It doesn’t happen often, but last week I had an argument with another teacher. The incident was over a minor playground protocol issue. I made the controversial judgment call to bend the rules a bit, and in response the other teacher stonewalled and refused to dialog. She felt undermined by my actions, and I felt like she did not treat me as an equal. The situation ended with her sending me a harsh e-mail, and me, sucking it up, and apologizing profusely. What I’m not afraid to admit now is that teachers, not just students, can learn things on the playground.
The whole thing is now “water under the bridge,”and we both, at least, have a mutual understanding of why we acted the way that we did. I would probably forget the whole thing if it wasn’t for something in that harsh e-mail: an insulting name. No, it wasn’t some four letter profanity or not-fit-to-print derogatory label. As my grandma Inez might have said, “just a little dig.”
The next morning at a prayer meeting I told another teacher, a father of five, that my feelings were hurt because of this label. Not wanting to gossip, I didn’t share any details. (I’ve spilled more beans on this blog post than I did to that teacher.)
I felt assured when this well respected teacher told me not to worry about it. He reminded me that often times people say things out of anger, but when correction truly comes from God it will be gentle and caring. God corrects us like a good father corrects his children, only in the worst situations (not a playground debate) will correction be direct and humiliating. It’s tough to remember a time when my own father used harsh language against me, and I can recall several Bible verses that speak against using such language. Take Colossians 3:21 that tells Fathers not to embitter their children; or consider the many Proverbs that do label people foolish, but always provide a wise alternative.
However, after reflecting upon this advice, I began to feel bad again. Not because of anything other teachers have done to me, but because of what I have done to my students over the tears. You see, I have called students names similar to what that fellow teacher called me. Think about labels like immature, irresponsible, and (only once or twice) stupid.
If I were in a court-of-law I’m sure that I could justify a case for any one of these labels. Eleven and twelve year old kids do act immature. When a student forgets homework or school uniform several times in the same month, it is irresponsible. And the “stupid” kid was running around the community in school uniform doing something so embarrassing that my boss would discipline me if I described it online.
Yet, after a little reflection, I realize that when I chastise kids using labels, it rarely helps the situation. At its worst it reinforces the label and gives an internal justification for the kids to carry on with their inappropriate behavior.
In Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence he describes the phenomenon in detail:
Criticisms are voiced as personal attacks rather than complaints that can be acted upon… It leaves the person feeling helpless and angry… From the vantage point of emotional intelligence, such criticism displays an ignorance of the feelings it will trigger in those who receive it, and the devastating effect those feelings will have on their motivation, energy, and confidence to do their work.
Another blogger further describes the consequences of insults:
“Did you put away your backpack?” means “I know you didn’t put away the backpack.” It’s worse when mom doesn’t even bother to check, she just knows it. That drives kids bananas. “What is it about me that you just assume I don’t do anything right?” What it is, of course, is history– he hasn’t done it the past 20 times. Kids are empiricists though not statisticians. Past is a qualitative, not quantitative variable: if you don’t check now, then you can’t know now.
The kid thinks, mom just assumes I do things wrong. Ultimately, this means he stops trying.
Perhaps I am being a bit too sensitive, but I do now understand that strong criticism works to create a negative reality more than a positive one. Every time I even mildly criticize a student without placing more emphasis on a solution, I am sabotaging their “motivation, energy, and confidence.”
In the book of James it says that the “tongue is like the rudder of a ship.” In the past, I have always believed this, but I assumed that the ship was my own life. Thanks to this incident, I now realize that, at least for teachers, the ships are the lives of our students.
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