I left campus last Thursday afternoon feeling fulfilled. Good at my job. Happy. Productive.
If I’ve learned nothing else in this life, I should have learned by now to embrace those moments of calm contentment because they never last long enough.
I have been blessed over the last two years with mostly nice students. They are courteous in class, friendly when they see me on campus, and are not shy about complimenting my teaching when they particularly enjoy a lesson.
But I’d be lying if I said there is not at least one class each semester I look less forward to than the others because of a particular student or two.
They aren’t always outright disrespectful, but the eye rolls, body language, and exchanged glances with one another are something that I am particularly adept at reading. Am I overly sensitive to it? Maybe. I anticipated this part of teaching being difficult for me because (as my husband or my mom will tell you) I don’t handle criticism gracefully.
As an insecure child my response was to shy away from people who criticized or made fun of me so I wouldn’t have to take a closer look at myself. As an adult, particularly as a teacher, my inclination is to single them out, turn the microscope on them, and let them know who holds the power.
Human nature is to seek vengeance when we feel we’ve been wronged. According to Veronica Mars, and the majority of the human race, “someone always has to pay.”
But as a a wife, a mother, and a teacher, there are so many areas of my life where, if there is any hope for survival, I must practice the opposite of what my flawed nature really desires. That can be hard when I am run down, sick, tired, or just plain cranky. Pick any day of the week and I am at least 2-3 of these things.
So yesterday morning, groggy and unprepared after 4 days worth of changing runny diapers before I started throwing up myself Easter-night, when glances were exchanged and bags were being hoisted onto shoulders halfway through my lecture, I was feeling slightly ready for a fight.
One student was being particularly abrasive and though I managed to hold my tongue, it was because she already had her backpack on that I decided to go ahead and assign the practice activity I was going to let slide, rather than ending class a few minutes early after the long weekend.
It may have been one of my more passive-aggressive teacher moments, but I’m thankful I managed to contain all the even less nice things went through my mind to do or say in that moment.
It also got me thinking about the right way to handle students (or people in general) who get under your skin, especially when you are more irritable than usual.
Don’t make it your goal to humiliate and embarrass them.
Whatever is going on in their lives that makes them bitter and angry is not going to be improved by you falling right in line with their murky expectations.
Maybe they genuinely just don’t like your class. Maybe they don’t like you. Fair enough.
But maybe it’s something else. People who look at others with an overly critical eye tend to be even harder on themselves. I’m no psychologist, but I do remember a handful of things from my psychology minor. One term that has stuck with me and shown its prevalence in life and literature is self-fulfilling prophecy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is defined as any expectation, positive or negative, about a situation or event that affects an individual’s behavior in such a manner that it causes that expectation to be fulfilled (literarydevices.net).
Let’s take eager backpack girl, for example. While she’s not the warmest and fuzziest bunny in the cage, she has never been outright rude until yesterday. She plays a sport and wears that identity proudly, but academically? She struggles. She has a fellow teammate in class who is always comparing papers with her, ha-ha-ing boisterously when she makes a better grade, which is every time.
Maybe backpack girl didn’t do well in her game over the weekend. Maybe she is in danger of losing the one thing she loves because she can’t keep her grades up. Maybe she feels inadequate in so many ways already, that calling her out and telling her that she especially needs to get her book out and pay attention, would confirm everything negative she believes about herself, not to mention the fact that everyone else seems to be conspiring against her.
If she woke up that morning feeling like like a failure, me taking her bad attitude personally and reacting emotionally by targeting her weak spots (sweeping the leg, so to speak. Movie?) only confirms her suspicion that she is a failure, thus continuing the downward spiral.
I’m not suggesting we let students get by with bad behavior, nor am I suggesting you let people in your life treat you with consistent disrespect. All I am saying is that there are moments to enforce boundaries, and there are moments to show grace. And both of these, it so happens, can be done with kindness.
Let them know you hear them.
This is important for two reasons. Number one is so that snarky comments don’t fall under the radar, encouraging future snarky comments.
Number two is that maybe there is some constructive criticism underlying the nonconstructive.
If their answer to every question you ask is that reading is BORING or talking about social media is BORING, you can gather that they think your class is…well, BORING.
Validate their opinion and then give them a chance to share. Why do they find reading boring? Can they compare it to something exciting? How can we make reading more like ____? Give them some freedom to guide the discussion in a different direction. Don’t cater to that student only, but use it as a jumping off point to get more students involved. They’re on a ride they clearly don’t want to be on, so relegate the driver’s seat to someone else.
If someone is upset with you, or disappointed in you, it is worth your time to ask what you can do to change that. Sometimes there will be an answer. Sometimes there won’t. Sometimes a person just wants to be angry, or has been for so long that they don’t know how to be anything else. A simple acknowledgement or attempt to meet them halfway may be the kind gesture they need to begin to unravel that anger.
Don’t Take it Personally
We are all guilty of having a bad day, even a bad season, in which we don’t treat others with the gentleness we would if our lives were going swimmingly.
You might be having a bad day, but you never know who is having a worse day.
This is valuable to remember whether you’re at the front of a classroom or the end of a long line of traffic. The person who cut you off may be running on gas fumes, just trying to make it home. Their account may be overdrawn and they don’t know how they’re going to fill up, get to work, or even buy bread before they get paid on Friday.
The elderly person who is taking too long in the grocery store checkout line may be buried so deeply in grief and loneliness that they don’t even know you’re standing behind them.
There are times when anger is appropriate, even useful. But more often than not, our overreactions are a symptom of our sinful nature.
What would this world be like if we could eliminate misunderstanding, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and continue to be kind no matter how much a situation threatens our ego?