the bench outside of my class, but until this year, I’d never done it on the very first day of school.
As I was going over some introductory material, some boys in the back of the class (where
else?) were chatting. As it was only Day One, a seating chart had yet to be established.
Me: Excuse me. I’m trying to teach here.
Robert (grudgingly): Sorry.
Me (sensing his lack of sincerity): Are you?
Robert (looking me dead in the eye): No.
Me (pointing to the door): Out! I’ll be out in just a minute and we’ll have a chat.
Now, we can all certainly access our Monday morning quarterbacks and examine my behavior
just as easily as we can Robert’s. Should I have just accepted the apology and moved on (yes). Should I
have avoided behavior that escalated the situation, namely my single eyebrow-arched, “Are you?” (Yes). But, like most teachers, I made instantaneous choices in The Moment that were based on the immediate situation. While I’m embarrassed to say that not only was I attempting to save face in front of the other students, I was also (quite necessarily) trying to set the tone of what was considered unacceptable and intolerable behavior.
But on the first day, Robert?
Once the rest of the class was engaged in an activity, I stepped outside to talk to my wayward
young charge. Immediately upon seeing him on the bench and taking stock of his facial expression, I
knew that his anger had absolutely nothing to do with me.
So Zen Teacher that I am, I detached from any anticipated outcome, kicked into Beginner’s Mind so I could learn from Robert, took a breath, and said, “Ok. What’s going on? Where is all this anger coming from?”
Robert explained that his family had some relatives staying at his house and so he hadn’t gotten
much sleep the night before, it was the first day of school and his schedule had already been
changed and he was feeling frazzled and disoriented, and he had to work at his part time job after school
and so even though this was only his first class of his first day, he already felt worn out and cranky. . .
Robert: And so that’s why I talked back to you. (looking down, and much more sincerely this time). Sorry.
I sat down on the bench next to him.
“Sounds like you’ve got a long day ahead of you,” I said. “And it’s only eight in the morning.
“On the first day of school.”
“You must already be wiped out and ready for a break.”
Robert sighed. “Totally.”
“Well,” I said, “why don’t you come back in and we’ll see if we can’t make this day better starting now.”
We’re six weeks into the school year now and Robert sits up front (by choice) and even though he has to
sometimes work to avoid moments of silliness and immaturity (one of many qualities he has in common
with this teacher), he has a great attitude, works hard, has a smile on his face more often than not. I’m almost fairly certain I can say that I am one of his favorite teachers.
The reason this little episode is newsworthy is because I can so rarely point to a teaching moment
when I so clearly did something right, so clearly made up for previous missteps, so clearly ticked one off in the win column.
Like any good teacher or parent knows, that one-two punch of discipline and compassion is
hard to beat, but that hardly means that it always goes as planned. Most of my days, whether
as either teacher or father, are a chaotic mess of just hanging on for dear life and trying not to
break things or piss people off. So often the day ends with my being completely bewildered by whatever
I’ve done to upset or irritate my students or my children.
But this—this Yin and Yang of discipline and compassion–it would appear that this was a win.
And so I wanted to acknowledge it.
Because there’s another Yin and Yang at work here. . .
Yin: If you’re going to notice, remember, and obsess about the failures in the classroom. . .
Yang: Then you’d better be doing the same with the wins. TZT