Being the Better Person

Think about the best teachers you’ve known. Maybe they were your teachers when you were in school, maybe you have known them since becoming an adult. My guess is the person you pictured acts like a human Buddha: fairly laid-back (in personality, not teaching style), rarely offended by any comment or situation, friendly, and above all else, compassionate.

Now, that person may have had the foundations for that personality, but I’m pretty convinced teaching played a role in making them the person you know. Throughout my first year of teaching, I became very aware of something incredibly important, something that I’d heard few people discuss. Being a teacher is basically a practice in being the better person.

Kid throws a poster board at you? Be the better person. Kid calls you ugly to your face, or says you walk like a penguin? Be the better person. Kid walks out of your room screaming – in late March – that he’s going to get his schedule changed so he doesn’t ever have to see your stupid face again? Be the better person.

If I have to guess, very conservatively, I’d say there’s one time every day or two when I really have to work at being the better person. Kids are tough to be around sometimes; humans are tough to be around sometimes. They say mean things, and you’re supposed to care about them anyway. They insult you, or disrespect you, or defy you, and you’re supposed to do your best to teach them anyway. You always, without exception, need to be the better person.

There have been times that I definitely was not the better person. I am a human, like all other teachers, and I have definitely lost my cool. One very painful example is from last year, with one of my boys. This kid was very difficult to teach: he’d suffered extreme abuse before entering into the school year, probably had undiagnosed PTSD, and was bouncing from home to home until summer break. These traumas outside of the classroom led to terrible behavior in the classroom.

At one point in the year, he told me that he wanted to be my student aide when he moved to eighth grade. I jumped on that idea; taking him to the front office after class, I asked for an impromptu meeting with the assistant principal and the guidance counselor, pitched the idea, and basically spent a half hour rooting for him. We set up a goal: he change negative behavior and start trying more in class, and we’ll let him be a student aide, even if it was past the deadline.

He was horrible in class the next day. I mean, really, really horrible. He refused to do work, talked over me while I spoke to the entire class, talked to and bothered all students around him, threw pencils, the works. I held him back after class. As soon as the last student left my room, I turned to him, bitterly angry, and said, “Everything you just did in the last 75 minutes was bullshit.” 

Yeah, I swore at a kid. I then proceeded to yell at him, guilt him, and let him know how disappointed I was for 5-10 minutes before letting him leave. He sat on a chair near my desk, throughout all of this, quietly staring at his feet.

Now, some people might say he needed some tough love. (They are probably not teachers.) I say that could have been taken down at least five notches and the time cut in half. What my student really needed to hear was this: I’m disappointed with how you acted, especially after we just set up this great goal to work towards, and we’re going to continue working towards that goal even though I’m disappointed because I believe in you. I doubt that was the message sent. When I think about that interaction, a painful truth floats to the surface every time. I was bested by a twelve-year-old. I let my emotions run wild because a preteen, who was dealing with extreme trauma and dangerous levels of stress, behaved poorly in my class. I – I, personally, – felt hurt that he didn’t behave well after I vouched for him. Despite the fact that he was hurting deeply and would not be magically healed from one 30-minute conversation with an assistant principal, counselor, and teacher.

I should have been the better person. It’s not the only time I should have been the better person, but it is definitely the most painful memory like that. Learning to be even a decent teacher means learning from moments like that. It means that you need to learn to not take anything personally, to be patient and compassionate before angry and insulted. It is a terribly difficult skill to learn, and it is one you are expected to have immediately. But if you do learn that skill – one that you practice nearly every day in this profession – I think you just might become that better person.

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