Dear Sarah,

I just gave my first detention in five years of teaching. Right now, I’m angry and I’m really, really sad. So, I guess my question is if it ever gets easier? Does it ever get to a point where you don’t take those things personally? Where they don’t nearly wreck your entire day? Or am I going to be looking forward to this for 20 more years?

Sincerely,

First Detention Ever

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Dear First Detention Ever,

Oh…I have so been in this very moment. Time and time again, in fact. It happens any time I have to cross that line into attaching consequences to poor choices. And if this is the first time in five years of teaching you’re navigating this threshold, then the beauty of it is there’s something important here to learn. 

First, you are not alone. It’s human to be angry and hurt when anyone — student or not — is mean, disrespectful or inappropriate. I remember the day in my second year of teaching when a student didn’t like the grade he got on a paper and literally threw it in my face, yelled some choice expletives resembling, “Forget you!” and stomped out of the room. Detention: yes. Principal referral: yes. Second year teacher self: horrified and furious.

But like you’ve already noted, the anger gives way to something far less fleeting and far more searing: the sadness. If anger is the human moment then sadness is our teacher moment because we start to question. Everything. Was the lesson all wrong today? Did I miss some signal or sign that could have helped me prevent this? What if she doesn’t like this class? Despite all of the time and effort and commitment and patience, what if he really doesn’t like me? And is there nothing I can do about it? In some ways, I think it’s impossible to avoid these questions. But it is possible to learn from them because it’s not the moment of defiance or incredulity that characterizes us, it’s the way we learn from it that defines our teacher selves.

So it must come down to resolve. And here’s the question I use to find my intentionality: “What is the lesson this student needs to learn today? How would I want my own child to learn this lesson?” Sometimes this means a gentle reminder, other times it requires a steep consequence, that usually hurts us more than it hurts them.

We take these instances personally, because we are personally invested. But choosing to take it personally can be a toxic choice because you’re with that student tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. What he or she needs is your honesty, your empathy, and just a little amnesia on your part in an effort to offer a new, clean slate. Try a conversation. Write a note. Open a door. Ask to listen. These are also lessons we must teach and, often, they will give us entrance into their learning journeys. 

Forgiveness goes a long way in these moments. Forgiving the student; but more importantly, forgiving ourselves.

Teach openly,

Together with Teacher2Teacher

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