I try really hard to be a gentle teacher, every moment of every school day. But last term, a new student in my class – I’ll call him Bob – sneered at me only moments into our first lesson together and, in response, I raised my voice at him.
Sneering is my pet peeve. I dislike it, and rudeness in general. It’s not that I expect military like submission from my students. Far from it. Instead I hope, rather naively, that they will warm to me instantly and that we will get along. Students who sneer at me unsettle me with their self-confidence and the way they deny me the opportunity to experience my erroneously dreamed of teacher-hero status. Perhaps too, they remind of past sneers: from previous students, or, going back even further, from my own high school days.
Back to Bob. Poor Bob. He and all the other people who had sneered at me were under my skin in that moment of transference (read more about transference here, or, refer to the aptly amusing chapter on it in Alan de Botton’s The Course of Love). But I digress. I allowed Bob’s sneer, and all the others I’ve ever experienced, to infiltrate my not-as-thick-as-I-would-like-it outer shell. In other words, I let them get under my skin.
It felt good to raise my voice until I saw my students’, Bob’s and the other fifteen’s, reactions. They recoiled at my loud, unfriendly ugliness. No longer safe. No longer supported. No longer respected.
I only yelled a few words and apologised soon after, although not soon enough. It wasn’t until I was driving home that I remembered how stupid and futile it is to yell. It makes me seem so reactive, cruel and unkind. It is the height of rudeness, supposedly my pet peeve. And, its harshness makes my students wary and afraid of me. It is also so very hypocritical. These reasons – and there are many more – all, ironically, hinder the relationship I desire to have with my students.
Why is it that we know what we need to do – model kindness and respect, practice non-violent communication – or have – unconditional positive regard for all students at all times – and yet it is so difficult to achieve these things consistently every moment, of every lesson, every day?
In my first year of teaching, a teacher at the opposite end of his career to mine commented that the most stressful jobs are the ones where either: the consequences of the profession’s decisions are serious (like the gravity a doctor’s decisions have) or, the number of decisions made across the working day is high. He went on to say that he thought the average teacher makes more decisions than any other profession does before recess, let alone in a full eight hour teaching day. A quick Internet search elicits some unsupported claims suggesting our profession makes more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons do. Whilst I could not verify this assertion I did rather like this infographic embedded here, which illustrates the complexity of the work teachers do in real time and the numerous roles we play in the classroom.
Teaching is complex, dynamic, in the moment, nuanced and responsive work and it’s impossible to get every one of those conservatively estimated 1500 educationally based decisions right each day. And, six years on from being that first year teacher, I no longer berate myself quite so much when I make a mistake or do something I regret.
Nevertheless, driving home I squirmed when reliving my moment of unnecessary and preventable ugliness. It’s in the car that I often have these moments of clarity and on that particular day, staring out beyond the peak hour traffic, my inner teacher revealed herself and told me what I’d known all along: you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight it with water.
In the weeks following I saw Bob and his desk buddy sneer at me. And it was exquisitely painstaking work to maintain control and be the deliberate, receptive and kind teacher I want to be in the classroom. I responded with what I’ve known all along. I did not react. I carried on as before. I flowed around them and their sneers, through the moments and the interactions too. I tactically ignored. I was light-hearted. I joked. I praised. I laughed. I encouraged. I nudged. I questioned. I challenged. And above, all I was gentle. They say teachers don’t just teach the what, how or why of our subjects. We also, inevitably and unavoidably, teach who we are as people too. Part of my identity – my “who am I” – as a person, and as a teacher, is that I dislike sneering and have some unpleasant memories of being sneered at. But just because this is a part of who I am doesn’t mean I have to let it be a part of how I interact with my students.
I don’t wish I could take the times I raised my voice back because they offer me bittersweet moments of reflection and growth. What I do hope and strive for are more days where I’m conscious enough to choose how I react in my classroom.