Teach & Serve III, No. 10 – Proceed with Caution

Teach & Serve III, No. 10

Proceed with Caution

October 11, 2017

While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

This is a hard one.

I was in high school classrooms for almost 25 years before leaving that work for my current position. I choose the word “classrooms” intentionally as I made certain, even as I transitioned from full time teacher to full time administrator, that I was assigned at least one two semester class every year I worked in secondary education. I felt that was important in terms of keeping me grounded in the real work of the school which is, obviously, working with students.

In those almost 25 years, I am sure I worked with thousands of students. I live in a kind of ambient anxiety about running into them now because I am terrible about remembering them names which is unfortunate. I wish I could remember all the kids I had in class with me, but I simply do not have that kind of bandwidth. Many I know do and I am so impressed by them.

When I consider those years, I have only fond memories of students in my classes, fond memories of all the students whether they worked hard or not, participated well or not, got in trouble or not. I look back on that mass of kids with a smile.

I have always assumed that students who sat in the desks in my classrooms had much the same thoughts about me, if not a pleasant feeling about being in my room, then, at least, an idea that we were in something together, that I respected them and that we shared some good times. It has never occurred to me that some of those students felt as though I did not care about them, did not know them and did not value them.

No. I should write it had never occurred to me, not until last spring.

Facebook is a wonderful tool and I have really enjoyed connecting with people from my past, including students. I made it policy not to “friend” them when they were still in school, but, if they requested after graduation and I remembered who they were (because looking at their pictures always helped!), I accepted. I have had many a conversation through FB with former students and it has been a pleasure to follow their lives in this pretty limited fashion.

As it turns out, some of my former students have even read these blogs on education that I write weekly. I discovered this by seeing the infrequent “likes” they might click after a post and I found out that some are really reading these things when I received a message from a student.

The content of the message was not what I expected. Essentially, the student felt that I bullied her/him in school, that I did not care about her/him, that I made a point of sticking it to her/him. When this student was considering transferring from the school, she/he remembers many teachers trying to change his/her mind. The student is certain I did not recall her/his name.

It was a long message and a powerful one.

I remembered the student quite well. That is the reason I had accepted her/his friend request. This is a student that I would recognize if we ran into each other. This is a student of whom I had warm and fond memories.

This student did not feel the same. Situations I remembered one way, this student recalled in an almost polar opposite fashion. And, to be clear, the student’s perception is reality. While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

There is not a thing I can do to go back and change what I did to make this student feel this way, though I very much wish there were.

The benefit of this exchange between us was for me to be more reflective looking back, for me to consider things from my former students’ perspectives and for me to take myself down from the pedestal I have placed myself upon.

The good leaders and teachers I know welcome challenging input, they solicit ways to improve, they listen to those they have hurt and they invite pointed critiques.

Then they grow.

I have grown from reading these comments. Looking forward, I am more aware of how my actions and interactions influence others. Looking back, I am more aware of how my nostalgia colors my view of the past.

These are good things. They are hard things, but good.

Leaders must be cautious when they (as I often do in these posts) pat themselves on the back. Leaders must remember that their actions are interpreted, minute-by-minute, by those with whom they journey. Leaders should never get too comfortable thinking they have it all figured out.

Leaders must proceed with caution, for they are responsible for the perceptions they create.