students write is about their favorite teacher over the past eight years. I asked Meg if I could look at her portfolio and she handed it over. I was planning to leaf through it and make some joke like, “Ohhh! Look, Meg’s favorite teacher is Mr. FLAAAAAAAADD!!”

    To my surprise, I actually was.

    The statement that really stuck with me was, “Mr. Fladd isn’t my friend. That’s not his job. He does something more important – he makes sure I learn.”

    I’m not a warm/fuzzy teacher and there are times when I wonder if I’m taking the right path in the way I teach, but this was a very satisfying moment. I can’t speak for all my students, but I know that I read my relationship with at least one of my students right. It feels good.

    Anyway, congratulations on completing another year in the Hogwartsy labyrinth of middle school education and congratulations on staying true to your vision.

    – John

    1. As I was writing this I wondered about adding another component to my thoughts. Too often folks equate being empathetic with being a pushover. There is a difference between letting kids do what the want, and giving them what they need. I am always surprised when at the end of the year kids label my class as difficult and hard. Empathy does not have to equal being easy on a kid.

  5. I don’t think showing empathy is being a pushover. In fact, it is much easier to become angry with a kid who isn’t cooperating than to step back and thoughtfully see the big picture.

    And yes, recognizing our own hurts & weaknesses and how they affect us is a great way to feel for others. Whoops, my response to this has become so lengthy, I just cut & paste the rest of it into my own blog post: Deliver Bad News With Empathy.

    Thanks Paul, once again you offer a banquet of food for thought.

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