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.”