What does it feel like to have your heart break? For me, it is an aching pain and salty tears. I'm sure many of you have felt this. There is one such heart break that I just can't shake (and that is a good thing). This was a classroom heartbreak...
Teaching first grade was new for me. I had taught the grade before and the grade after, this couldn't be much different...little did I know. I will tell you, I only lasted one year in first grade. With hindsight being 20/20, I now realize that I was the one to blame for the "not so good" experience of that year. I had unrealistic expectations of these little guys and when those weren't met, I became frustrated. I was frustrated with the students and I was frustrated with myself. It was strange because that person had never shown up before, and at the time, I didn't know she had shown up then. Looking back, I don't even recognize that person...because it was in that class, I changed. And it was a heartbreak that did it.
I had never subscribed to the idea that "boys will be boys". I would cringe when I heard it. I had always thought that was an excuse that people used when boys struggled to behave or control themselves. I believed this to be true with Eric. Eric was all boy! He was silly, he was rough, he was messy, he was loud and he could NEVER stay in his seat. He would literally fall out of the chair multiple times a day.
But here was the thing about Eric, he was also kind, he was also sweet, he was also funny and he was also highly, highly intelligent. But what did I focus on? The silly, rough, messy, loud part that always fell out of his chair. I couldn't let it go. He should be able to pull it together, right? He should be able to "behave" and follow MY rules...and when he didn't, it was like a showdown.
I am wondering if anyone that knows me would even believe this, (let me rephrase that...I HOPE anyone that knows me would not believe this), but it's true. And I share this for a reason. I share this because I am not proud of that person...she wasn't around long, but for me, any time as that person, was too long. My hope is to get others to think about the effect that their words and actions could have.
I tried many things to "help" Eric keep control of himself, to make him fit MY mold of what a first grader should be. One of my brilliant ideas was a "happy face" chart. This had been suggested to me by a few others. They told me to make boxes (each box representing a certain amount of time in the day). I don't even remember the amount that each box represented, but I'm sure for a six year old, it was too long. At each time increment, I would draw either a "happy face" :) or a "straight face" :l depending on his behavior. Yes, a "straight face"- I mean, come on, drawing a "sad face" would just be cruel...little did I know.
So day in and day out, Eric would do his "Eric" thing and I would do my "Mrs. Orlando" thing and draw on his chart. Each day, he would take it home to show his mom. Was this chart helping? I don't even remember, but I can bet it wasn't. Each day, a new chart would be taped to his desk for all to see (WHAT WAS I THINKING?). I know what I was thinking- "Every day is a fresh start!"...little did I know.
One day I received an email from Eric's mom. I opened it and it shook me to my core. Typing about this right now is difficult, as I am trying to see the screen through the tears. Even though it is far in the past, it is still so raw.
In her email, she let me know that my "happy face" chart was destroying her kid. Her son. Her boy. Her heart. She let me know that because of the "straight faces" on the charts, Eric thought he was bad. He thought that I didn't like him. He didn't want to come to school. THAT is when I felt that ache in my heart, that pain in my stomach and that lump in my throat. I DID THIS. I broke this six year old. ME. I hurt this sweet, silly, intelligent boy and I was reduced to a puddle. I made this all about me, not even considering him. How could I have done this and how am I going to fix this?
I am so incredibly thankful that this mother was an advocate for her boy! That she was able to share with me what my actions were doing to him. I would have NEVER known.
That's the thing. I have had people respond to some of my #knowbetterdobetter blog posts with "Well the students don't really seem to mind if they ....". And my response is "How do you know? Who are we to speak for them? We have NO CLUE how our students are thinking or feeling unless we ask them and create a space where they feel safe and free to share." Do we do that? We have NO IDEA what the repercussions of our actions are unless we ask their families. They are the ones that are left to deal with the aftermath.
And guess what...once I knew better, you damn well know that I have done better. I NEVER- EVER want another child, another human, to feel badly because of me.
So how did I handle this situation with Eric? I started with a very heartfelt apology to his mother. I got real honest and I owned it. I told her about all of the wonderful things I loved about her son. I told her that I love having him in class because he brings so much. I also told her that I would be apologizing to Eric in class tomorrow. And that I did.
While the rest of the class was busy working on centers, I called him over. No doubt, he thought he was "in trouble". I knelt down on the ground next to him and I cried, just as I'm crying right now. I apologized for hurting his feelings and making him believe I didn't like him. I told him I, in fact, that I liked him very much. I let him know that his sense of humor always put a smile on my face. I told him that his incredible thinking and ideas blew me away on a daily basis. I let him know that he could come to me any time he felt that I wasn't on his side, because I was. We talked about the fact that he yelled out and fell out of his chair. He wasn't even aware he did these things. At that point I realized that his behavior was just part of him, it wasn't intentional, it wasn't defiant- it was just him. I explained to him why I was crying-that it hurt my heart to know that I hurt him. From that day forth, I looked at Eric and every other student, differently. And I vowed to do better.
Now did this six year old understand all that I was saying? Probably not, but I wanted him to know that I saw him for the great kid he was- and from that day forth...I was changed.
I think of Eric often- I attribute my attempts at empathy, to him. Because of him, I try my hardest to think about my actions from a circle of viewpoints. How might this effect others? Am I always on target? Of course not:
Perfection is a ridiculous idea. But what I can promise is that I am always trying, I am always reflecting and I am always growing.
Like Maya Angelou said "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, you do better."
I am so thankful that I now know better and strive every day to do better.
My call to action is this: Take some time to reflect on your day, your week, month, year. Think about your interactions with students, colleagues, staff, friends, strangers, family. Now think about those same interactions from the other side...put yourself in their shoes. This is how we practice empathy...this is how we can know better. Now go forth and do better. #knowbetterdobetter
Mother, Teacher, Presenter, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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