After five years teaching in low-income schools, I’m moving on next year to a small public charter school. I thought I would feel more sad or disappointed in myself about leaving, but I’m not. I feel good. I know that deciding to stay in an environment that I knew was draining me would have been neither brave nor heroic but damaging.
Anyway, I’ve been in a very reflective mood lately, as I often do at the closing chapter of something important in my life—my senior year of college, the final months of the school year, the last bite of a particularly awesome cookie (“Man, the ratio of batter to chocolate chips was really powerful and evocative.”) I talked about many of the changes I’ve undergone in a previous post, but I left out what I think the most important lesson is that I’ve learned so far in the classroom. And after receiving many emails lately from teachers across the country on this topic, I knew it was time to write about it.
If you’d asked me at any pre-teaching time in my life whether I hated anyone, I would have assured you that I don’t. However, in that same breath I could have listed off about fifteen people that I thought were total jerks and that I would never want to spend more than five minutes with, maybe ever.
Then, when I started teaching, I met The Jerk To End All Jerks.
He was the assistant principal at my former school and my appraiser. I realized early into the school year that he didn't particularly care for me, and thought I could win him over with kindness, but that was not the case. He would often roll his eyes at me, conduct his observations of my classes the day before a major holiday break, respond to my honest questions or concerns by laughing derisively or trivializing them. I watched him in the hallway go out of his way to bump up against a student who had anger issues, who then blew up at him and was suspended. When I told my assistant principal what I’d seen, he made it clear that if I reported him, my evaluations would suffer. He once responded to a question I asked by leaning back in his chair and mumbling, “Every year I keep asking myself why I’ve gotten myself into a profession with so many women.”
I hated him. And by “I hated him” I mean I hated him. Just seeing him in the hallway or reading his name in my email inbox was enough to get my blood simmering, and I rarely left a meeting with him without crying from frustration or screaming at traffic on the way home. When I finally left that school, I left with a searing bitterness in my heart towards him, one that I held onto long into the next school year.
Luckily for my sanity, at the same time that my hatred was growing and multiplying for my assistant principal, my teaching life was getting easier. I was beginning to get the hang of classroom management, which is largely a result of being willing to put aside a lot of my personal preferences and background and instead focus on my students—who they are and what their needs are. I began to understand that my “worst” students were ones who had had the worst things happen to them. They’d lost parents or siblings. They’d lived through an ugly divorce. They’d been bullied or abused or neglected, or maybe they’d come from a supportive and stable environment but had somehow received the message over and over again from somewhere that they were unimportant, slow, or not enough.
And one day—I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing--I realized the same must have been true for my assistant principal. The true personhood of my assistant principal was not the man I was seeing. He couldn’t have learned that it’s okay to treat people as inferior beings unless someone had modeled it for him. He couldn’t have learned that threats, manipulation, and power moves are appropriate ways of dealing with people unless he himself had been threatened, manipulated, or made to feel powerless. I pictured him as an 8th grader in my class, coming to school lugging many of the same issues my students do, and for the first time, I felt compasssion for him. For some reason, I had understood that there was a reason for many of my students to have bad attitudes or a temper, but I’d had no such grace for my assistant principal.
Does this excuse the actions of my assistant principal? No. Does it mean I should have accepted his treatment of me with a “Thank you sir, may I have another?” approach? No. But if I had approached my assistant principal the way I approach my tough students—with patience, grace, and a persistent kindness, the go-out-of-your-way type of kindness—I think I could have had a very different experience at that school, and maybe my assistant principal could have, too.
Over time, I realized that the truth about my assistant principal was the truth about all the jerks I’ve known in my life—acquaintances, bosses, strangers. This truth is that nobody is intrinsically a jerk. This sounds obvious, and is something I thought I believed before teaching, but I didn't. Not really. I’ve been told and have believed for as long as I can remember that I’m a good person, and instead of using that to seek out the goodness in others, I’ve used that to draw a line in the sand. Good people like me-- who think like me—on this side. Everyone else on the other. I’d said that I loved others, but what I meant was that I loved others once they met my prerequisites.
This is not the way to teach.
This is not the way to live.
I haven’t come anywhere close to mastering the way to teach or live, but I’m working on it. Some of my students still get under my skin, and I’m constantly tempted by many adults to push them onto the “other” side of the sand, or to take the easy way out and pretend that the fronts they’re putting up are their real selves. But while I’m no expert on loving yet, teaching has made me look at these people in a new way. Not as pathetic or inferior, but as human and hurting. Just like I am.
And I hope to get better at it, no matter where I teach. I think if all of us can look at each other the same way we (hopefully) look at our students--that everyone can be redeemed--maybe we would start to see a different world unfold before us.