As a principal, I hear complaints from teachers and students about each other. “Ahmed refuses to participate.” “Ms. X didn’t help me even though I was raising my hand.” I typically try to “solve” or mollify the complaints quickly so everyone can move on.
This week, coming fresh from a seminar on listening, I heard complaints differently. Behind the complaints, I found hurt feelings and disappointment.
I came in for an early meeting with two teachers who are respected and even loved by their students. We were deciding which kids needed extra academic support.
As we went down the list, the conversation seemed normal: “Jennifer could use more support outside of class. Mohammed is doing fine in the class, he won’t need extra help.”
Then the tone changed, hitting upon two names: “Samantha doesn’t care. She doesn’t do any work and when I talked to her about it, she said ‘whatever.’ Neither does Abdul. He does nothing in class.”
In the past, I would have seen the teachers’ reactions as cynicism.
This time, I saw defeat. Disappointment. Hurt and rejection.
I would usually make suggestions to “solve” the complaint. This time, I said, “You’re discouraged. You’re disappointed. And it sounds like you’ve given up.”
The teachers looked suddenly very alert: “No, we haven’t given up! But yes, we’re discouraged.”
“It’s normal to be discouraged,” I told them. “If you put a lot of effort in trying to reach a child, and you care, and they continually seem to reject your efforts, that you’ll feel discouraged and even hurt.”
The teachers looked surprised but relaxed a little. We talked about how they had fallen into a pattern of lecturing the students rather than listening. And by labeling this boy and girl as “not caring” and having a bad attitude, the kids themselves couldn’t transform. They were actually fulfilling the teachers’ current expectations of them.
By the end of the meeting, the teachers looked refreshed. The meeting had struck a chord of truth that had inspired them.
Later that week, I also saw hurt from the perspective of the students.
I talked to a 12th-grade boy who had been sent to me for disrupting a class: “Mr. X thought I was talking during a test but I wasn’t! He thinks I’m always doing something wrong.”
In the past, I would have heard only whining and defensiveness. This time, I still heard whining, but I also heard hurt feelings from a sensitive boy. In particular, a sensitive boy who looks like a tall, formidable man.
When I said to him, “Your feelings are hurt,” he got very quiet and looked down. And then nodded his head. We continued to talk, and very quickly, he was ready to acknowledge his part in the conflict and have a productive discussion with his teacher.
Kids and teachers hurt themselves with each other’s words and actions. Kids get upset and blame teachers. Teachers get disappointed and blame students. Grudges form and solidify.
But kids are still kids. They will do things to get attention, positive or negative. This week, I saw how I can help my teachers see and manage their own cycles of hurt and disappointment, shortening those cycles until they barely exist. And grudges don’t form. So kids can walk in every day with the opportunity to transform.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman