My Empty Threat and Why It Simply Doesn’t Matter

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I made a rookie mistake earlier this week.

My first period class at times poses challenges for me. Like any teacher, I want my students to care, to engage, and see value in the work I ask them to do. The reality we all face as a classroom teacher is that students will have their good days and bad days just like us; they’ll also have a different idea of what is valuable during class time and what I feel is important. I’ve spent years working on my patience as I don’t naturally have much of it, but students need that patience and grace from me.

So what happened?

I lost my patience with what I perceived was the majority of my first period not following through on the task I had given them. I had assigned some reading in the Odyssey, and I’d been working on getting them to understand how to question text using close-ended and open-ended questions. Like many fourteen-year-olds, most of these students are tired in the morning, and aren’t particularly excited about the prospect of reading translated ancient Greek text. After explaining the task and allowing student to move forward on their own, I felt most of them weren’t going to even try. As I scanned the room, I saw a few students looking at the text and even trying to write questions, but I also saw many looking into the ether or even with eyes closed; a few more simply wanted to talk to their neighbor. So–I lost my cool. I threatened them, saying I’d take their questions and discussion the next day for a quiz grade. I was so upset that so many seemed disengaged and disinterested with the task. My stern tone certainly showed this. The students leave and immediately I think to myself, “What an empty threat–what good am I doing threatening to take a quiz grade that I don’t want to take and I know is unnecessary?”

Sometimes, as teachers, I feel we let our hubris get the best of us. Who’s to say those students didn’t work on the task because they still didn’t know how? I didn’t ask them. I assumed they didn’t care about the task. As much as I want to believe that students are willing to advocate for themselves, the reality is that many of them don’t. This has been my personal fault in the past. Nothing stung worse on one of my early survey reviews from students than when some stated I was unapproachable, even scary at times due to my impatience. It was the wake up call I needed though; I really had to look at myself and consider what my students need from me and the assumptions I constantly brought to my classroom.

As you can see, though, from the anecdote above, I still struggle at times with patience and assumptions.

So what happened?

I apologized. The next day I simply said I had overreacted, that I wouldn’t be taking anything for a quiz grade, and I then asked them what they still needed to know to complete the task. The result was a good discussion about how many still didn’t know how to ask the questions I was asking them to, so I modeled more questions and tried to break down the difference and how to make strong connections to the text. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but I hope my students can grow from the experience. They certainly help me grow.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to try and be humble, admit when you’ve gone overboard, and rethink your assumptions. It’s an ongoing process for me, but one I’ve accepted I’ll always need to work on for my students. My threat earlier this week only weakened my relationship with my students, and that relationship will remain far more important going forward than whether or not they read a passage in the Odyssey during the last ten minutes of class.

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