Human . . . All Too Human

by danielagins

I made a mistake today. Not just any mistake, mind you. Today  I made a character mistake. Those are the worst kind. I can handle a teaching mistake. I never pretend to be infallible and actually relish in the moments when a student corrects me on something. But character mistakes are unforgivable. I take my teacher-as-role-model status very seriously. I always try to model acceptable behavior both in and out of the classroom. Case in point, a few years ago my wife and I went on a vacation to St. Maarten . . . and so did a student and her family. We saw them several times, usually at dinner. I made sure that I was drinking soda every time. My wife laughed at me and called me paranoid. Maybe so, but I would not have it any other way.  So when I mess up, it kills me. Today I messed up – but the funny thing is that I am torn with conflicting emotions about it.

It was last period of the day and I had my highly talkative, yet high achieving section. It is March and they are in 8th grade. We begin a week of state testing on Monday, and they begin their transition to the high school the week after. If the stars were ever aligned for off-task difficult to focus behavior, this is it. Yesterday I launched a lesson on propaganda, specifically focusing on WWI propaganda posters. It is a topic I love to explore with kids. It is actually one of my favorites as it combines abstract thinking with visual literacy and introduces a healthy dose of skepticism that can be applied throughout all media. Today I had hoped to get them started by explaining a few things that didn’t get uncovered yesterday, and then having groups explore a series of WWI posters to determine the propaganda techniques being used. Three cheers for some structured social negotiation of meaning!

It didn’t turn out as I intended, but it did turn out as I had hoped. Confused? Me too.

I could not get the kids focused to start the class. Side conversations about typical 8th grade topics were gushing from their mouths at full force. I am not one to yell, never have been. I can’t do it, even if I tried. My management style does not need that tool in my teacher utility belt. However, nothing worked today. Nothing. I could not get through the five minutes I needed to set them up before sending them on their way. I became visibly flustered. And then I stopped teaching. I walked out of the room. I felt as if I should not have done this. This was the mistake in character and I should have handled it differently. My classroom fell silent. Kids rushed to the door, peeking into the hallway. Audible murmurs of confusion could be heard. “Is he mad?” “What should we do?” “Is he coming back in?”

When I reentered the room a few moments later, a student had begun teaching the class. He was up at my laptop/projector, scrolling through the example posters I had lined up for them. It was initially meant as a joke, except I still wasn’t laughing. I sat at my desk and did some work. The student continued to teach. The rest of the class was engaging in on-topic conversation dealing with the techniques being used in the posters. I continued to do work. They continued to engage in meaningful and high quality discussion. I listened to them while I worked (by this point I was pretending to do work and listening to their conversation instead, just to see where it went). Here’s the thing that shook me . . . the absolutely killed it. They were on fire. They were coming up with the things I felt that I had needed to explain to them all on their own. They were being respectful to one another by letting the quiet kids speak and engaging in meaningful dialogue. Even the side conversations were on topic. I continued to sit and do busy work until the bell rang. They continued to have the conversation I had hoped for, but I struggled to come to terms with the fact that it was not done as I had intended. I wonder how much of their actions were based on my reaction? Then I wonder if that ultimately matters. In the end, they took away what I had hoped for. How much of what I am feeling is simply crushed ego that they didn’t need me to do it?

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