(Author’s note – I changed the names of the student in this true story.)
Way back, a long time ago, when I was a teacher, I had a student named Beth. One day in class, during a discussion about Pre-Columbian America, Beth shared that she was of Native American decent. That prompted me to bestow a nickname on her. (I gave happy nicknames to lots of kids.) From that day forward Beth was “A Shining Light in the Sky.” Beth loved the nickname. She came to class every day with a warm smile.
Beth was one of those kids who was easy to like as a teacher: She was happy, enthusiastic, a hard worker, and team player. A model student, Beth was the type of kid who makes teaching a joy.
I taught Beth when she was in eighth grade. One day in class, she shared that prior to being my student she thought that I hated her. Note that she didn’t think that I disliked her…
She thought I hated her.
I was amazed. Flabbergasted. Someone thought that I hated them? A kid? Really? Me? I’m the guy who is always smiling. I was the fun happy teacher. Why would I hate anyone…let alone a seventh grade student I didn’t even know?
I asked Beth to tell me why she thought that way – and when Beth told her story, I saw in an instant that she was right. I didn’t hate her, but I saw, very clearly, why she thought that way because I gave Beth every reason to believe that I hated her – by my own actions and demeanor.
Me. The happy, fun, silly teacher.
I guess I wasn’t always happy, fun, or silly.
We are the sum total of our actions. We all do things we aren’t proud of. We all make mistakes. And kids? They are always watching us.
When kids see us, either directly, or out of the corners of their eyes, they are making decisions about us – and themselves. They’re looking for affirmation. They might also be looking for rejection. They are judging themselves, often times, by our reactions to them.
On one particular afternoon, my reactions to Beth, a kid I didn’t even know, were completely negative.
One day, when Beth was in seventh grade, the year before I taught her, I was standing outside my classroom at the end of the school day doing what I was supposed to do. I was monitoring the hallway.
I didn’t know Beth by name. I probably recognized her as a kid in the school. But she was just some kid, in a school full of kids. She was just a kid who I didn’t teach.
On the day in question, Beth must have been having a bad day. I saw her storm to her locker, open the door, and utter a profanity loudly in the hallway. (A loud profanity uttered in a middle school hallway. Imagine that!)
For whatever reason, I felt the need to police this situation. I think I was doing the right thing. I walked, with definite purpose and a stern look on my face (I presume) over to the girl at her locker. I stood tall over her, and said in a threatening voice, “How would your mother like it if she knew you were talking like that in school?” (Tough words from the little teacher who, I guess, was acting tough.) (Maybe I had also had a bad day.) Beth meekly responded, “She wouldn’t like it.” So I replied with words to the effect of, “Well, don’t ever swear in this hallway again, or I’ll call her myself.”
And that was the end of it.
Beth went on her way. I went on mine. Life went on.
I forgot all about it.
Except, Beth didn’t.
Every time after that situation, when Beth saw me, she thought I hated her. I gave her no reason to believe otherwise, I guess. Maybe I looked at her with “knowing” eyes, letting her know I was watching her. I don’t recall. I might have even smiled at her on occasion, but, the damage had already been done. I was the big mean scary teacher who scolded (or in her words, yelled at) her in the hall.
I didn’t remember the situation until Beth reminded me of it a year later, when she was a student in my class (and she finally trusted me and knew that I didn’t hate her).
Beth said, “When I got my schedule over the summer and I saw that you were my teacher, I was scared. I thought you hated me.” It was only in that conversation, as she recalled this impactful moment in her life, that I even remembered it.
Think about that…
I left a lasting negative impression on a kid, by one simple action. She shouldn’t have been swearing loudly in the hall, but, I probably could have handled by actions better was well.
I didn’t remember doing this, but the impact of my actions left a lasting scar.
(I wonder how often that happens in life…)
I always wanted to be the teacher every kid hoped to get. Always. I always wanted to be the best teacher – the one who taught the most, the one whose kids performed the best, and the one whose class was the most fun.
I never wanted to be the scary teacher. I never wanted to be the mean guy.
I wanted to be the teacher who provoked joy when his name appeared on a kid’s schedule:
“I GOT SEMENDINGER!” “MR. SEM IS MY TEACHER!!” “AWESOME!!!! IT’S GOING TO BE A GREAT YEAR!”
When Beth’s envelope arrived over the summer and the schedule had my name, Beth didn’t rejoice. Instead, she felt dread.
“I got Semendinger. He hates me.”
“It’s going to be a terrible year.”
Now, one could say that this little girl deserved my reaction. She swore. She was being inappropriate. Someone had to set her straight.
But, I think it is pretty likely that my reaction to her swearing was a bit over the top.
Maybe I could have just said, “Excuse me, we need to talk about what you just did…”
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” – Hiam Ginott
In the situation with Beth, I didn’t do anything to humanize the child. It was my response, absolutely, that escalated (if only in the child’s heart) a situation. I also de-humanized her. I made her think less of herself.
Sometimes we think a situation is settled, but the residual impact from the situation lingers for others – and for some, maybe it never goes away…
If Beth didn’t tell me that fateful day in class that she was frightened of me (before she really knew me), I would have never known the impact of my actions.
I might have acted that may many more times. I might have thought it was the right thing to do. I might have made many kids think that I hated them too.
I would have been doing this all while thinking that I was the teacher who everyone loved and thought was the best.
“They all want to be in my class,” I thought to myself, “I’m the best.”
I was wrong.
Now, the reader might think, “This was such a small thing, what’s the big deal?”
I would submit that sometimes the most important things in life are the small things.
Life is made up of small moments that can often mean everything.
Beth taught me that my actions matter. Always.
Beth taught me that even if I perceive myself to be the happy, fun, caring teacher (or even if I perceive myself to be the happy, fun, caring principal) that I might not always come across that way.
I learned that actions and words speak loudly. Very loudly.
And I learned to always be mindful of myself, never wanting to be the person that intimidates or threatens kids.
That’s not me. It’s never been me. But because of my actions, I made someone think it was.
I’m glad Beth taught me that lesson.
While I’m not always perfect, at least I can sometimes recognize when I fall short.
Thanks to Beth, ever since, I have worked to always humanize every interaction I have.
Thanks to Beth, I have worked hard to be my best self, regardless of circumstances, each and every day over the last 25 or so years. It’s something I think about daily.
“Am I making a positive difference…“
I just hope I’m succeeding more often than not.