Take My Recess, Not My Dignity

Colin Rork CoolidgeWhether good, bad, or ugly; every adult has memories of school.  Some have fond memories of a teacher who made an impact on their life.  Others look back with indifference at an educational process that was merely a requirement.  There are also those who simply did not like school.  That’s me.  Now I’m a teacher.  It was actually my dislike for school that evolved into my motivation to become a teacher.  I’m not complaining about too much homework, reading books that were chosen for me, or writing about topics that my teachers thought were cute.  With the “help” of my parents, I dismissed those overused excuses a long time ago.  The reason I did not like school has very little to do with academics, rigor, or requirements.  It has everything to do with the way I felt.  More specifically, my motivation for becoming a teacher has everything to do with the way my teachers made me feel.

When I began kindergarten, school was quite enjoyable.  My teacher would play the piano as we all marched around the room.  I loved centers because I could play with the blocks and use my imagination to build all sorts of structures.  It was so cool to be in the same school as my older sister.  From my perspective as a kindergartner, I felt like I had arrived in the real world of the big kids.  Life was good and I felt unstoppable!  But my feelings about school and about myself began to change when my teacher made me feel like a total loser in front of the class.

It was the end of the day and we were all lined up by the door, getting ready to go home.  It was some sort of special day where all of the kids in the class were bringing home a plant to their mom.  I don’t remember the type of plant, but I remember clearly how it sat neatly in the soil; packed perfectly in that small, plastic, black square in which plants are sold.  I couldn’t wait to give my mom the plant!  I held it carefully with my small, five-year old hands as I excitedly stood in line.  Behind me in line was a girl named Kate Phillips who lived on my street.  She also held her plant carefully.  I turned around to ask her if her mom would be excited to get a plant.  But as I turned to talk to her, my backpack hit her plant, knocking it to the floor.  The plastic potting square was now empty.  Dirt was all over the carpet and our shoes.  The plant looked hopeless and Kate was crying.  I felt awful!

I started to get down on the floor to clean up the damage.  But before I could move, my teacher’s voice froze me in my tracks.  She yelled my name with the same tone that moms use when they call their child by first and middle names.  All kids know that’s not good.  My instincts told me it was bad, and my body got tense.  The usual buzz in the air at dismissal time was abruptly muted and everyone turned to stare at me.  My teacher proceeded to yell at me for two minutes about how I was supposed to be careful.  She pointed to the pile of dirt on the floor and told me that it could only happen if I was fooling around.  She scolded me on how I ruined Kate’s day.  She announced that everyone was going to get a smiley face stamp on their hand except me.  She seemed to have a lot of spite towards me as she reminded me that I now had to explain to my mom why there was no stamp on my hand.  The way the scene unfolded, I was sort of left in the middle of all the spectators.  I was alone with the dirt.  It was fitting for the way that I felt.

After this happened, I never felt the same way about my kindergarten teacher.  At 5 years old, I realized that some adults are mean.  Some adults don’t take the time to understand.  Some adults are not actually on my side.  My eyes were opened to a scary new reality that teachers might misunderstand my intentions, disregard my heart, and hurt my feelings.  Knocking over the plant was an accident.  I was already embarrassed and wanted nothing more than to fix it.  Yet, my teacher piled on with the consequences and the verbal lashing.  What my kindergarten teacher never knew was that I walked home with Kate that day and gave her my plant on the way home.  I then went straight to my room and cried.  It was the kind of embarrassment that changed the relationship I thought I had with my teacher.

The rest of my elementary school years produced similar scenes and emotions.  When I was at school I felt unsuccessful and fragile.  I was nervous about fitting the mold that teachers liked.  I began to fear public humiliation as a consequence for not performing like the smart kids or behaving like the good kids.  Feelings of resentment towards my teachers grew stronger as I constantly stared down the reality of being one of the unchosen.  The problem was that I often did perform like the smart kids, but I didn’t know it.  My behavior was often respectable enough to rival the good kids, but I only received feedback when I messed up.  I had many shining moments as a student, but there was a consistent, underlying sense of betrayal that stayed with me throughout elementary school.  I was convinced that my teachers were not sincerely rooting for me.  At best, they were fair-weather fans who turned on me the moment I wasn’t winning.  I’ll never forget my feelings and emotions during those difficult times.

As my life progressed, I couldn’t wait to get away from school.  I remember asking my mom at about 9 years old if it was high school or college that was the optional school.  I wanted out as soon as possible!  But, sometimes in life your toughest struggle becomes your strongest motivation.  At some point in college I realized my unlikely, but powerful calling.  I began to believe that my struggle of emotions that buried me during elementary school had actually worked to prepare me.   Compassion is one thing, but difficult situations are entirely more relatable if you’ve experienced them.  It was too late to create a new school experience for me, but I was extremely motivated to become the teacher I always wanted.  I knew that I had to be the teacher that kids like me needed.

For the first time in my life, I studied with a purpose.  I earned my B.A. in Elementary Education in 2000 and followed it up a year later with a M.A. in Behavior Analysis.  After all, I knew that receiving detention in the 1st grade and repeatedly having my name written on the chalk board didn’t qualify me to become a teacher.  During my journey through elementary school, I felt overmatched and underappreciated.  But I was able to use my negative experience to shape my attitude, philosophy, and emotional approach to being a teacher.  It’s the reason I never yell at students.  It’s why I don’t write names on the board, flip cards, or have a poster that reminds everyone who is in trouble.  I don’t announce individual consequences in the hallway for everyone to hear.  When disciplining a child; I kneel or crouch to their level, use a soft voice, and always finish with positive.  Just like any relationship; disrespect creates distance, distrust, and dislike.  I know that I would have appreciated and responded better to discipline delivered with a little more respect and privacy.  Take my recess if you must, but don’t take my dignity.

savannahI root hard for my students and I make sure that they know it.  I reward effort and attitude with hugs, high-fives, smiles, and lots of praise.  I make it a point to use the kind of specific praise where students know exactly how they made a difference and why I’m such a big fan.  I remind students that mistakes are part of life.  If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not working hard enough.  Through the life lessons, the teachable moments, and the struggles; I feel it is essential to remain calm and approachable.  There, in itself, lies one of the most important examples I can provide for my students.  They may not always be shining their brightest, but I will never turn on them.  I strive to build confidence through encouragement in an emotionally safe environment.  For kids, there is an amazing freedom of expression and exploration when you know that someone supports you in this way.  I work with a lot of caring teachers who treat their students like they would treat their own children.  I don’t have any kids of my own, so I treat my students the way I wish my teachers had treated me.  It’s about forming the type of relationship with my students that I so badly needed when I was just like them.