On Teaching: Compassion and Acceptance

Teaching is hard. I don’t care who tries to say otherwise. Those who do have clearly never taught.

It’s one thing to constantly be “on” at work and very rarely given a moment’s peace. It’s another to write lesson plans, implement them, give assessments, grade them, manage the classroom, model consistently positive behavior, communicate with parents, differentiate and cater to the needs of your various types of learners, help the students who are regularly disruptive, and “develop professionally.”

Beyond this though, is the relationship with students, which is first and foremost the most important part of teaching. You could have the greatest lessons in the world and a wealth of knowledge brimming from your gifted brain, but if you can’t connect with the students, it’s rather meaningless.

And of course, connecting with students is not always easy.

I have always been the kind of teacher where forming positive and close relationships with most of my students has come naturally. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time babysitting as a kid and being a (much) older sister to my dad and step-mom’s children. Maybe it’s just something I was born with. Regardless, it does come naturally for me, and yet it is still so challenging to have positive relationships with my students in the sense that sometimes they drive me absolutely crazy, I take their behavior personally, I judge them for their idiotic and immature antics, and frankly I sometimes want to scream at them and shout who do you think they are?!?

Then I remember: they are barely twelve years old. Many of them have not so good role models for parents. They are growing up in a confusing time of instant and in your face information vis a vis social media and internet. They are twelve.

Sometimes I flat out don’t want to have compassion for them. I am too bothered and irritated and offended by their disrespect and refusal to be accountable for their actions. I think most teachers, if they are brutally honest, would admit to sometimes having these thoughts and feelings. Spending day in and day out with kids can get very annoying and draining. When you’re an adult and can control your behavior (relatively) you expect everyone around you to be able to do the same. But twelve year olds haven’t learned yet. Sixteen year olds haven’t even learned yet. Growing up ain’t easy.

And the very thing I often don’t want to give is exactly what they are crying out for. Compassion and acceptance and kindness are just what the doctor ordered. I don’t mean being a doormat and letting kids walk all over you. Boundaries, guidelines, and expectations are essential. But I have learned from my years of experience that managing the classroom with love and levity and empathy as to where your students are developmentally is essential and sets a far better example. The same would go for parenting, I assume. (If I ever cross that bridge, I’ll let you know.)

Sometimes I don’t want to give it, and I think it’s because it wasn’t always given to me. It wasn’t what I was initially taught. I can remember teachers (and parents) being very harsh with me when what I really needed was to be listened to and understood. I can remember teachers yelling at me and it piercing my heart. I can also remember that when a teacher was compassionate and patient and understanding, it was like a soothing balm to my nervous system.

I try to remember this when I am with my kiddos. Sometimes my mantra is keep your heart soft and open. Keep your heart soft and open. It can be easier to react and get angry and tense up or let them know their behavior is annoying or not be kind. I don’t know why that is in me sometimes, a preference to be cold and not connect, but I think all humans grapple with it. I think so much of the work we do in recovery is practicing continuously allowing our hearts to be vulnerable in order to connect.

It can be so easy as a teacher to take it all far too seriously and judge your students for their ridiculous adolescent behavior. How they like to drop things on the floor intentionally to get a rise out of the classroom. How they constantly call out and kick their chairs. How they shut down and act rude or talk back or get into giggle fits or refuse to stay on task. It’s just what they do. What they’ve always done. What they always will do. Even with the best teachers and the best lessons and the calmest environment. It is still bound to happen at least once.

It’s like wrangling a bunch of labradors together in a room. They are bound at some point to bark, pee, sniff, chase their tails, and retrieve items for you. It’s just what they do.

So for my own peace of mind and for the respect and dignity my students deserve, I attempt to practice acceptance and compassion. I attempt and often succeed. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I get cynical. Sometimes I get so very tired and so very frustrated.

But I can always start over. Can always, just as the students do, “take a break.” (TAB) Can always come back to my mantra: keep your heart soft and open.

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