As I said in earlier posts, I’m sure I learned more during my semester of teaching middle school than my students did.
And a lot – probably most – of what I learned was about myself.
In this post, I’ll share one of the “good” things I learned.
I learned that I am a great deal more patient and calm than I was back when I taught high school.
I did gradually become more patient during my 23 years in the high school classroom, but I’ve grown almost by leaps and bounds since then.
This past semester quite a few of my students responded with frustration or anger at various times in the classroom.
And hardly ever did I have my typical knee-jerk reactions to them. I didn’t raise my voice, lose my temper, defend my position, get drawn into a debate or argument, or write the students up with a discipline referral.
Smaller infractions, such as when students slipped and said a four-letter curse word or when they’d react with a tiny bit of anger not directed at me, were ones I could deal with immediately with a comment to the offender about the behavior.
For an infraction that was larger, one I thought needed a conversation, I sent the offender into the hall and joined him there when my lesson made a transition that allowed me to step out for a minute.
There, in the hall, I’d ask the student how he could have handled the situation differently. What she could have said differently, or how he could have used another tone of voice. Or how she could have taken a totally different angle than the one she took.
Sometimes the student would have to give me two or three other responses before she could find one that would be appropriate in the classroom.
But, with a couple of exceptions, each student was able to come up with – and model – a better way of dealing with the situation he just experienced.
You see, I finally have realized that we all respond to conflict or difficulty in whatever way feels “normal” to us.
And that “normal” is usually how people in our childhood homes reacted.
So how can I punish a kid who is just doing what feels normal?
Especially if I don’t first show him another way to respond? And give her a chance to try that out in a real setting?
Even as adults, our knee-jerk reaction is usually the one we saw the adults in our household take.
If we had two adults at home, we might react in the way that one of them usually responded. If she reacted with anger, we think that getting angry is how you deal with conflict. If he withdrew, we think that that’s the way to deal with conflict. If he yelled, threw things, stormed around, we think that’s normal. If she pouted, gave the silent treatment, demanded reparation, we think that’s normal.
Only when we are shown another way can we choose another reaction.
Even as adults we too often lapse into our “normal” way of reacting to conflict, the way we saw modeled in our childhood homes.
So, of course, middle school kids react in ways that feel normal!
What I got to see about myself this past semester was that my knee jerk “normal” reaction has changed. I don’t respond with defensiveness or anger most of the time.
This semester I didn’t feel my blood pressure rise, my body tighten, my pulse pound when a kid challenged me, lost her temper with me or another kid, or acted out in an inappropriate way.
I would stay centered, talk with the offender in a calm adult voice, and deal with the issue in a rational way.
Boy, was that more effective than losing my temper!
My students usually responded very positively, and I’d send them back into the classroom where they’d join in with whatever the activity was. They didn’t pout. They weren’t angry.
And I think they had a little taste of how to change their knee-jerk, “normal” reactions.
Just as I have had experiences in changing my knee-jerk, “normal” reactions.
I attribute my change, my growth, to my centering prayer/meditation practice.
And my having been through a breast cancer journey.
Centering prayer and meditation are focused on letting go of the ego, the false self. I’ve been using that daily practice for 16 years now, sitting with my false self, feeling how I use it to escape and to avoid.
For me, a large part of that false self is my “normal.”
And cancer made me take a hard look at that normal. To see if it served me well, helped me in crisis times, helped me to grow.
My cancer journey helped show me that.
Suffering and pain showed me that.
Many mystics of different religions say (and have said for centuries) that we can only lose our egos when we are forced to do so through suffering and pain.
For me, that certainly was true.
Not that I have totally lost my ego, my false self, mind you.
Not even close!
But my time in the middle school classroom showed me that my ego has been worn down and diminished because of my suffering and pain.
And that is the change in my “normal” reaction to having my authority challenged.
This semester I was usually able to stay centered and not react with anger and defensiveness when my ego was challenged.
That’s some big progress for me.
And you know what?
It feels a lot better not having to defend an ego.
It feels lighter, somehow.
More open, less dense.
Those reactive, angry middle school kids showed me that I’m a little further along on the journey to being the clear, open person I hope to be one day.
For that, for their lessons for me in letting go of ego, I am grateful.