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We did a professional development as a whole staff recently where we were asked to name, in a sentence, what sparks our passion as people. Not as teachers, but as people. And found myself saying immediately, without thought or preparation:
“If ‘excellent’ is the highest pinnacle, like the North Star, or the top of a mountain, then I am determined to find a way to get there with my students without shame. I will not hold any of their personal attributes or actions against their inherent value, or allow that to colour their pathway to achieving excellence. But I WANT excellence. That’s unmistakable. It’s in the blood. I just think that you can do it joyfully, with a love of learning the whole way. It can be honest, gritty, no-frills, and monotonous, but it will not cut or hurt them personally.”
So my spark of passion in one sentence is this:
I want to bring the students under my direction to their best selves in an envelope of joy and worthiness.
I’m an example in my words, in how I am as a person, in how I recover, in how I deal with stress, in the challenges I choose to accept, in how I love and care for myself and the people important to me, and even in how I interact with the people I do not like or respect.
You can get to “excellent” by squeezing it out of a kid, by threatening them, by coercing them, by holding academic barriers over them, by comparing them to others, by pitting them against your own self-worth, by unwittingly emotionally cornering them into doing what you want. You know what? It all produces the same result of excellent. How twisted is that?! I hate that. But there it is. I will actually get you the result that you want. I’ve seen it happen.
But THAT version of excellent, forged from a foundation of shame – and that IS what it all is, shame packaged in various forms – doesn’t eff-ing fly. It doesn’t stick, it’s not life-long. And students will fight it the way their bodies fight disease; instinctively.
And why would you want to connect that with excellence and their self-worth?
Teachers, check your words + intent carefully. I have to on a daily basis.
And find another way.
I will find the only other way to “excellent” that doesn’t involve shame, even if I have to find the goddamn scenic route that takes twice as long.
Because that’s my spark.
I am on a bit of a Brené Brown bender and re-reading her first book, I Thought It Was Just Me. You can really hear her voice develop over the course of her four books, and I am astounded at how her writing, her research, and she herself, have grown so amazingly and astonishingly in clarity and authenticity of voice. There’s an “authentic sass” about her, with total and ballsy humour, which I LOOOOOVE!
For me, this first book is a personal favourite. I’ll read anything Brené Brown writes, including shopping lists on napkins, because it’s all so good. This book is the most “researchy”, but I also find it the most nerve-wrackingly, exquisitely confronting and reassuring to read.
The stories resonate with me as a teacher; personally and for my students. Each time I feel myself “crusting over” from the events of life, reading or listening to her work opens the doors again, and makes me think. Also, when I re-read such powerful work, even after a few months of living + doing me, the words hit me so differently. Sometimes I read paragraphs that I’ve read three or four times before, and they didn’t have weight until now. And other times, there are things that are circled and underlined that I read again and wonder how they cut so deeply and resonated so much. I take comfort that I must have learned some sort of important lesson from these words.
Today, I re-read the opening credits, and they left me breathless. The moment in class which has chartered the course of Brené’s life work:
One day during a staff meeting, the clinical director, who oversees the therapeutic work done with the children, spoke to us about helping the kids make better choices. He said, “I know you want to help these kids, but you must understand this: You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviours.”
He went on to explain that, regardless of our intentions, we can’t force people to make positive changes by putting them down, threatening them with rejection, humiliating them in front of others or belittling them. From the moment the words were spoken, I was absolutely overwhelmed by this idea.”
So am I.
As a teacher, you go into each day trying to do all you can to lift those students up. But every now and then, you have a day where you wonder if you’ve done enough. If you’ve made the right call, if you’ve hit the balance between perception, compassion, and hard-arse that affects them.
I’m not talking about beating the life out of them, as effective as that might be for immediate results. I’m talking about deeply affecting young people and modelling the behaviours I live my life by.
The compass I followed today was that you cannot shame someone into changing their actions and behaviours. Shame is an unbelievably effective way of getting the results you want, as a teacher. But is it a lifelong and willingly learned lesson? No. I really don’t think so.
Either way, that’s where my compass led me today.
I hope with all my heart that I’ve made the right call.