This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children. Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.
But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class. Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.
I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted. For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.
After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted. Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room? How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind? I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?
We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education. Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults. We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits. I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else. It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.
Children are capable… what does that really mean? Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids? Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune? No, I don’t think so.
A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem. Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn. They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.
This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally. When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet. Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem. As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode. In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them. You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters. There are no mulligans in childhood.