Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rewards of Teaching: your faces “come between me and ungenerous thoughts.”

In Sir James Barrie's enchanting novel, The Little Minister,  the school master (the dominie) confides the secret of his inspiration which I've quoted above.  I read this unique novel when my love for Scotland was new and my teaching career just beginning. I had no idea how this quote, which I underlined and memorized, would apply so importantly to my teaching experience.
You see, I've always had a temper, and when I began teaching, I had some stored up anger about things that had nothing to do with school, or students, or education. At the slightest, most surprising provocation, my anger seemed to seep out… or bubble up… or burst out … or explode inappropriately, accomplishing nothing. I didn’t like it.
I wanted to be wise and loving and gracious, like Atticus Finch or even better…like God. When applied to my own mistakes, I liked to read about how God was “slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness, full of compassion, gracious...( Psalms86:15). The scripture “As far as it be within your power, live at peace with all men” nagged me. At the same time, I was struggling to cope with my own mother’s hauntingly similar angry explosions. Squeezed on every side, uncomfortable, aware of my own heart and of who I wanted to be, I asked around for advice.
One generous, cheerful friend said, “It doesn’t cost anything to be gracious,” and the idea intrigued me. I felt it must be true and it seemed just the challenge, just the focus I needed. Another friend said, “If you behave in a generous way, despite inner feelings to the contrary, eventually your feelings will catch up to your behavior.” This also seemed right to me. I decided to try them both.
It did help to act loving to my mother when she coughed and choked and grimaced over the meatloaf I served her. When she reminded me that she couldn’t eat anything so dry, I got the ketchup, put it on the table in front of her, and clamped my jaw shut. At least we didn’t argue about it, at least I didn’t say things I would have to apologize for later. I thought them, but I didn’t say them. Next time, I made sure to serve lots and lots of very wet gravy. I plastered on my fake smile and hoped it wouldn’t take too long before my feelings began to resemble the loving, gracious person I hoped to become.

These twin philosophies help me to envision the sort person I want to be.

When I tried to apply these ideas to teaching, the first step was facing the fact that I was not always right. This may surprise you.
It surprised me.
My first class ever included a student who had been bumped out of honors into regular English 11 due to disinterest in reading, etc. Though I wasn’t even employed by the school when this “happened” to him, he showed me anger every day. Looking back now, I see that he was a little mirror for me.  One day, he objected to a decision I made. He got so angry, he left his seat and stomped toward me, fists made, arms raised.  I was a bit alarmed. After telling him to go to the office, I had the bright idea of pushing the call button. Though I was shaking and had no idea what to do next, I held my head high and was determined to look “in charge.”

The student mocked me for pushing the call button and when the voice of the office came booming into the room, I backed up toward the door away from the student's flailing arms and saw a little plastic box on the wall above the pencil sharpener. I put my mouth right up to it and hurriedly described the situation. Now not only was the angry student agitated, but all my nice students were looking upset and worried. Several burst out with, “No, Mrs. Nebbia! That’s the thermostat! You just speak out and they can hear you through that grill in the ceiling.”

It think it was the other students’ concern for me that deflated his anger and he left the room for the office. What could I do after being so dumb so publically? Laugh. I laughed—partially in hysterics and partially to realize how little I really knew. The students laughed with me or at me¬I didn’t mind; I’ll always love those students.

F.Y.I. The angry boy was given his way and put back into honors.

Another time, when I was still too new at teaching to take literally the talk in the faculty room, I absorbed the latest about a girl I’ll call “Linda” who was dating a "drug-using older man." This boyfriend reputedly was the reason she was failing, absent frequently and who knows what else. When her beeper (this was before cell phones) went off in class, I held out my hand as was my practice. Angrily, she slapped it down there with a passionate explanation that she had to take the call. After class, she demanded I give it back. I told her I was going to give it to the principal; I was thinking to save her from this boyfriend, who, I had no doubt, was the person who had called. Linda lost her temper and slammed the door on the way out.

I was angry, too. Not only angry for the beeper interrupting class, or for her display of temper, but I was determined that this boyfriend was not going to get the best of Linda. So I did something awful. I flipped open the phone, emptied the AA batteries out into the trash, thereby erasing the record of the call, and I poured the rest of my cup of tea on the batteries to ruin them. I was not going to put up with displays of temper in my class! Not when I could save a student!

After school, she came to beg for her beeper. I gave it to her, sans batteries and shrugged when she fumed over the messages being erased. About half way home from school, a feeling like a hand on the back of my neck dropped on me. My anger drained out; I realized my assumptions, my own temper, my disrespect. After pacing and fretting for a couple of hours, the heavy weight of my ungracious behavior inescapable, I thought to call Linda’s home and apologize to her and her parents. With trembling hand, I punched in the number.

I was never more graciously treated in my life.

After that Linda and I worked beautifully together and she worked hard to succeed in my class. I enjoyed her personality and treasured her generous spirit. Don’t know what happened to the boyfriend, but oddly he never came up again.

Another incident showed that I hadn’t quite got the hang of this gracious/generous thing. While confronting a student about her attitude, she hollared, “How dare you point your finger at me! I don’t even let my mother talk to me like that.” Despite the obvious irony and subtle revelations in her statement an odd thing happened. I saw myself wagging my finger at her. Maybe I caught sight of my reflection in her wild and outraged green eyes, but suddenly her fault was out of focus and I knew I did not like the way I looked.

Sometime after that, I decided to adopt what I call the Maria Von Trapp approach.

No matter how furious I felt toward a student, I promised myself I would try not to raise my voice. Need I say here that I was not always successful?  Far from it! This being gracious was much harder than it sounded.  But I would try to begin a confrontation with a statement something like this: “Ryan, I know you didn’t mean any harm when you muttered that cuss word and slammed your books down on your desk and if I didn’t know you, I would think you were being rude.” Or I might say, “Belinda, I know you want an “A” in the class, and it may not seem like this would matter, but if you look here in my grade book and see that there are ten missing assignments… And yes, Belinda, I’ll check my folder and my briefcase and all over my house, but since there are ten missing and since I always put all my papers in here, it’s just slightly more likely that you might have – with no malicious intent, of course – misplaced or even forgotten to do those papers.” Funny, but most times it worked. By bending over backwards to try to give the student the benefit of the doubt, defensiveness was banished.

People are often upset with themselves when they make a mistake and by reaching out in this way, the student saw himself or herself as I was trying to see them. Both of us benefitted. The problem was that this was sometimes difficult for me to do. I mean, it was difficult for me to put aside my frustration or my need to be treated with respect and I was certainly not always successful. My friend said it didn’t cost anything to be gracious and while I think she’s right¬that being gracious is a most beautiful and worthy goal, it costs a great deal. It costs that priceless and painful step into someone else’s shoes.


  1. This is a hard lesson, that I've worked on for years, especially with my daughters. Sometimes, the biggest challenge is just to remain quiet long enough to hear what the other person is saying. You have written so eloquently. You touch my heart with your words.


  2. I've always loved Atticus' saying:

    "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

    Given that, though, I'm often more prone to the reactions of Scout Finch, i.e. today, when I asked a student who was already in trouble if he would like a shovel so he could dig his hole a little deeper.

    I have very few memories - if any - of you ever losing your temper with the AP English class I was in. But now, I more than understand the reasons why you would and could have.

    Thanks for posting these. They help me in my endeavors to be a better teacher.

  3. That was great Loris.....not being a teacher but living with one I have heard those same sentiments about being frustrated with students....and finding that by the end of the year that same student sings their praise for Mr. D ☺ But it sure wasn’t easy for him because he knew the struggle in his heart.

    I ‘think’ we never forget what we are made of.....but we can praise the God who redeems us! This verse, ‘I'll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I'll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that's God-willed’, not self-willed. (EZ 36:26 from The Message), and this verse, ‘So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.’ (2 Cor 4:16 The Message).

    I dislike what I feel inside and always feel shocked when someone mentions a time when I showed grace....I want to say, who are you talking about??? ME! When that happens I know it is all about GOD!