I’m human. While I sometimes try to negate that fact, I have begrudgingly come to accept it. With that humanity comes emotions, empathy and compassion. These three things are in constant motion during my work with children, families and my colleagues.
Yesterday I yelled, right at a student, and I was angry. Yes, it had been a very hard week with trauma and crisis abound. Yes, I have been sick with a cold. Yes, I have been up late and am tired due to school events, coaching basketball and holiday get togethers. And Yes, I got punched in the face. In light of all that, I was still wrong to raise my voice.
I can count on one hand how many times I’ve raised my voice at children, my own included. It is not a strategy I employ and there is ton of research to prove why it doesn’t work with kids and the ways it is unhealthy.
Generally, schools are unhealthy and imbalanced environments for many of our children. The environment often produces shame. Students weaknesses are constantly exposed, as learning is hard for many of them. Behavior struggles are often made public as students are admonished and redirected. Sometimes a word, sarcasm or apathy of a school adult can also stir these feelings of shame and inadequacy.
It’s important to recall, again, that we are human. These shame responses in our students are more often than not, the result of unintentioned, stressed out, busy educators. Even so, we should not let the moments go unchecked. While the shame may be present, it behooves us not to let it take root.
So you’ve made a mistake. A student has been negatively impacted by your interaction, what do you do? Simply, fix it. These words are easier than the action. The complexity of sitting with our guilt, shame and failures as an educator are profound, emotional and exhausting. They are more easily buried and forgotten. But in doing that we fail both ourselves and our students.
I knew right away that I was wrong in my response yesterday. You only need look at, and read a child’s face to determine that they're experiencing hurt. So here’s what I did.
I apologized immediately. I said, “That punch hurt and surprised me and it is never okay to hit others, and I’m sorry I raised my voice at you. Even though I’m mad, you don’t deserve to be spoke to like that. When we both calm down I’d like to talk to more about it.”
I think these words surprised him as much as my raised voice. It is powerful for students to see the adults in their lives as fallible. There is growth in seeing mistakes in action and how they are owned, processed and repaired.
When cooler heads prevailed we had a restorative conversation about what happened, how each of us was feeling, how the interaction made us feel, and how we were feeling in the present moment. We talked about what we needed from each other to move forward and rebuild trust. He needed a hug and wanted to draw me a picture and I decided I needed the same thing.
When I spoke with the parents later In the day, with the student present, we talked of the incident and I reinforced my mistake and how it damaged our relationship. Also how we fixed it. Dad said, “You don’t have to apologize for raising your voice at him, it's the only way he'll listen.” I reiterated that I did need to apologize and that we would work on ways to help this student listen differently. It is what I would want for my own children and it's what the students in our care deserve.
This event, the punch and my response, lasted less than a minute. The impact and work to repair it has taken considerably longer. I employed mindfulness, reflection with colleagues and writing to get out my emotions around my actions and how important they are in shaping the relationships with my students and ultimately, in shaping, at least in a small way, how they develop as human beings.
This is what everyone needs to understand about educators. We are human and we carry these experiences far after the school day ends. We cry for our students, both tears of joy and sorrow, we worry about them and hold them in our hearts, constantly. We also understand the impact we have on their lives and carry guilt and shame that we sometimes can't make things better for them, and that sometimes we are the vehicle for their struggles and frustrations.
I am human and I’m allowed this mistake. In reality, I will commit and be allowed many, many more mistakes. But humanity also allows me, and all of us, to reflect, grow and apologize and repair. Without these practices, especially in relationship to our students, families and colleagues, schools will never truly thrive.