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.

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