I’ll get it out right away. I had to repeat the 4th grade. During my first year of 4th grade, I distinctly remember feeling like I was not the sharpest pencil in the box. I struggled to get “satisfactory” on my report card. I also disliked reading and my penmanship was so bad my father (who was a principal at another school at the time) forced me to do handwriting exercises on the weekends. It’s still horrible.
When the second opportunity to go through the 4th grade came about, I was a year older than my classmates. And some of the content stuck with me–at least enough that I felt “smart” for the first time. I also felt super privileged to be given a seat right next to the teacher’s (Ms. Morton) desk. I was sure that I was her favorite student. I even bragged about it at home. I’m sure my parents, who were both educators, knew what was up.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized why Mrs. Morton seated me next to her desk. The older I got, memories of all the talking and ants in my pants behavior I demonstrated that year came flooding back. I was a twerp and Mrs. Morton managed to handle my behavior in a way that was far from humiliating, and quite possibly motivated me more.
I recently heard a story of another student who, around the same time I was gloating about being the teacher’s pet, was similarly assigned a seat of distinction next to the teacher. However, in his case, he felt humiliated and angered to the point of despair.
How is it that the same set of circumstances could result in two very different experiences? The answer is quite simple. One of us had a teacher who understood 9 and 10 year old boys and understood that being off task is not a crime, it’s just a phase most of us go through.
More importantly, though, Ms. Morton knew how to develop relationships with her students. In her classroom, she made me feel like I was the most important person in her life. She shared stories about her own life and asked about mine every day. So even when she was correcting my behavior, she did so in a way that was both respectful and caring.
Of course, I cannot say that about all the teachers I’ve had. And like the example of the other boy and how his teacher handled his behavior, I am saddened.
A colleague recently shared a term with me that seems to align with my story–micro-humiliations. Right away, hearing that term made me think of all the times we humans explicitly or implicitly humiliate others–especially children–for things that are out of their control. Like using different colored lunch tickets for free and reduced lunch. Or being told to see the teacher if you don’t have supplies. I know we can all recall other examples.
My point in sharing this? It is easy to accidentally fall into a pattern where we are not fully aware of how our words and actions affect others. Whether working with children or colleagues, we should probably all be hyper-vigilant, because we may never know–or at least not for many years–what that effect is. But of course, we have to start by building relationships–like Ms. Morton did for me and all of her students.
I still adore Ms. Morton and had the privilege of meeting her for lunch a couple years ago. It was a long shot that I would even find her, but thanks to Facebook, it was easier than I imagined. The relationship thing was clear then too. At lunch she showed me a huge scrapbook where she kept pictures of all the students she ever taught. And over the course of an hour or so, she told me exactly what each of the students from my class were doing today.
If there is a teacher or other impactful figure in your life, I encourage you to reach out to them.