Make ’em cry

It's not easy being ten.

It’s not easy being ten.

The bad day. A concept humanity is familiar with both intimately and idealistically. In the course of history, it has borne the brunt of the blame for our short tempers, our lack of focus, our apathy and our overwhelming desires to eat everything within reach.

Sometimes I have bad days and sometimes I just think I am having a bad day. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve had one until I get home and wonder why I feel so tired.

There are three things I think we need to keep in mind about these kinds of days.

1. Everyone has bad days – even children.

As students, we often only see our own late homework and failed tests. We only feel our own itches, hear our own stomachs growling and think about our own feelings. As a teacher, you see, feel, hear and think about your entire class from the first day of school to… Well, I’m not sure if it ever goes away.

Today I had to substitute for another teacher so instead of having fourteen fourth graders, I had thirty. Thirty ten-year olds, when you’re not expecting them, are like thirty hungry lions and you’re the piece of meat. But they paw at each other also and today the boys were particularly rowdy – it’s been about 90 degrees all week so no one is in a good mood.

Still, I was surprised to see one of the sweetest, gentlest, nicest boys in class (we’ll call him Vlada) smack someone on the head and a few minutes later shove a punch at his best friend’s jaw. Granted, boys roughhouse, but he seemed upset so I watched (slyly, out of the corner of my eye like a super-teacher hawk!) to see if there was any provocation. There was. The boys were pulling the seat out from under him when we would try to sit down. When I finally caught them in the act, Vlada was in tears.

Girls cry all the time about everything so it doesn’t bother me so much. But when a little boy cries you know something is wrong. He stuffed his head in his folded arms so his friends behind him couldn’t see and I knelt down beside the two boys in the back.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I try to keep my voice low during these kinds of talks because public discipline is not something I enjoy doing. But it was so hot that my words got lost in this thick cloud of misery that we were all drenched in. The boys just shook their heads at me.

“That’s your friend,” I said. “He’s your friend and you need to be nice to him. I want you to tell him that you’re sorry, okay?” They both nodded but made no move to do so. Vlada was still hiding his puffy, red face in his sleeves so I cut my loses and moved on with class. You have to keep a quick pace to maintain control of thirty lio- uh, students.

Everyone has bad days. Everyone gets hurt, or hurts others. They can start again tomorrow, I thought to myself.

2. Your bad day will come when you least expect it. Always.

I have recently gone through some upsetting ordeals and it was a struggle to keep it together on Monday. But I prayed for strength and peace before every class and I managed not to take my weakened spirits and physical exhaustion out on my students. Today had been a good day, really. All things considered. But, then I found myself in the middle of thirty tiny people who were all talking at once and not listening to me and I couldn’t make them stop (this is not a new experience – it’s kind of been an all-year deal). Other students started yelling, “Be quiet!” which, of course, just increased the noise level because now we were shouting too. My door-slamming trick usually works but I didn’t try it today because I did it last week and I don’t want it to lose it’s effect. Several kids thought it might help though so when my back was turned they started slamming the door themselves. The noise did not have the shock-and-silence effect that it normally does. It just made it sound like I had lost total control of the classroom, which I had.

And it was so hot in that room.

So finally I just stood up and shouted, “Why won’t you be quiet?” That didn’t stop anyone, but the heat had dried out my throat and I choked up on the words so it sounded like a sob. The three girls in front of me dropped their conversation and looked up at me fearfully with oh-no-please-don’t-cry expressions. “Do you do this with other teachers?” I asked them, now actually beginning to tear up in earnest.

I have intended never to cry in front of my students because it means that I’ve lost the ability to inspire them into good behavior through normal means. It means I’ve lost the fight. But the waterworks came without a downpayment and once I start it’s hard to stop. Also, I appreciate that a good guilt trip once in a while is exactly what rascally ten-year olds need.

“Do you think I am a bad teacher?” I asked, eyes brimming with tears. Silence had begun to ripple beautifully through the sweaty, over-heated hoard of fourth graders and they slowly shook their heads. “Because I am trying to be a good teacher. But I need you to listen when I am talking and be good when I ask you to do something.” Heads nodded. Eyes expanded. Lower lips dropped.

I wiped my eyes. We were done here. Order had been reinstated, but I lost something that I knew I’d never get back. You just can’t cry in front of your students.

I call this a bad day.

3. Bad days are never the end, just the middle.

We had two minutes till the bell so I let my students go back to their seats and I composed myself while pretending to do teacherly things at my desk (usually this involves me systematically glancing at people in class so it looks like I’m taking notes on students’ behavior but really I’m just drawing smiley faces on my notebook to make myself feel better).

When that bell finally trilled through the hallways (and some days it really does sound like a chorus of angels singing) I asked Vlada and his two friends to stay behind.

With the hallway door open and some of the built-up heat escaping the classroom, I was able to take a breath.

“Do you have something to say?” I asked them. Vlada still looked emotionally bruised but his two pals stuck out their hands and said, “Sorry” as genuinely as ten-year old boys can. They shook hands, smiled, and that was that. Done. Over. They moved on.

When they go home, I doubt they’ll remember how the day started out so horribly because they all ended as friends. And in a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, all they will remember is the handshake.

The takeaway here (and I am shocked that spellcheck is letting me spell that as one word…) is that the bad day is never an excuse to not be our best selves. Very often it is a good explanation for our poor behavior, but it should be a challenge to push ourselves to rise to the next level.

The bad day is an opportunity.

The bad day is a promotion.

The bad day is a blessing.

Because the bad day moves us forward, stronger and more grateful, to the next day – and every day is a gift we don’t deserve.

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One thought on “Make ’em cry

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I love it (honestly, I can’t remember how I found it) and this post was perfect.

    I’m a TA for a college chemistry course and this is my third semester teaching and the first time I’ve had to deal with some horrible things. I’ve had students plagiarizing, cheating, copying each others reports and now, just today, I caught one fudging data on two of her reports.
    She already wasn’t doing well. Now, she will be failing the class. I feel bad because I think instead of having just one bad day, she’s had several….like 5 weeks worth of bad days in a row. And now she will have to go through this again.

    I’m hoping I see her, so that maybe I can help her see that this isn’t the right way to do things. Sometimes, though, it feels like I’m talking to a brick wall.
    I’ve had some great students though too! 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for your blog!

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