Signals

signals

Untitled. abarndwellerCC-BY

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, in “To A Louse: On seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”:  O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us…

I have often pondered that idea, people needing to see themselves as others see them. To see myself as others see me. What a frightening prospect. Certainly the power to see ourselves as others see us would free us from many a blunder … one would hope.

The lines spark a question I pose to myself and teacher colleagues: What signals are we unwittingly sending to students?

Years ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. I thought I would try it, almost reluctantly, as I needed a job and my own children were still in school. I wasn’t thinking of teaching as a calling or whether or not I was cut out for it. I took a temporary position, fifth grade remediation in reading and math, with some trepidation.

“I am not sure what to do,” I confessed to the hiring principal. “I don’t know if I can really help the kids.”

She smiled. “Just love them. The rest will come.”

Here goes, I thought on Day One, as I stepped into a classroom where kids milled about, working collaboratively on math. It’s sink or swim.

From across the room, a boy saw me standing in the doorway. He didn’t know me, didn’t know why I was there, but he shot across the room through the throng of his classmates to throw his arms around me.

That was my induction to being a public educator.

A child, sinking fast, clung to me like I was a life preserver. Perhaps he perceived, instantly, that we were in – or out – of the same boat. It was sink or swim for both of us.

In this classroom, I watched the boy try his hardest to swim. He struggled academically. He struggled with controlling his impulses. He struggled socioeconomically – he wore the same heavy black ski jacket every day, even when the weather was hot. He was chastised by his teacher for every infraction, great or small. The teacher – widely respected by colleagues – was clearly suffering from burnout,  undoubtedly tired of swimming herself. Whether or not she intended it, she sent a signal: Do not approach me or question me.

Do we, as teachers, send a signal – with  or without words – that we are safe harbors or treacherous ground?

I remembered a teacher of my own. She stayed in a constant state of frustration with our geometry class, once giving me detention for leaving paper in my desk despite my impassioned protest that I hadn’t done it. Math wasn’t my strong suit and I sank to the point of dropping the course, as I had all the math credits I needed to graduate. Later that year I landed a role in the school play and this teacher came to watch it. As people congratulated me backstage after the performance, this teacher stepped forward:

“Well,” she said, “I never would have believed you had it in you.”

You decide: Would I have ever been successful in her class?

One last note on my little friend back in the fifth grade: He went on to graduate.

On his behalf, I thank all those teachers who were, along the way, safe harbors for him.

Reflect: What messages do you send to others, verbally and non-verbally, about their value? Think of the teachers you had: Were they repellents to the learning in their classrooms, or were they encouragers? Were they the treacherous ground or the safe harbors? Write. Find a viable preserver when you need to. Rest a for bit. Then keep on swimming, mindful of those who are swimming so hard, so close by. 

2 thoughts on “Signals

  1. I think about this frequently! I’m a teacher-librarian at a Title 1 school where less than 1% look like me. I feel I have added “pressure” to prove who I am and that I love each and every one of my 589 students. And that I want each and everyone of them to succeed. Some days are easy. Some are not. It’s what I do on the “are not” days that I think make the biggest difference. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    Like

    • Thank you for your extraordinarily thoughtful, reflective reply! I love your point about what we do on the “are not” days being so important. So true. You’re undoubtedly a great blessing and encouragement to your students.

      Like

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