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I’ll start this with a story. One day I went into my eighth grade English classroom feeling like crap. I don’t even remember why, but for some reason I’d had a terrible night of sleep the night before and I think I was losing my voice. But as most teachers know, it’s usually less work to just go in and teach than it is to acquire and prepare for a sub. Plus this was way, way before COVID, so going into work feeling under the weather was not really a big deal.
At some point in the day, probably not first period, but a little closer to lunch, I announced to one of my classes that I wasn’t feeling well and I really needed them to take it down a notch that day. I had planned something quiet for them to do, and I just needed to get through the day without a lot of demands on my energy. We had a good enough relationship, so I felt I could make this request and it would be honored, and they nodded like they got it, with an earnestness that’s unique to people who are almost adults.
For about ten minutes things were fine. But after a while, they forgot. This was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the exact details, but what probably happened is someone came up to my desk to ask a question, and while we were talking, some others started buzzing, and maybe some boy grabbed something off of the desk of some girl, and she shrieked or something, and soon the whole class was babbling away. I probably stood up and gave them the look or flicked the lights or whatever, they calmed back down, and we resumed, but it wasn’t long before the cycle repeated itself.
And I just remember being so insulted by it. Why didn’t they care enough about me to just chill for one day? The emotion that came next was embarrassment; I felt like a fool, like they were disrespecting me. Then I got angry and probably performed some grand gesture, like turning on the overhead projector and writing them an angry note to get their attention in place of a lecture. That sounds like me. It would have quieted them down, but after that there would have been an atmosphere of tension and resentment, which drained my energy more and turned it into an officially bad day. I probably cried in the bathroom at some point later on.
What this story is meant to illustrate is that my reaction was misguided. They were acting like 13-year-olds. They probably had every intention of “giving me a break” when I asked, but then their hormones and immaturity took over and they just kind of forgot and carried on with the normal business of being teenagers. No one was directly being rude or disrespectful to me, but I took it that way. I started telling myself the story that they were fully aware of what they were doing and that they’d decided to do it because they thought it was funny. Had I been able to distance myself just a little bit, to depersonalize the situation, I know I would have handled it better. I definitely would have felt less emotional, and getting the emotion out of things usually gives you better results.
I’m making this an EduTip because I see so many teachers reacting from a place of taking things personally, especially when it comes to dealing with students. It doesn’t always manifest itself as hurt, like it did with me—I think a lot of teachers go straight to anger. When we take things personally we see our current circumstances through a completely different lens. We start telling ourselves stories about disrespect and “kids today” and how we’re not cut out for this and so many other things that can lead to yelling and depression and sometimes doing things we regret. In my case, I didn’t do any damage to my students, but I made myself feel so much worse. And I reacted this way frequently: when they didn’t do the assigned homework, when they didn’t like the book we were reading, if they fell asleep in class. Far too often, I made it about me—at least internally—and that always made it so much worse.
So my advice is that when a problem comes up, take a step back. Depersonalize it. That doesn’t mean you don’t deal with problems—there will be plenty of situations that need to be handled, situations where certain behavior is unacceptable, or when you are legitimately being mistreated or your boundaries are being violated, and in those cases you need to take action. But even then, taking it personally—choosing hurt as a reaction—will detract from your ability to handle it with your brain.
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