Don’t take things personally.
This is a saying that I constantly hear growing up, especially from my mom and pastor. But having the ISFJ personality makes it extremely hard for me to learn this lesson. But as a teacher, I must master this if I am to survive in multiple class periods of 30 plus unruly teenagers 5-6 hours day, for 180 days.
When I first started teaching 5 years ago, one of the assistant principals gave me a piece of advice: “Over time, you just learn to grow thicker skin.” And this year, when she checked in with me and asked how I am managing my students, she remarked on how I learned how to “grow thicker skin.”
It’s all about growing a thicker skin.
Or is it?
During one of my summer classes this past week, I was tested, or more specifically, my “thick skin” was tested. To be honest, I didn’t think I would have too much trouble or even deal with rude students in this particular summer class, which was the main reason I agreed to teach this class. In the previous years, this class was mainly for incoming freshman and sophomore students. Usually these students have more or less have matured out of their middle school natures. No one was rude to me or showed me attitude, but then again, this was during online learning mode. So, when this year came around, I was not too worried, even when they told me that they have added 3 incoming 8th graders to my class, because it was a small class of 9 students. But, who am I kidding? Stress comes with the teaching package. Now, I did not let my guard down, yet I should have anticipated a little more trouble from the incoming 8th graders.
On this particular day, I started with the usual routine of a check-in and asking students to put away their phones. Afterwards, we prepared to go on to the next section, the warm-up review activity. All eyes were up on the board except one. One student kept looking down on his phone and focused on texting. He was not even hiding his phone. I walked over and reminded him to put his phone away. At this moment, everyone was very quiet and just watching me and him.
Without looking up, the student said, “Wait,” and kept texting. His tone was urgent and rougher than usual. I reminded him again, and he repeated himself in an even more annoyed tone. His neighbor eyed him curiously.
You might disagree with me, but I definitely felt disrespected here. However, I did not want to blow this up, as I was sensing that this student was not in his usual jokester self. I walked away quietly and drew the class’s attention up to the review activity. That student put away his phone for a few minutes before, “secretly” going on his phone again under the table. I pretended not to see him and just focused on everyone else.
Throughout the rest of the class time, he did not use his phone anymore, and focused on the classwork and activities, except for one or two occasions.
On one hand, this scenario is definitely not the worse I have ever dealt with in my teaching career; on another hand, this still bothered me. At the end of class, I debated whether to talk to this student one on one to discuss his behavior and ask what was going on. I did casually question him about it when he was doing his work, but he brushed it off. I eventually decided to put it off and ask him the next day. When the next day came, he was on his phone again, but he put it away after my usual reminders. Unfortunately, after about fifteen minutes, when I walked over to him to check in on how he was doing after I had given instructions, he looked up at me, annoyed, and muttered, “What now?” I immediately knew I could not delay talking to him to address his rude behavior. I did not pull him aside; instead, I lowered my voice and told him I did not appreciate his attitude, and that I was only trying to help him. He instantly softened up and was apologetic. Throughout the three weeks of this summer English class, I could tell he felt very forced to be here. He was very open with me about not liking English either. After this moment, the tension that I was holding inside me was released, a heavy burden lifted from my shoulders.
As I drove home that day, the song, “Genie in a Bottle” played on the radio. I know, this seems completely random to bring up, but one line particular struck me when I parked my car back home.
“My heart is saying no.”
When I heard this line, my feelings kept taking me back to the tension I experienced regarding the student and the phone issue. I questioned myself, did I even grow a thicker skin after all these years? I have faced worse behavioral issues during the past school year that did not bother me as I am bothered now.
Perhaps my heart is saying no, I did not grow much of a thicker skin. To just throw the phrase “grow a thicker skin” at new teachers seems to be ignoring all the complex emotions that come with teaching. I am not a robot. But if I want to be practical, I have to ignore my emotions and not give in to negativity every single time I feel offended or disrespected.
Feeling intrigued by the song, I decided to look up the full lyrics and discovered that there are actually two versions of “Genie in a Bottle,” with a slight change of one word.
Christina Aguilera’s version has the words, “My body’s sayin’ let’s go…But my heart is sayin’ no” whereas Dove Cameron’s version sings, “My mind is saying let’s go…but my heart is saying no.” On the surface, it seems like a censorship of certain innuendos. Body and mind evokes vastly different reactions and meanings. When my mind is telling me “let’s go,” it’s telling me to thick logically, and when it comes to classroom management, my mind is telling me to grow a thicker skin and not take things personally with my students. But if my body is telling me to “let’s go,” I feel an urgency for survival, that I need to walk away from a tense situation. Do I sound like I am overanalyzing here? Now, I’m not familiar with the show Dove Cameron sings this in, so there may be a completely different meaning to the change in lyrics.
As I connect this particular line from the song to dealing with rudeness from students, I feel a sense of physical, mental, and spiritual urgency converging in my soul, pulling me to examine my heart and dissect a bigger issue beyond feeling “offended” or disrespected as a teacher, beyond my need to maintain order in the classroom. On that second day when I finally talked to this particular student, my daily morning Soulspace meditations reminded me to show mercy and walk in humility. Connecting with this student was important to me, despite only have one week left of this summer class left. It was in this moment that I realized that no matter where I am teaching, or whom I am teaching, or how long I have been teaching, it matters. I cannot ignore my own discomfort. I need to face it head on, in my own quiet way.
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