First Do No Harm

A colleague told me the other day that throughout her years in teaching, this had been her motto: First do no harm. It has been resonating deeply with me. While I want to challenge the students and lead them deeper into understanding themselves and the topics, it all has to start with doing no harm. The children who walk into our classrooms must be met with acceptance and patience. We simply can not take out our own needs and frustrations on them. There are always issues in our lives that push us away from our best selves, but we have to find the way to leave those at the door when we walk into our classrooms. In teaching, we have to deal with parents, administrators and colleagues, all of whom can wear us down or plain and simply irritate us. We can not redirect those emotions at our students. They are vulnerable when in our care. We are the ones with the power to create or to tear down.

This week in class, one girl was following her standard practice. Before I finished asking a question, her hand had shot into the air, waving wildly in spite of the fact that her seat was in the front row, directly in front of me. I let her answer a few questions but found myself getting frustrated with the constant need for attention. It is May, and I am tired of what feels like a constant assault. I finally said, “Suzie Sunshine (Not really, I called her by name), please let others have a chance to answer the question.”

Her face fell, and she slumped back in her seat. I had not bothered to think about strategies that would support her. I had simply reacted. There had been nothing private and sensitive about my behavior. As I watched her, I was aware of two things. First, that I had not handled the situation with any skill. I had simply reacted without first planning how to get the best result for her and for me. I used my power to publicly draw attention to her. There are strategies to use that avoid that, but I had not taken the time to think them through.

Secondly, she knew that this was behavior that she was supposed to work on, but was clearly finding it a challenge. I needed to think through what was going on with her. What made her act this way, in ways that she knew were outside my expectations for her? When I stop to ask those questions, then I step away from my quick response and see the student more clearly. Then it is possible to do no harm or at least do less harm.

When I am caught up in my lesson or my set of tasks that I want the students to complete, I often find the individual students blurring before me. Each of them is not as important as my precious lesson plan. Those are the days with the potential for harm. It must always be about the students, trying to see them as clearly as possible and meet each one where they are. That has to be our job!

“Suzie Sunshine” saved herself, and me, that day. She started to listen carefully to the conversation, and when she saw an interesting point, she slowly raised her hand, clearly seeking my approval, afraid that she was not allowed to participate. When I called on her, she gave a completely unique interpretation to what the author was saying, one it was easy to praise.

So for the teaching moment, to highlight her successes and hopefully mend any damage, I called her over after class. I explained how much I wanted her best thinking, not simply the thoughts that popped into her head, that the goal was not to silence her, but to deepen her thinking. The quick responses were fine, but they often distracted her from the richer contemplation of the topic. She seemed to understand that. We shall see. In any case, I will continue to watch my tongue and aim for “Doing No Harm.”

10 responses to “First Do No Harm

  1. I like how you handled the situation with the young lady after class. I hope that it helps her to concentrate. I think this is an area we all need to work on. While it has been easier for me to be patient as a librarian (I get to give the students back), there is always a time where patience gets worn thin and it is easier to just react. I hope we all, myself as much as anyone else, remembers to take a deep breath and think about what is best for the students before we react. Thank you for your honest post.

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  3. Good points were made. I find that I too get caught up in the moment and say things without thinking, especially toward the end of the year when everyone is getting tired of being in school. Thanks for the reminder. The advice should go not only to teachers, but to support staff and administrators as well.

  4. Hadley,
    Your post really resonated with me. I have found myself in the same situation and often want to kick myself for quick reactions only to see disappointment on the face of one of my students. It is not an easy place to be. It is so easy to be hurtful without the intention to be. Your reflection shows what a truly caring teacher you are. Just the fact that you noticed and made the time to talk to your student tells all. Your post is honest and thoughtful and helps all of us to connect with and to learn from your reflections. Thanks.

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  7. Great post! Thank you for your internal reflection. We all, especially this time of year, need to take that step back and remember that these…are….kids.

    When I started teaching four years ago, the only item bequeathed to me by the 35-year veteran I was replacing was a simple, laminated paper with this quote from Haim Ginott:

    “I’ve come to the frightening conclusioin that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

    It hangs next to my desk and my eyes roll over it daily. The tough part of getting my mind and tongue to wrap around the concept to practice it regularly. I’m trying.

  8. A few days ago one of my sons brought home a stack of papers for my wife or I to sign. One paper in particular almost made me lose it with his teacher. My son is a conscientious student, a real type-A, teacher-pleasing student (even though his mom and I are trying to get him to be more intrinsically motivated). Nevertheless, this paper was an AR report which showed his having accomplished 150% of his goal at an average reading level 3 grades higher than his current grade in school. The report also showed that he only had a 75% average on the AR book quizzes. What infuriated me was that his teacher had drawn a large frowning face on his paper and wrote a quick note that he needed to have an 80% average on the quizzes –nevermind that he had surpassed his goal and was reading above grade level.

    My son was on the verge of tears. He was inconsolable and stated that he hated reading anyway. (He asks us to read him stories all the time so I know this was just his frustration speaking.) I never contacted the teacher. As a teacher, I know I’m hardest on other teachers, and I don’t want to overreact and cause more harm. My bet is that she was churning out the paperwork and not really thinking about the impact her words and drawings would have on my boy. I’m reminded of “Teachers” by Clark Mollenhoff:

    “You are the molders of their dreams.
    The gods who build or crush their young beliefs of right or wrong.
    You are the spark that sets aflame the poet’s hand,
    Or lights the flame of some great singer’s song.
    You are the gods of the young the very young.
    You are the guardian of a million dreams.
    Your every smile or frown can heal or pierce a heart.
    Yours are a hundred lives a thousand lives.
    Yours is the pride of loving them, the sorrow, too.
    Your patient work, your touch, makes you the gods of hope
    Who fill their souls with dreams, and make those dreams come true.”

    Many teachers love this poem because it shows just how influential a teacher can be. We’d do well to remember that just as our smile can heal a student’s heart, our frown can pierce it, too.

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