I had never planned on teaching kids. It never really appealed to me. But somehow, it felt right, even though the job I was offered was in a seriously scary neighborhood in Chicago. The school was 'alternative' which means all the students had either dropped out or had been kicked out of their 'regular' high school.
I'm not sure why I thought I was equipped for this job, since grad school never dealt with any practical issues like classroom management. Still, I accepted the job.
And my students took bets on how long I would last.
I struggled the first semester. I was too lax and then I overcompensated and got unreasonably strict and the students knew they had the upper hand. After much advice from my principal and a lot of trial and error, I began to set boundaries and consequences without being a dictator. I had to find a style that I felt comfortable with. Things eventually got better.
It was while teaching at this school that I learned perhaps the greatest lesson on respect.
I had a student named Ryan who was quite loud. She loved to talk and saw nothing wrong with completely disrupting my class. She had a bit of a cocky attitude and didn't much appreciate being told to do, which was fairly common among my students.
One day in class, Ryan was being especially talkative. As she laughed and chatted with her neighbor, I stewed, but tried to calmly redirect Ryan. My attempts proved to to be unsuccessful. Ryan paid me absolutely no attention, until I snapped. Yeah, I totally and completely snapped at the girl in front of all her friends, and I was not particularly professional about it, either.
Knowing that the situation had gotten out of control, I asked Ryan to step outside the class which only served to anger her further. Usually, talking to a kid outside class meant they were in trouble and would possibly be sent to the Dean.
Out in the hall, she slouched against the wall glaring at the floor. She would not look at me and she was seething.
That's when I made a choice that changed my relationship with Ryan forever.
I apologized to her.
I told Ryan that I was wrong for snapping like I did in front of everyone and I was sorry. I explained that I was frustrated but that this did not excuse my behavior, and I was sincere.
I then explained that I needed her to start listening to me in class, to stop talking so much, to help me teach my class.
And you know what Ryan did?
After she recovered from her shock, she apologized too. She admitted that she was wrong to talk so much and be so disrespectful and she promised me she would try to be quieter in class.
And that is exactly what she did. I had Ryan in several classes over the next few years and she was totally respectful to me. She was still the class clown and very expressive--traits which we were able to put to good use in my drama classes--but usually all I had to do was give her a look and she would nod her head and quiet down. In fact, often when students had gotten out of control and I was trying to talk, Ryan would use her large voice to good effect, gaining everyone's attention and telling them to, "Shut the &%ll up!"
I didn't know it at the time, but when I apologized to Ryan, I had earned her loyalty, her trust and her respect.
I had often been taught by example that apologizing or admitting your mistakes is a sign of weakness. In all of my 30+ years, my father has never, ever admitted he was wrong about anything, even insignificant things like accusing the wrong kid of leaving a towel on the floor. And he never apologized when he hurt anyone's feelings. I am not sure why, but I always got the impression that he saw it as a sign of weakness. He was pretty big on claiming being emotional was tantamount to being a big, fat wuss.
And he's not the only one, either. There were many colleagues of mine in that high school who would have rather had their toenails removed with pliers than to ever apologize to a student, even when they were clearly wrong. They thought that admitting their mistakes would somehow weaken their standing and their control over the class. I think they even may have thought it would make the kids disrespect them. And I think a lot of people feel that way.
But I disagree. I think to get respect, you have to be respectful of others. And I believe apologizing when you have hurt others is a way of showing them respect.
I didn't apologize to manipulate Ryan. I didn't do it to diffuse the situation or to gain Ryan's respect, but that is exactly what occurred.
What I realized is that admitting I am wrong does not mean I am weak. In fact, maybe, just maybe, it's a sign of strength and courage, which garners others' respect.
Now, if only I could remember this in my marriage, I know Bil would sure appreciate it!
For more posts on RESPECT, check out the Spin Cycle.