Thursday, March 11, 2010

Professionalism be Damned

Today I had one student burst into tears because she had an agonizing stomach ache, one student who had to go to the nurse's office because he claimed that his right eye was suddenly going blind, and one student who threw a temper tantrum and kicked her science fair project across the floor. It turned out that the stomach ache-student, Rose, was having severe menstrual cramps, so she went home. The second student, good ole' Will (who thinks cantaloupes roam the wild plains of Africa) had a speck stuck in his eye. This was resolved shortly removing the speck from his eye (although I'm sure the nurse felt guilty, because you really aren't supposed to remove the speck from your brother's eye until you remove the log from your own). The third student, Stephi, threw a temper tantrum because she was having a bad day, taking one down, and singing a sad song just to turn it around...wait a sec...there is a very tiny, minute possibility that some of that might have been song lyrics.

So, let's go back to Stephi (and I'll try to keep the rest of this original thoughts). She showed up to class late today, As she came in, her arms were completely loaded down with her ginormous science fair project, and so she used her foot to kick open the door. As she kicked it open, she made this frustrated growling type sound as if she was some kind of amazon woman, and in spite of myself I couldn't resist telling her, "Good job Stephi. You show that door who's boss." The class chuckled, but Stephi stormed to her desk and threw her project on the floor. Then she shouted, "I hate this project!" and proceeded to kick it. The class, myself included, was shocked by this outburst, so I calmly told her to step outside. I told her she wasn't in any trouble, but she needed to calm down.

Now, let me backtrack for a sec and give some quick background about Stephi. Her mom died when she was five years old, and she lives with her dad and her older brother. I met her dad at a parent-teacher conference last month, and he is your typical hard-working, down-to-earth, blue collar sort of guy. He honestly seems like a wholesome person, although I know he is a heavy smoker (or someone in that household is) because Stephi comes to school every morning reeking of cigarettes. Stephi's dad is not a soft person and does not believe in coddling his children. From his perspective, the death of Stephi's mom (and his wife) was a tragic part of their past, but should no longer be used as justification for present behavior. I actually find Stephi's dad to be incredibly likable. You can just tell he's a survivor, and he doesn't attempt to hide his imperfections.

The problem, however, is Stephi's dad is busy providing for his family's basic needs; he simply doesn't have the patience, or the personality, to put up with "girly" stuff. So with an un-mushy dad and an older brother who tends to torment her, Stephi is basically treading water in a sea of testosterone with very little warmth or compassion in her household. This effect is even more amplified by the fact that Stephi is now a hormonal pre-teen. I know this theory sounds cliche, but I often wonder if Stephi's temper tantrums are desperate attempts to get attention, because attention is the closest thing she has to feeling affection from her dad. I also occasionally feel heart-broken that Stephi never feels the loving warmth of a mother's arms wrapped around her, holding her close, stroking her hair, and telling her everything's going to be alright.

So back to the present. I went outside to privately talk to Stephi and find out what was wrong. In between sobs, she told me that her dad had been saying for two weeks that he would buy her glue for her science fair project. As of last night, she still didn't have the glue; so this morning her dad woke her up earlier than normal and told her she was going to have to tape the whole thing together. She was incredibly upset, and to make matters worse, the whole process of taping everything resulted in her being late for class.

At this point, I tried to talk with Stephi in a calm, professional matter. I told her that I could see why she was upset, and I agree that she had a right to feel irritated. But I also told her that her outburst in the classroom did not match up with what prompted it; in other words, she had overreacted. I told her to try to view herself as a heroine in her own movie or book. I asked her, "If everything is going wrong for the heroine in your favorite story, don't you want her to approach all of these problems with an air of humor? Don't you want to see her conquer these obstacles with a light heart, and see her persevere despite her circumstances? I'm sure you don't want to see her throw a temper tantrum and embarrass herself in front of her peers." At this point, I was feeling proud of myself for exercising the perfect combination of good advice and professional detachment.

But not so fast. After lecturing Stephi in my calm, reasonable, and relatively compassionate tone, something suddenly struck a chord in my heart. She just looked so tiny, and wracked with grief, and hopeless. I suddenly realized that whatever she was crying about cut a lot deeper than a mere science project gone awry. Before I could stop myself, I put my arms around her as she cried. She cried and cried. I just held her.

Sometimes a student needs some good advice. Sometimes they need a good lecture. Sometimes they need a good scolding. But sometimes, they just need to feel loved and cared about.

Sometimes, as teachers, we need to just screw professionalism.


  1. This is so touching. What a great story. This brought tears to my eyes. It really demonstrates how your job involves SO much more than teaching.

  2. I completely agree. The teachers that stand out the most in my mind as an adult are the ones that weren't all stiff and professional in the classroom. Sure, what you teach is important, but twenty years from now these kids are going to remember the kind of person you were, not necessarily what you taught.


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