The day before break, there is joy in the air for most teachers that is nearly tangible. A much deserved break is upon us. For many of us, it’s two weeks to rejuvenate. Two weeks to catch up with our friends and families. Two weeks to relax and to focus on us—which is perfectly okay—rather than on everyone else.
When we come back from break, our interactions with kids will reflect this “down time.” We will be more patient and more lenient. We will be friendlier and, perhaps, our truer selves. Having had time away from the stress and the constant push to do more for those who need it most, we will be fresh again.
But it won’t take long for some of us—and I will admit that I have defaulted to this before—to show a side of us that isn’t the positive person that we once wrote about in our undergraduate teaching philosophies.
So with this post, I want to address the elephant in the room after winter break: How can a kid have that new __________ (insert object, item here) but can’t seem to ever bring a pencil to class?
Admit it. You will wonder it. You might think it. You might even really, really want to ask.
But what will it accomplish to ask the student, particularly in front of their peers or the class? How does it improve your relationship, which actually does matter for teaching and learning to occur, by snarkily asking about their lack of supplies?
Quick answer: It doesn’t.
Long answer: It can do irreparable harm. You’ve made the student feel inferior and stupid. You have implied that they don’t value your class, or that they value it less than another material object, like a cellphone.
But if you talk to the student, you might just find out that during the holidays, they had a parent re-enter their life temporarily. For some students, it is all too common to have a parent come back in their life during the Christmas season and then to disappear again. As one student shared with me, every year his dad buys him a new cellphone, computer, or something that’s expensive because his father thinks that the amount he spends on him will demonstrate how much he cares.
The student shared with me that he knows better. The visit will be temporary instead of permanent. It will last long enough to resurrect pain from so many years of absence. And then he will disappear again. But that doesn’t mean he throws away what he was given. But while he might still use the gift, it does not have to become a reminder from us when we see that he doesn’t have a pencil the next time he’s in our class.
I even could go on and on about the desires of humans to fit in, even though some of us don’t. For some students, getting that one item is the only thing they want and keep asking for because it feels like everyone else around them has it. (And let’s be real: We all have bought things that we didn’t need because others had them. Raise your hand if you ever purchased a Beanie Baby.)
I recently saw this Facebook post that went viral about parents pretending that gifts came from Santa.
I don’t share it to advocate the message about Santa, but I do share it to emphasize the point about the disparity in Christmases that exist with so many of our families. I will be the first to say that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but I also know that we can forget that we sometimes live much more comfortable lives than most in the communities we serve.
The easy way out is to judge and assume. The more difficult route, the route where we seek to understand with our students instead of shaming them, will help us establish a safe and supportive environment that is necessary for learning.
Bruce R. Taylor and Glenn Kummery (1996) wrote about the different types of shaming in their article about family conferencing. They discuss stigmatizing shame and re-integrative shaming, and I think this can have profound effects in our classroom. The first is meant to label offenders, like the time that my then-seven-year-old niece continued to refer to herself as a “bad kid,” and the other is meant to “reject the deed and not the doer.” Our actions with kids need to reflect this.
So with the new year quickly upon us, remember to listen more than you talk when it comes to kids. What are they saying but, perhaps, without words? What are you communicating when you point out that the new iPhone 8 could have been 8,000 pencils? Compare that to what you want to communicate. For me, it is that my classroom and school will support any student in his or her learning, and I will work really hard not to make them feel ashamed along the way. I can’t control who comes into their lives outside of my classroom, but I can welcome them every day and not make them feel embarrassed when they enter my room.