On Being Real

My students have seen me cry.

When I was in college, I had to teach a number of mini-lessons during various education courses and courses for educators (there’s a difference). The worst was for Physical Education for Elementary Teachers or some such. I don’t remember the name of course. I remember the instructor. He was not a nice person. He was the college golf coach.

And he gave me a C on my lesson.

My teaching partners got better grades, but because I didn’t maintain a “professional decorum,” I got a C.

The night before my lesson, I got a call from home telling me a very dear family member would be going to rehab. That things were worse than I’d thought or had ever imagined. That when I saw him that weekend, he would probably look gaunt and sad and sick and awful. I did not sleep much that night.

The next morning, with purple bags under my eyes, coffee in my thermos, and a weight in my heart, I started teaching a lesson on group dance. Halfway through the choreography for the Salty Dog Rag, one of my “students” (a college classmate) pointed out that I had made a mistake. My mind went blank. I felt the tears rising from the pit of my stomach up through my ribs and into my throat. I took a deep breath. I’m very sorry, class. I got a phone call last night, and my family got some bad news this week. I am having a rough day. If you can give me a few seconds to collect myself, we’ll continue with the dance. They gave me a few seconds. We continued with the dance.

And for that momentary break, I got a C.

I will always be that real and open and honest with my students. They need to know that adults have the same kinds of problems as kids. They need to hear us processing our feelings, and talking about our pain and our triumphs, and being vulnerable. They need to see that our classrooms are safe places to feel all the feelings.

In the past almost-seven years of teaching, my students have known about my dad’s week-long hospitalization, the death of two of my pet chickens, my migraines, my surgery, my sister visiting, my sister moving here, my sister moving away, my MRI, my migraine-related food restrictions, and the time I dislocated my tailbone playing roller derby. When my grandfather died in April, I spent a week’s worth of calendar time answering questions about him, sharing pictures, and accepting hugs from tenderhearted second-graders. We also talk about our grumpy days and our excited days and our tired days.

I also apologize. I admit when I mess up. That same teacher who gave me a C said on my grade feedback that I should never apologize to students because it shows weakness. I wholeheartedly disagree. Last week, I totally blew it with TLK. He ended up in tears, staring at his math worksheet looking the saddest I’ve seen him in a long time. He reminded me of 2012-TLK, the little boy who was so shy he couldn’t muster any communication if there were two adults in the room instead of just one. I was ready to cry with him. And I was ready to apologize, but he wasn’t ready to look at me yet. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I wrote him a note:


I am sorry.

Ok, that was the first note. The second one was more in my style:

Description: Yellow sticky note with an illustration of a little boy stick figure with three thought bubbles. The first says "I'm a good kid!" The second is a giant picture of the teacher's mean head, and the third says "Ms. Danielle is a big meanie head."

Description: Yellow sticky note with an illustration of a little boy stick figure with three thought bubbles. The first says “I’m a good kid!” The second is a giant picture of the teacher’s mean head, and the third says “Ms. Danielle is a meanie head.”

I am never afraid to show my students the real me. It’s the only full access some of them have to an adult who can model appropriate, well-adjusted (well, mostly well adjusted) reactions to life and strife. They can’t learn to overcome an anxious feeling if no one shows them how to handle their nerves. They don’t know how to ask for a break to go cry if no one tells them it’s okay to cry sometimes.

I’m a real person. And I think I’d rather err on the side of too real than to have too much “decorum.”


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