How We Respond

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A few years ago the idea that teachers make hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions a day bounced around the internet. A remember reading posts like this Larry Cuban’s “Jazz, Basketball and Teacher Decision Making” and thinking something like, “No kidding – I am usually exhausted at the end of a day and it isn’t because of the physical labor.” The idea of teacher decision-making sparked my curiosity for a while. I looked for more information about teacher decision-making. Read a lot about it, talked to people about it, thought about my own decision-making, read some more, talked some more, thought some more.

I muck into metacognitive swamps like this often. I overanalyze the decisions I make in the classroom. One good side effect of my thinking about decision-making in the classroom is I narrowed the focus of my daily reflections. I shut down a great deal of internal noise to start with one consistent question. How am I responding to students? Then, I check myself frequently when I think I might be causing shame.

Justin Stygles, a friend/mentor, who teaches in Maine started pushing my thinking about the role of shame in education at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention. Our discussion about his passion of working to counter the impact of shame in teacher-student relationships challenged me to learn more about shame. Shame is something we all deal with, but we are very unwilling to discuss, especially in public conversations. I am pretty sure that Justin’s thinking led me to Brené Brown’s work. If you don’t know her work, a good place to start is the videos page of her website.

My learning and thinking about shame, which led to more understanding about vulnerability, empathy, connection, and guilt, is the reason my thinking about my daily decision-making always starts with how I responded to students during the course of the day. Sometimes I feel like I had a great day, sometimes I know I screwed up a few times, but I am getting better at understanding that how I respond to students has a profound impact on not only my relationship with them as individuals, but the entire classroom community.

Brian Wyzlic shared a moving story about a response he had to a student transgression on this site last week. To be honest, his post reminded me of the thinking I have done the last few years. I had another post ready to go, but his ideas of grace and mercy and choosing to build connections rather than tear them down kept running through my brain.

I am not sure how I would have handled a student saying, “Oh, f***” in my room. Depending on the student I may have been disappointed, concerned, surprised or maybe I would have laughed out loud (because I love a well-placed obscenity as much as anyone I know). That being said, I am sure, like Brian, I would not have ripped into the student. Rarely, maybe never, does a verbal lashing help diffuse a difficult situation in the classroom.

We need to be honest with our students, we need to hold them accountable, and we need to let them know what is acceptable and unacceptable while at the same time showing compassion and empathy. When a student is not respecting the norms of the classroom or the school, we need to be able to respond to students in a way that lets them know that their behaviors are the problem, not that they are the problem.

I believe too many of our students feel they are wrong or they are awful. I have too much hope to think that any child is wrong. Behaviors can be wrong, but a child? I don’t think so.