FINALLY we made it to winter break!
It's December 2019. Ten years ago I started high school as a freshmen at Lower Merion. Today, I'm half way through my second year of teaching biochemistry at SLA. The students and I are more than ready for the long winter break ahead....
So in celebration of making it to winter break.....we went....CHEMISTRY CAROLING
Corny? Yes. Worth it? Yes
If I can convince tenth graders to sing Chemistry Christmas songs and throw candy at their peers....surely I can convince them to do/learn anything....right? At least that's what I'm hoping for in 2020, a new decade and a new year to become better at my job.
First year me was barely getting by. Second year me convinced students to sing. Third year me....we'll see what happens I guess.
Here's to a new year full of corny Chemistry songs and other merriment. Happy Winter Break everybody, we made it!!
This week, a student gave me permission to take a sick day
"Ms. Tsai....you never miss a day do you?", a student asks me. He sounds impressed with a twinge of that I was hoping we would have a sub today feeling.
My immediate reaction is panic This student hates my class. I'm doing a bad job. What do I say??
I play it off in the only way I know how in moments of discomfort like this....blame it on my race?
"Oh yeah you know...when you had Asian parents like me, you could never miss school! Unless you were dead...which I'm not"
The students laugh. I'm able to escape that moment of discomfort with humor and by placing the blame (unfairly) on my parents and my race (neither of which are the actual reason why I resist staying home from school).
But wait...what just happened here? A student put me on the spot. Why did I react by taking the attention off of me....by running away from the spotlight?
As a teacher, uncomfortable moments like this happen all the time. Why? Because teenagers (for better and for worse) have no problems putting the teacher on the spot. Unless they're being disrespectful (in which case, I'll address it), most of the time they're generally curious. And they ask because they're not afraid to ask. I don't get this kind of curious interrogation from adults. I get it from kids. Kids who aren't afraid to ask "why" or "why are you like this" or "why do you do it this way?"
Teaching is relational work. Uncomfortable moments when students question me, my beliefs, or my actions are opportunities to practice self-awareness with myself and model self-awareness with students. In other words, ask myself 1) What objectively just happened 2) How did I respond? 3) Why did I respond that way? 4) How can I use this moment to improve my teaching?
What objectively just happened?
How did I respond?
Why did I respond this way?
How can I use this moment to improve my teaching?
Thank goodness for this student. The sick day I ended up taking felt amazing.
Teachers spend a lot of time trying to figure out why our students act the way they are. We're like detectives trying to figure out teenage behavior.
But...teachers don't spend enough time examining why we act the way we do.
So often we see students caught in self-destructive behaviors (avoiding homework, low self-esteem, getting distracted, feeling afraid....) and we think How do you NOT realize how this is hurting you??? Well, the truth is....the students don't realize how their behaviors are hurting them because we don't teach them to be self-aware. To be vulnerable enough with themselves to actually dig in and ask....why am I acting the way I am and how can I improve?
This week I'm wondering, if teachers can model or even teach the skills of self-awareness to their students.... what good could come out of doing just that? When it comes to self-destructive behaviors, I could say "study harder" a million times and the students won't change their behavior. Maybe, cultivating self-awareness in myself and in my students is the first step towards empowering students to feel motivated to change.
So.....how can we get students to practice identifying, questioning, and understanding their behaviors in order to change them?
Yep.....it really happened. A silent but deadly one too.....
Before I get to that story, let me tell you another story first.
We live in a perfectionist culture, and it's a toxic one for sure. Do amazing at work AND have a social life AND get enough sleep. Get promoted and do it quickly. Make more money than your peers, land that lucrative job otherwise you're not good enough. Get straight A's otherwise you're not trying hard enough. Feel great every single day, if you feel down just get back up. These messages of perfectionism...we're inundated by them through social media and societal expectations. Because as a society, we're not talking about the hard stuff. We're not talking about what happens when you're not perfect
I want to talk about the hard stuff...the hard consequences of our perfectionist culture. And farting in front of my students isn't even the hardest moment I can think of. The truth is, cultures that buy into perfectionism strengthen and encourage feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
Brene Brown (everybody, especially those in helping professions, should check her out!) taught me three things. There's a difference between shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
Everybody struggles with shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Adolescents have an especially hard time dealing with these three emotions.
Here's how I've come to understand shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
Level 1: Embarrassment
Alright, you've read this far, you get to hear the story
Farting on a student was embarrassing to say the least. "Oh my GOD Ms. TSAI my NOSTRILS hurt!" screamed this one kid super loudly. Immediately my body shoots into panic mode. I blame it on another kid, they don't believe me. I play it off "haha yeah I'm allowed to be human TOO!" and laugh with the kids. After a few seconds, the feeling of heat and embarrassment wears off (and the smell....). The next day, the kid walks into class like nothing happened. We're cool again, he respects me just the same. Life moves on as normal, and now we have this funny story to talk about again and again (ugh)
Embarrassment is temporary and often humorous. Embarrassment is an uncomfortable but not destructive emotion.
Level 2: Guilt
Guilt is feeling bad for doing something that's against your values, but in a way that's separate from how you value/view yourself as a person. Guilt is being late to class as the teacher, and apologizing and explaining to the students what happened (I'm human too, SEPTA is still the worst, even to adults). Guilt is not grading a test quickly enough and feeling like I'm not a good role model for the students, but being honest about the situation to the students. Guilt is hiding in my classroom when I know I should be out collaborating with my colleagues, but I know I need to recharge or else I will burn out, and I can find other ways of collaborating.
Guilt is long-lasting, but productive. I know I can improve in areas where I feel guilty, and guilt helps me recognize where I need to change. Guilt is a motivating emotion.
Level 3: Shame
Shame on the other hand is a totally different world. Shame is the word to describe how I felt as a first year teacher. Feelings of "I'm not good enough" or "I'm not cut out for this job" or "I'm just not as good as my peers". Feeling trapped by shame is way worse than farting on a student, because shame lasts over the span of months, sometimes even years (whereas embarrassment quickly dissipates with humor). Shame can brainwash you and convince you that you're not worthy. Shame is incredibly sneaky....it operates when I don't even realize it's there. Shame has the power to make me feel powerless. I'm only starting to understand how shame works in my mind and body. I'd choose embarrassment over shame any day, but we don't always get to make that choice.
Shame is a destructive emotion. And too often....schools use shame to control teachers and students. It's not OK and we need to talk about it.
To be continued.....