Let me tell you about a student. This student and I had a very tumultuous relationship last year. He was constantly getting the class off task, he never seemed to take what I said seriously, and he was constantly seeking my attention in the worst ways possible. (In my previous blog post (here) I recall how difficult the year was last year.) Because of how I responded to him and the class, I truly believed that I would be remembered by him to be one of his worst teachers. I believed that I had broken a relationship with him and that he would remember his 5th grade year as a terrible year. I certainly never thought I would see him again. However, this week I was in for a huge surprise.
On Monday this week at the end of the day, I was just finishing up reading a picture book to my class, and I heard the door open. I looked over, and he walked in the door. I couldn’t believe it. The student who I thought I had completely burned the bridge with was now standing in my classroom. Many emotions and thoughts were swirling in my brain. The one thought that kept returning is “after everything, he still wants a connection.”
I got to walk with him a bit on the way out of school and he told me how well he is doing in school, and how sports are going, and I was just in awe. From his tone and demeanor, I could tell that he had matured a bit. He is holding all A’s this year, and his select basketball team is playing out of state this weekend. He seems to be loving middle school. As we finished talking I invited him to come back to the classroom more, and I hope to see him again.
I was full of joy as I finished walking to the buses. I told two of my colleagues about what just occurred, I told them how maybe my relationship with him wasn’t as bad as I thought. I continued to ponder this throughout the night. Maybe I did do some good things for him. Maybe from his perspective, I was the adult that cared about how, and saw him for who he was, and who will continue to see him as a good and beautiful child? Maybe all of this still benefited his long-term success?
I know for me, seeing him again definitely healed part of the trauma from last year and gave me hope that I am a good person and teacher and that I was meant for this job. It gave me hope that through thick and thin, in the end, he saw that I cared, even when I might have been a not-so-great teacher. And if we were able to still forge a relationship during a difficult year for me, I can only imagine how much stronger my relationships will be now with my current and future students.
This past year of teaching was harder than I had anticipated. Which is partly why I neglected my blog in the spring. Now that summer has passed and I am well into another school year, I am ready to discuss my mental health and how an unexpected incident in the classroom lead me to more healing I didn’t realize I needed.
In the fall of 2017, I received a terrible evaluation about my practice. My principal at the time said that she felt my presence in front of children was scary. At the time, I was mortified to hear that, I felt that she was out to get me. “She just hates me and wants me gone.” I told my self this for a long time. But the truth of the matter is that she wasn’t wrong. I was scary. I was hurting. I didn’t realize it at the time.
For many reasons that observation lead me on a path that I didn’t realize I needed. I felt stuck and knew I needed professional help. I found out my school district offered free counseling with an outside agency. After stewing over that evaluation, I decided it was time. I had moved all the way to Washington to begin a new life, but everything was starting to crumble. The anger I felt was deep, and for a while it was being directed at the only thing I felt I had any control over: my students. I was joylessly working at this job and I was already counting down the days I would end the school year. My anger was stemming from an identity crisis. I had been living my life up to a point where I was struggling to accept any notion that I was gay. I had for so long had been told that being gay wasn’t okay and I needed to change my identity to become straight. I was grateful to find someone who would help me sort this out.
Meeting my therapist for the first time was wonderful. She was kind and immediately helpful my first session. During the session I had cried over some things I didn’t realize were still tender. Throughout the subsequent sessions, my therapist helped me unwind and unravel everything I needed at the time to help me straighten out my life. I was able to get on antidepressants which allowed the chemical balance in my brain to restore to normal so I could adequately deal with the identity crisis that was causing my anger and heartache. After several months of work and acceptance of myself, on February 10, 2018, I came out to the world as a gay man, and I was finally feeling happy and peaceful inside. I am grateful that the rest of the school year turned out somewhat better. Sadly, a few of the relationships that I had severed with some students at the time were still severed, and I regret how I treated them, and I wish things could have been different. (If you would like to watch my coming out story, click here) I parted ways with that school, and was ready for the next chapter.
In the summer of 2018 I transferred school districts and moved to North Seattle, I felt my life was falling into place, and the anger of my identity was no more. I had accepted who I was, and I was ready to take on the next class. I got hired for 5th grade and was ready for something completely new. I was determined to make this year much better.
The year started off well, but as the saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but the trauma of my childhood identity crisis was starting to surface, and I started to perceive my students as threats to my existence. Allow me to explain.
When I was in 5th and 6th grade, I started to realize “maybe I am a bit different…” it wasn’t difficult for others to notice, specifically the popular boys. I was bullied relentlessly, and I heard every word imaginable. Some still sting to this day. This happened at church too, and I learned quickly to try to be someone I wasn’t. I was always trying to hide my identity, and learn to disassociate from the image of who I was supposed to be. As my new therapist put it, I was in survival mode for that period of childhood. Emotionally, I was not safe.
This brings me back to the present. As the year progressed, some of the students in my class, specifically the boys who were particularly popular, started to get under my skin, and I often found myself at odds with them. I never felt respected by them, nor did I respect them either. Many times I would get in to ridiculous power struggles with them because I wanted (needed) to be right. As the months progressed, the power struggles got worse, and the they got more public. I had no idea at the time why I was suddenly having a classroom crumble again.
As I look back now, what was really happening is my inner 11 year old self, who never got the chance to heal, was feeling attacked again, and put up the defense. I wasn’t operating from my adult teacher brain. I was acting from my 11 year old self. He now had the power of an adult body, and could use that to make these students obey. He wouldn’t go down without a fight. He couldn’t stand to be hurt, again. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.
One day in May, I felt the class truly crumbled apart so I brought all the students together in a class meeting so we could discuss how they felt about class and what we could do to fix the issues together. I had told the students that if they didn’t want to participate in this circle, they didn’t have to. This I realize was a terrible idea, but I mention it because we learn from mistakes, and it is needed to understand the rest of the story. In the circle, several of the students felt they were always being picked on by me, and some other issues surfaced too. Even though it was hard, I felt like we were actually making good ground work. It felt like we were all trying to be on the same page together.
We had to leave for our specialist, so we put the meeting on pause. When I picked up the students and brought them back, I wanted to resume so we could finish our work. This is when things took an awful turn. In our circle, I was in the middle of asking students what our classroom could look like for the remainder of the year, and that is when most of the class decided to leave the circle. At the same time some boys decided to goof off and make farting noises. As I looked around at what was happening, an awful sense of dread came over me. Something inside snapped. I couldn’t take it any longer. The boy inside me was done. I lost it; I broke down and started sobbing.
I have never cried in front of a class before (aside from reading a sad book out loud) and it was an experience I never want to repeat. I vaguely remember telling the students they could leave the class and some of them went to get another 5th grade teacher. I am still sobbing at my desk not entirely sure of what to do. My colleague came running in and immediately came to my rescue, and I am still grateful to this day for her help. She helped me calm down, we swapped classes, and she held an importance space for my students to process what happened.
When my principal found out about this, he was very kind in asking what happened, and offered me some solutions I could immediately implement, and he suggested I go to therapy. Which to an outsider might seem odd, but it was exactly what I needed, again.
I finished out the rest of the year with a little bit of grace, healed a bit with my students, and fully embraced summer with open arms. This was my chance to rest and relax. I had made my appointment for therapy right as school was ending, because I knew once again, I was in desperate need of professional help.
As I sat in my new therapist’s office, I explained everything that happened, I felt the sense of relief to say what happened and to have someone listen intently, and help me unravel my thoughts and experience. My therapist pointed out how my inner child (as mentioned previously), fought his entire life to survive in a world that told him being gay was the worst identity he could have, and how my reactions to how my students were acting, or even being around children who were 11 or 12 were causing me PTSD. In my mind, the students in my class were taking on the same form of the children who used to be my bullies.
This was happening with other children that weren’t my students, too. I had told her about a time when I was in a restaurant, and I saw a group of kids who were just eating, and I felt my heart rate go up and I was getting incredibly anxious. She looked me right in the eye and said “that is a PTSD reaction.” It was hard to believe at first, but putting a label on it made everything easier to deal with. As our sessions continued, it was clear that my high of coming out was simmering down and some of the reality I lived in when I was younger was surfacing back up. We worked this summer on helping me get to a place where healing could begin so I could have a better school year (and a better life). After the summer of intense work, I am grateful that this year, I wake up looking forward to my class. I have new systems in place to strengthen all my relationships with them, and I can operate my thoughts from a true adult perspective remembering they are children. They are not doing anything to attack me personally, and all their behavior is a code. I can establish mutual respect with them. I feel I am able to better manage a class because I was able to heal my inner child. There are still areas I am working on, and I give myself grace to remember I am still in the process of healing. I am re-writing my story.
I am grateful for all the experiences I have had, and I know it has strengthened me as a teacher, and as a human. I am grateful that therapy has saved my career. Therapy is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength that things can, and will get better.
You don’t know me, so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jeremiah, and I am a fifth grade teacher. When I read about you, I thought how I wished you could have been in my class, we would have taken on the world together. I too, am gay, and I understand how cruel this world can be. I would like to tell you about this weekend I had at NCTE, which is an annual conference held for educators who teach reading. It helps us learn new ways to become better teachers. We discussed how to make more inclusive and safe spaces for our classrooms, and how to read and promote a wide variety of books so that our students can become more empathetic. This weekend I was changed, and as I started to remember your story, I knew that for people like us, enough was enough. It was time to start creating a better world.
When I came back to my classroom, I thought about how to keep doing the work I learned about. What would I need to do to make sure my students become those empathetic, caring humans we need? The first thing I did was come out to my students. I did this through my identity web that we were working on.
It wasn’t explicit, because I wanted it to be normal, just one part of me. My students had questions, they were whispering about it, as to be expected. I was worried of course. But I have become resilient and will not let my humanity be debated. We deserve to exist in this world. I made sure to answer my students’ questions if they had them. Which they did, and you know what happened? We talked about it like this:
“Mr. Henderson are you gay?”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?”
“Does that mean you like men?”
“Oh, okay. [Looking at another part of my identity web]: Why do you like dark chocolate?! It is so bitter!”
We discussed it and moved on. It might come back up, but I doubt it. Kids are funny that way don’t you think? Out of sight, out of mind!
The second thing I did was to start checking out more LGBTQ books to promote and read them to the class. Books like: In our mothers’ house, Stella brings the family, George, etc. They are starting to understand. It is becoming normal for them.
I think for a long time I was scared. Even though I was gay, I was so worried about what my students or their parents would think about me, about the books we read, about the entire LGBTQ community. I had a lot of worries, but remembering your story has propelled me to continue in this work.
As LGBTQ humans, we matter. We deserve and have the right to significance and belonging in this world. No justification necessary.
Jamel, you were taken far too early from this world because of cruel people who did not, and most likely still do not, understand.
It is time to change that narrative. I will be reading more LGBTQ titles to my students, I will live my truth, and I will stand up to hate. I will show my students that we are normal, and that they have nothing to be afraid of. I will engage other teachers in this conversation because we can’t afford to lose any more beautiful souls.
I am starting the hashtag #ForJamel so that I and other teachers may continue to lift you up Jamel, and ALL LGBTQ students (both here and gone) in this work everyday, so that our students will become kind, caring, and empathetic.
I promise Jamel, to send students into this world that will care. May you rest in power knowing that I will fight for people like us. Starting today.
This week I had a fantastic time at NCTE, I learned many things about creating spaces that raise and amplify ALL student voice.
I had a sort of revelation while at NCTE. Per usual on Twitter, there have been many conversations around books and children. Often, I felt like I didn’t understand somebody’s point of view, and I couldn’t agree with them. and would cast them off as people who were “angry, upset, rude…” any negative attitude I could find. I realized this was a place of privilege. I stopped listening to what they had to say.
Something changed for me this weekend, and as I write this post I want to make it clear I am not attempting to be pompous by saying what happened, but I write this for myself, to show what happened that made me understand. I also write with a word of caution. Not all experiences are like this, and it takes time for us to continuously have these conversations. This is not meant to be seen as a “positive platitude” but as a way to start the much needed conversations.
There was a person I was having a hard time agreeing with on Twitter, and I started shutting out what they had to say. I saw they were presenting at NCTE and truthfully I wasn’t interested in seeing them. So I didn’t go to their session.
Later that day, I was in the exhibit hall and I found this person, and something came over me and I decided to go up and introduce myself. I told them we had something in common (I choose to not disclose that here to keep this party confidential). In that moment we connected, and we were able to have a great conversation. What I realized in that moment is that I made them human. Everything in my perception of what I thought I knew and didn’t know about this person changed. What I realized mattered is that there they were, being completely human with me. I saw them as a human, who longed for significance and belonging in this world. I learned last year in my positive discipline course that everyone wants significance and belonging. Everything this person tweeted about was starting to make sense. They were not that “angry” person. They were a person, who, just like all of us, wants significance and belonging in this world. Their anger was justifiable. I could understand now that they were speaking up for themselves, because they are human. Our humanity should never be up for debate.
This interaction helped me to remember that everyone is human, and we need more face-to-face interactions. We need to allow others to speak. We need to quiet down and listen fully, without interruption. Especially for people like me who are in a majority. We need to seek out voices different from ours, and we need to see them for who they are, humans who want and deserve significance and belonging in this world. I hope after NCTE I will continuously be seeking out voices of the marginalized and oppressed and hearing them, and humanize them, understand them, and support them.
Rita Pierson said in her brilliant video Every child deserves a champion: “You say it long enough it starts to become a part of you.” She was referencing that she told her students “I am somebody.
I was somebody when I came.
I’ll be a better somebody when I leave.
I am powerful, and I am strong.
…I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.”
This year I adopted a saying for myself because I needed to change how I ran my classroom. My new phrase was “I don’t have time to get children in trouble.” I want my classroom to be a safe and wonderful place, we don’t have time to get in trouble. I tell my students this all the time. I am amazed at what has happened because of this choice. It has become a part of me. I no longer have time to think of punitive consequences or to be bitter with students. I don’t take their actions personally, I remember they are children, and that they are still learning. This does not mean my classroom is a free-for-all. Quite the opposite.
Last week we were on the carpet and one of my students said something along the lines of “I can’t figure out what was ugly.” (I think she was referencing something from a book but I can’t remember) and one of the boys behind her said to his friends about the other child: “Did she look in a mirror?” [The other child didn’t hear this FYI]
Now, if you are reading this you may be shocked at that statement because on the surface it seems incredibly mean and hurtful. It may seem like his words intended to hurt.
When I had time to get kids in trouble, things may have transpired this way: he would have probably been called out in front of his peers to his embarrassment and shame. Most likely he would have denied it to save face. Naturally, he would need some missed recess too. And probably forced to apologize too. Make him feel the pain.
But, none of this would have solved the problem at hand. I hurt thinking I ever used to treat children this way.
But I don’t have time for that. Not anymore. I don’t have time for punitive consequences. I don’t have time for embarrassment or shame. I don’t have time to call kids out in front of their peers.
I do have time for solutions, for being kind and firm. I do have time for private, quiet conversations. I have time to build relationships with my students, and I know this student is a kind person. I have time to remember they are only 11 years old and are still learning to be human. They have only been on this God-given earth for 96,000 hours. Why do we expect perfection from them?
What did I do instead?
My first step was to stop the conversation right then. He needed to know that his behavior was not appropriate. I said nothing else except “John, stop.”
After we finished on the carpet, and the rest of the students were working, I called him over so we could have a conversation. Not a one-sided teacher lecture, but a real conversation.
“Can you tell me about telling [jane] to look in a mirror?”
“That kind of statement could be hurtful.”
[In a sincere tone] “Oh I didn’t mean it like that, I was trying to be funny.”
“I understand, next time, think about what others might feel before you say something like that.”
“Ok I will”
[Had the other child heard, we would have talked about solving that part of the problem which usually leads to a non-forced apology]
Other conversations in the classroom usually follow a similar format.
[Calling over a student who has been clearly off-task]
“Hey [joe], can you come talk to me? What are you doing over there?’
“Thank you for being honest, what needs to get done right now?”
“What can you do so that your work gets done.”
“Sounds good, need a different spot to do that?”
“No, I think I will be okay.”
These solutions work. Sometimes it takes one conversation, sometimes it takes multiple.
It takes time. It can be exhausting. But each day I enjoy it more and more. Helping students become better humans has taken on something new for me this year. I love helping them solve problems. I want them to have self-efficacy so they may solve problems without me. I don’t have time to get kids in trouble anymore, and I will never make time for it again.
“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball
This past year was more painful as a teacher than I could imagine. But through the pain, I learned a valuable lesson, I discovered something that defined everything about my classroom, both good and bad.
Classroom management has a lot of facets. A well-run classroom can be defined by several things, just to name a few: procedures, high expectations, engaging curriculum, firm and clear boundaries, and relationships.
There is one thing missing from that list, something we don’t talk about, and I learned it the hard way.
Last year around October I had an informal drop-in observation by my principal, it was one of those days where everything went bad. No student was listening, I was yelling, procedures were being broken, the energy in the room was awful, I was getting frustrated, and I wanted to quit. (I had many days like this in the fall). My notes from the observation were eye-opening, to say the least. The principal commented on my tone, posture, and interaction with the children which was described as “cold and scary.” I think those who know me well would say “how is that possible?!” I wondered that myself, but the truth is, it had been like this for a while, and things in the classroom weren’t getting better.
Among my attempts to get things right in the classroom, I had found a wonderful article on smartclassroommanagement.com about liking students that left me an imprint in me, and it gave me a lot of reflecting to do. While I tried hard to like those hard-to-like students just like the article said, it wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped.
Frankly, nothing was working. I tried it all; new routines, more consistency, better rules, etc. But with everything new I tried, it never worked, things were getting way worse. I was at the point where I almost put in my notice to quit.
I often peruse the site ProTeacher.net because I enjoy the wide array of forums available. It is not as popular as it used to be, but it is still active, and I enjoy it. I posted my cry for help because nothing in my classroom was working and I was ready to throw in the towel.
The teachers who responded were all very kind and gracious in their responses, but one stuck out to me the most. It has truly changed me and challenged everything I thought I knew about the classroom:
“You must like yourself first and foremost.”
Those words hit me HARD, and they still do.
It was at that moment I realized I didn’t like myself, in fact, I hated myself. I hated being gay, I hated my body, I hated that I never fit in, even as an adult. I hated my back problems, I hated feeling depressed ALL the time. And then, it all seemed to fall into place, my inner hatred turned into hating my class and teaching. It showed, every day in my tone, facial expression, and in my attitude. Everything about me and how I hated myself, I brought with me subconsciously to the classroom.
Low to no self-esteem can wreak havoc on everything in your life, including relationships, but I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I thought I was checking everything at the door, but that was far from the truth. My disdain for myself overflowed to everything in my life, including my students. I hate typing these words, but I must confront myself with the truth. Relationships are the cornerstone of any successful classroom, and as I look back and reflect, I can see now that my relationship with myself = awful. My relationships with my students = awful. I was depleted of love and compassion in my brain and my heart, I had none to give to myself or my students.
For the sake of this blog post, I will cut down a major story short. That observation and some other things that happened during the fall made me angry, and it turned into severe depression/anxiety/resentment/hatred. I am grateful I was able to get counseling to help resolve some major issues I had in my life. In February I was able to come out as a gay person, and since then, things in my classroom had started looking up. Not because I was now openly gay, but because I was resolving inner conflict, I was healing. And because of this, I started to like myself again. The secret I learned is that I must like myself as a person, to be the teacher I need and want to be. I learned that I must have the confidence, joy, and love that can only truly come from within, in order to be able to then give that confidence, joy, and love to my students.
The rest of this past school year was much better, and a lot of healing took place between me and the students. There were some relationships that were severely damaged, and they weren’t able to be fixed. I am truly sad about that, but I am grateful knowing that my next classroom, I will start fresh. I am learning to like myself for who I am as a person. I am taking time to care for myself and treat myself with compassion. I know that in the fall when I meet my students for the first time, I will have a genuine smile on my face that shows I will care for and love them. But most importantly, I will continue to care for, like, and love myself.
In the book “The compassionate classroom”, there is one page that discusses the teacher-self relationship, and it offers an insightful thought:
“A tendency to criticize and judge yourself usually results in being critical of others. Compassion for oneself is more likely to result in compassion for others.”
Let us all have more compassion for ourselves this fall.
My next classroom will have the version of me who is learning to like everything about myself, who celebrates the imperfections and works to keep changing and become the best person I know I can be. Will my classroom be perfect? Of course not. But I know now that I am on the path to a great, loving, and compassionate classroom.
*I need to make a disclaimer here, I do not want my words to be taken as “Wow, all Jeremiah does is like himself and everything in his classroom just works!” That is absolutely not the case. While this is the foundation for a successful classroom, all the pieces mentioned above are absolutely needed to create a smooth classroom. Liking yourself is simply the foundation.*
This winter break I was fortunate to return home to New Mexico. I visited with family and friends and rekindled my spirit which was burning low for a few months. It is amazing how being around people who love and care about you can change your wellbeing.
I also visited my former elementary school that I taught at last year. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it was to see my former students. For a whole day, I felt like a celebrity, walking into classrooms and seeing children light up, scream my name, and give me more hugs than you can imagine! Throughout the course of the day as the excitement died down, I was able to talk to all my students and have amazing conversations with them that picked up right where we left off, it felt like no time had passed.
As I was watching my students and talking with them I came across an important realization that I feel could only come from leaving the school and returning months later: they don’t need me anymore.
Everything I taught and gave them has come to fruition. I gave them everything they needed to succeed, both academically and emotionally. As I watched them interact with their peers and teachers, I was just in awe of the self-confidence and self-efficacy they exuded. I had done my job; I was able to see the fruits of my labor.
They are doing fine without me! For the time that I was their teacher, we had great times, hard times, and everything in between. And now as they grow up and go beyond third grade, I am able to get some closure in my life that as a teacher, I have fulfilled my duty to these students by giving them everything they needed from me. The ups and downs we experienced together produced students that are well on their way to becoming some remarkable human beings.