I had a breakthrough in my decade-long teaching career just two years ago. Latent as that epiphany may be, I’m thankful it happened at all. I had tried to face my students with a stone face, not bending over the slightest challenges of my rules. I had tried to be buddy who sits on desks, creates inside jokes, and agrees to copious amounts of extra credit. While I remain close to so many students from those years despite my twenty-something attitude of knowing it all, the last two years have been the most transcendent. What did I do differently? I said one phrase to myself over and over again – “Be who you needed when you were younger.”
Putting Advice to Work
What did I need when I was 16-years-old? I needed a lot of reassurance. Like the kind of obsessive, high-tempo reassurance someone needs before they jump out of an airplane. And it was not lacking in my life. I was blessed to be surrounded by people who genuinely cheered for me. But I never left an interaction without feeling or sensing that I was doing something wrong.
I had an interaction with a student who never seemed to pay attention. I could tell by her manner that she was perpetually off-task. She didn’t smile very much, which I took as disrespectful to me (I know, there’s a lot of feminist critical theory to unpack here, but I can’t be more specific than that). She was short to the rest of her classmates, seemingly purposefully to instigate a reaction. One day I had had enough. In a fit of anger, I told her to see me after class. When I pulled her outside, her arms were tied around her waist, and she made no eye contact with me except for a short scowl. I clutched a tiny reminder of my authority — a slip of paper that equaled a detention. With my teacher voice holding in my throat, I took a breath, and uttered the most important question I’ve ever asked.
“Are you ok?”
You might have balked at that admission. Of course, I have said that phrase a thousand times over in my ten years as a teacher. There is a long-standing running joke in the student body that I have a magical sixth sense for students who are about to fall ill at assemblies. I’ve encountered crying students, angry students, embarrassed students, and joyful students with that phrase. I notice when they’re not eating. I notice when their faces are pale. I notice when their grades slip or their attendance drops. But never had I stood before a student who I was genuinely frustrated with and asked, “are you ok?”
The girl launched into a tearful rant about her troubles. I stood still and listened. I was humbled.
“What can I do to help you?” came out of my mouth as natural as a breath.
Our relationship from that day forward was different. I started to apply those two magical phrases to all sorts of issues in my class.
“Are you ok? What can I do to help?”
“Are you ok? What can I do to help?”
You get it.
Lead With Love
I now do what I call “leading with love.” If I’m having troubles with a class period or an individual, I try to consider if I’m leading with love. I don’t always do a great job of it. Sometimes I lead with anger. Sometimes I lead with exhaustion. Most of the time I lead with practicality — there’s an issue that needs to be rectified; nothing more, nothing less. But I try to hardest to always lead a conversation with love.
So, what does this have to do with the pandemic?
We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. With the prospect of being face-to-face with my students again causes a gauntlet of emotions to stir inside of me. I simultaneously feel happy, excited, nervous, and absolutely depressed about the future. I would give my life for my students, but for the first time in my life, I have to consider sacrificing my parents’ lives as well. I can be supportive, championing, frustrated, and confused by my fellow working parents’ desires to return their children to the classroom – all at the same time. I can see validity in everything and still think nothing makes sense. There’s no playbook for right now. We’re all just scrambling on a field with no whistle while the clock winds down. But whatever happens in August, I will keep my adage in mind – lead with love.
I wonder how transformative this school year would be if parents and teachers were cognitive of phrases like, “Are you ok? How can I help?” There was definitely a sense of this during the first lockdown. I taught with a baby on my lap, and sometimes had to break out a ladder to give a lecture while my kids played with chalk. I can’t help but feel that the shiny spirit of unity has dulled over time. How could it not?
Same Storm, Different Boats
I have come to believe that the only way we will make it to the other side of this time is by leading with love. If a teacher is struggling to go back to work, if a parent is grappling with home schooling, or vice versa, there is no one-size-fits-all scenario. As a mother myself, I am preparing for some pretty bad days when we go back to school. That’s not to say they won’t be sprinkled with joy, but the worry awaits me like a buoy in the gulf. I know my parents are in for some bad days. I know my students are as well. Giving of our best to the day might mean something different than it ever has before, but let’s lead with love.
It’s hard to lead with love. There’s a disappointing, unredemptive side of the world that’s rearing its face. That’s why I think it’s more important than ever that we lead with love. Everyone is tired. Everyone is frustrated. But if we start our unpleasant conversations with “Are you ok? How can I help?” I think we can give our young people a chance at a happier year. I’d hope the parents of my students (and my students themselves for that matter), give it a try.