Teaching Truth #2: It’s Not Personal

On my last day on the teaching job, a group of my fellow educators took me out to a nice Italian restaurant where we dined on some really good food, lamented about the fact that we couldn’t have wine with our lunch, and started talking about losing good teachers from the profession. As I listened to the conversation, often nodding in agreement, and reflecting once again on my choice to leave teaching, I realized that I was listening to some great advice for all new teachers out there.

Today’s teaching truth came from that conversation. It is about those snickers and shared grins you see in your students when you are standing in front of them; it is about those disrespectful comments you sometimes receive in response to an instruction you’ve given; it is even about those scrawled words on the restroom walls, the variations on your name that your students so happily share with each other, and those songs you overhear on the playground because your ear was alerted by the sound of your own name in them.

It is not personal.

We do lose a lot of good teachers because they couldn’t keep sight of the fact that none of the above is personal. I’ve heard long-time teachers make comments like “I just can’t take it anymore” or “I get so angry when they are disrespectful!”.

We are teachers of children, after all. Children who retaliate with no thought to repercussion or impact. Children who get bored, frankly, with your methods of teaching (no matter how good you are, there will be moments they’ll be bored), and who will find ways to amuse themselves. They aren’t supposed to like you, so even the ones that do may find joy in repeating your mispronounced name. Mine was Plybutt. I heard that name spoken by one of my best students who I know appreciated me as a teacher. I have no hard feelings — who can pass up an opportunity to make fun of a teacher? I myself fell into the juvenile world of name mangling when I was a child.

I learned this lesson within the first few weeks of my first year teaching. I came into the classroom halfway through the school year and my students had a lot of fun trying to frustrate me. I came home from work one day complaining to David that in one class, all the kids kept looking at my pants and giggling the whole time I was talking to them. It had really bothered me – I thought maybe I had a hole in them or had spilled something on them. It had really shaken my own self-image a little, and I wondered if I could stand to put up with that every day. He laughed (being a person who had been very creative as a child) and said “Honey, that is something that kids do – they probably got together at some point and agreed they were going to do that just to see if they could bother you.”

After that day, I began looking at the students differently. I even managed to find some joy and pride in their creativity as they tried to be sneaky. As the years went by, I could even stand there and hear a student say a derogatory comment about me directly to me without it mattering to me a bit. If I had let my own confidence be shaken by my students, I would have become a completely ineffective teacher. I would have had a miserable time trying to teach students while at the same time worrying about my own self-image. As a youth, I was devastated by what I perceived people’s negative opinions were of me. Teachers need to realize that they are the adults in that room. We should have a strong enough sense of who we are and of whose opinions we value to be able to let our students’ actions bounce off of us. Just as we promise the kids when they are in elementary school — those bullies will give up when they find that it isn’t bothering you. Yes, you’ll still get an occasional snicker or defiant attitude. But you won’t get those on a daily basis.

I’ve seen some new teachers who have been nearly tortured all day long as class after class found joy in making them get upset. It’s no wonder some of them can’t take it. If you are a new teacher, and you’ve found yourself coming home night after night on the verge of tears because you just don’t know how to connect with the kids — you just don’t know why they don’t like you — remember, just as it is not appropriate for you to be their best friend, it is not their job to make you feel good about yourself.

Let them be kids and don’t take it personally.

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2 responses to “Teaching Truth #2: It’s Not Personal

  1. I just read over this after posting it a few days ago and want to add this: I am not saying that kids should be allowed to get by with being disrespectful or doing anything that would disrupt the normal flow of instruction. I do think that some of these actions warrant a response from the teacher – I’m only saying that teachers should try not to respond on an emotional level or let their students’ actions change their own self-image. It is when these things are taken on a personal level that teachers are at risk of losing their effectiveness.

  2. Thank you for your article. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

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