Back to School: More “I Was Wrong” than “I Was Right”

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I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about my own teaching career, hoping that some of the insights that I’ve gleaned over the years might be of some value or interest to others preparing to head back into classrooms this fall. The entry that I’m posting today was one of the first that I planned, but it has taken me the most time to complete. But, in a sense, it’s the most important one because, for me, it cuts to the core of what it means to be both a teacher and a learner. 

 

I’m often asked what I believe to be the essential elements that have defined my life as a teacher. For many reasons, it’s a great question to think about, mainly because there are no easy answers. You don’t have to spend much time in a classroom to realize that the act of teaching (and, in particular, teaching well) is so complex and cannot be easily reduced to a set of essentials. But, I do I have two bookend experiences from my career that have helped me offer a kind of north star response.

Looking back  I recognize that a great deal of the way I thought and acted as a beginning teacher was based on…well…how I thought and acted. Many encounters with my students were framed in terms of my own need to look like I was in charge, in control—the authority in that room. At the same time, however, I wanted to be seen as fun (and funny) and entertaining. I wanted students to feel good about being in my class but, in those early days, I think that I believed that I was the star of the show and my students were the supporting cast.

I remember very clearly the afternoon during my first year of teaching when Amanda walked in with the rest of the class following a recess break. There was quite a bit of chatter but I recognized Amanda’s voice and the inappropriate words that she was directing at another classmate. Instead of calling Amanda aside and suggesting that there might be better ways of expressing her frustration, I chose to jump on my soapbox and publicly deliver a rather eloquent soliloquy about how what comes out of our mouths reflects on who we are but might also reflect back on our families.

Totally wrong thing to say and a totally inappropriate way in which to say it!

The dismissal bell rang at 3:30 and by 3:45 I had received a call from Amanda’s father. He talked about how he brought his children up to be respectful to others and to themselves. But, instead of listening and understanding his perspective, I found myself defending my words and my actions, expressing the desire to teach my students that what they say in public matters! I was more intent on being right than doing right.

I had publicly shamed Amanda and our relationship was strained by my words and actions. That relationship was completely severed by my conversation with her father. And it was really never restored.


In my final year of classroom teaching I received a phone call from Marla’s mom, explaining why her daughter wasn’t at school that day.

“Marla has a lot of respect for you, Mr. Hurley,” her mother began. “Apparently you said something yesterday that surprised and hurt her. She didn’t want to come to school today.”

Even though I couldn’t remember what I said, or why, I was horrified by the fact that my words had hurt so much that Marla had chosen to stay home for the day.

My response was as automatic with Marla’s mom as it was with Amanda’s dad. It was, however, a completely different response.

“I’m so sorry and ashamed that this has happened,” I said. “Could I please speak to Marla?”

Marla reluctantly took the phone and listened while I apologized. “I’m so sorry that my words hurt you so deeply. I have a great deal of respect for you and everything that you mean to this class. Please forgive me.”

Marla returned to school the next day and, while I don’t think that either of us will ever forget that moment in time, I think that it was me that was on the receiving end of a teachable moment. I only wish that I had learned it much earlier.


 

You know there are a lot of numbers that can be used to reflect on a career in teaching. Over a 30 year period, you’re likely to experience:

  • teaching over 1000 students
  • meeting over 1500 parents
  • 5400 days with students
  • 2400 staff meetings
  • writing nearly 3000 report cards

But, looking back, here’s the number that I wish I had been more aware of, more often: 136 080 000. One hundred and 36 million, eighty thousand.

That’s the number of seconds that the average teacher will spend with students in a classroom over the course of a career. And each of those seconds represents the time it takes to build a student up, or knock them to the ground. It can be that quick and that easy. And it’s very reasonable to expect that most teachers are going to do both. Classrooms can be intense places and split second decisions on what to say and what to do are common.

But the fact is that it takes much longer to repair the damage that our quickly-distributed words and actions can cause.

I learned the hard way that there’s really only one way to begin the process of restoration: “I was wrong and I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

It’s not helpful to beat ourselves up over things we can’t change. But it is extremely helpful and life-giving to recognize when it’s more important to give up the need to be right in order to admit that we were wrong.  

 

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