So What Happens When ... You Do Hurt Them?
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
By Leah Slawson, English Teacher, Trinity Presbyterian School, Montgomery, AL
"So what happens when ..." This was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post, in which I wrote about the power of words. I’m a wordsmith, a writer, and an English teacher. Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power. That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell. They can bless and curse; they expand life or diminish it. They wound and they heal; they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil.
I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: "So what happens when…You do hurt them?" When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.
My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school. She assumed, like most of us high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared. Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues – some processing problems,” and now she feels “awful!”
How did I answer her?
"You just do what you are doing."
Buried in her question was most of my answer. She had already recognized what she had done. She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional. She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it. To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.
Secondly, she confessed. In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything. Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.
Thirdly, I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning. Mercy is extended to us upon waking. She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her push wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.
Some occasions call for apologies, which is not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction. But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures, those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.
Then, I told her to let it go. In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time, energy, and emotion on the guilt. Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.
And lastly, don’t be surprised when you mess up again. Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection. If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile. When you do, start with step one: recognition ... and repeat the above process.
Leah Slawson teaches 9th grade English & honors English at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL. You can read her blog here.