Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Recovering from My Mistake

I raised my voice to a student yesterday. It wasn’t worth it. She’s been absent for more than a month, and she called me with a list of reasons and things she felt I’d done wrong, and after listening to her, I started to speak. And she kept talking. And talking. I started with a sharp, “Excuse me” that escalated to a shrill (okay, I shouted) “EXCUSE ME! LET ME SPEAK!” She followed up with a rousing, repeating refrain of “WHO’RE YOU YELLING AT? WHO’RE YOU YELLING AT?” and explained vehemently how she expected to be treated by her teachers, and alas, it did not include yelling. Neither one of us hung up, and we talked our way back to reasonable, and she apologized for misunderstanding a few things, and we have a meeting scheduled to address her needs, but man, I’ve been sick over the yelling match. It has cost me so much more than I gained.

Why did I yell? I yelled because, in that moment, I clung to the mythology that as her instructor, she should show me respect and not speak over me when it is my turn to speak. Ha ha ha. Maybe that’s true some places, but I’ve made a decision to teach students who don’t come from an educational tradition, and the notion that teachers inherently get respect is foreign. It is earn-respect-as-you-go around here, and I know that. I signed up for that. It’s just when she kept talking over me, I forgot, and I just wanted my rank to assure me my turn. Yelling gained me nothing and lost me ground with this student. Also, should I have further problems with this student, she can always say to my department chair and my dean that I yelled at her, and it will be true. Yikes.

So now that I’ve smoothed things over with the student, it is time to forgive myself. I’ve spent a lot of the last fifteen hours since the incident replaying the event and seeing if I can justify my behavior. I really can’t. I think it was a human moment, and I am entitled to be human, but it wasn’t a shining teacher moment, no matter how I look at it in various lights. I’m relieved I didn’t curse or name call. Sheesh. When I lose myself to frustration like this, I realize I need to spend more time trying to be happy in my personal life, doing things I enjoy. I draw upon the energy that enjoyment gives me when I’m in difficult communications, and obviously, my reserve is a little too dry. I try to read lovely articles about teaching like this one, and remember that I’m not teaching everyone; some kids love school and reading. Going for a run helps. At a former school, I used to run with a fellow teacher, and we joked about getting t-shirts that read “Pound Pavement not Students.” Confessing to fellow teachers has always helped me, too. I’ve always been surrounded by the kind of peers who support me when I’ve made a mistake like this one, who reassure me they’ve had bad moments, too. Knowing that teachers I admire have stepped off the patience wagon helps me to let it go.

I always spend a little time when this happens wishing I could be more intimidating; I don’t think this student would have talked over just any teacher. I have an accessible affect that can be misunderstood as easy to bully, I suppose. However, I doubt I can conjure up a new affect now. So self acceptance is part of this post-mistake process for me, too…Sometimes I’m not a teacher, but a person waiting for her turn to share her side, and I, too, want to feel heard. I know from experience that silence would have worked better than yelling, but I made things right with the student, and now I will forgive myself for my moment, brush myself off, and work at keeping my love of teaching at the forefront of my mind.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


izitjo said...

Hi. Just dropped in through a link on some education site somewhere and wanted to say thanks. It's lovely to find a true down-to-earth teacher learning the lessons and sharing the wisdom gained. I'll be back! :)

Kate Kellen said...


I appreciate your comment; please feel free to share your experiences, too!