Sometimes, a new student might come into your classroom. This new student might be stressed out. He might live his whole life under an atmosphere of uncertainty, threat, and criticism. The voices in his head say, “You are bad, you are bad, you are bad.” So then he joins your class, and the only strategy he has for interacting with his classmates and his new teacher is to tell them, “You are bad, you are bad, you are bad.” With very naughty, very hurtful words and violent physical behavior.
But you, dear teacher, you are human. You are a person who gets attached, who cares, who feels. So your reaction, inside your head, is: “You are new. You can’t come into my school family and be mean to people I care about.”
On Wednesday night, after almost two weeks with this one, you find yourself at orchestra rehearsal. Staring up at the stained glass windows, counting through 48 measures of rest and singing along with, “Come awake, come awake, come and rise up from the grave.” And you feel asleep and numb and buried yourself. This time that usually empties you all out and leaves you at peace and ready for tomorrow, it’s not working its magic. And you just want a different job, one where small humans won’t be mean to other small humans. And you just don’t know how much longer you can live at this breakneck pace and this heartbreaking intensity.
Then on Thursday, you find this new one on the top of the slide, teary and holding tight to his anger. And he tells you why he’s mad. He TELLS you, with words. Sentences, in fact. He doesn’t try and scratch at you, he doesn’t run away from you. And somehow, without even trying, you look up at him and empathetic words come out of your mouth: “Oh, that stinks. I wouldn’t like that if someone did that to me, either. It’s hard to feel so mad, isn’t it? I’m sorry that happened.” And you reach up and hold onto his ankle for a minute, and he doesn’t resist. He sits, he cries a little, and then you move on to the next playground problem.
I “came home to myself” yet again this week. It is my belief that academics follow attachment in first grade. You may have heard of attachment parenting? I might practice “attachment classroom management,” if there were such a thing. Except when things get tough, it’s easy to bury myself in academics to the exclusion of attachment. “I can get through these last two months of school, just focus on the data and the lesson plans and power through, setting aside the feelings — mine, and theirs.”
But two true things can’t be set aside so easily. One, I believe love, compassion, and generosity of spirit are greater than all else. I believe that practicing kindness is the right thing to do. I believe in the value of putting a relationship above the desire to be right or be successful. I could always, always improve at putting this belief into action. But in a others-centered, following-Jesus way, attachment is very important in my classroom.
Two, in my experience, kids work much harder and accomplish much more when they feel attached to their teacher and their classmates, when they feel loved, and when they feel like things are fun. So, in a manipulative, success-seeking way, attachment is very important in my classroom.
Year after year, I am taught yet again that I can feel a connection with every single child who crosses the threshold of my doorway. Every. Single. One.
I often say that what little I do know about commitment and love, I learned from having siblings. We fought, we got mad, we kicked and yelled…and the next day, we were still there together. In fact, in the midst of a fight, I knew that when the fight was over we would be back to having fun. The staying power, the knowing that we would all still be there when the fight was over, it minimized a fight’s ability to damage the relationship. (I know this is not everyone’s experience, and I know how lucky I am to have the siblings I have.)
My next lesson about power and love, I am learning from having students. I can’t control the other person in the relationship — not their attitude, not their actions, not their feelings. I can only control myself. But letting go of trying to control the other person and taking full responsibility for myself can have great power to make the relationship happier. When I take responsibility for my emotions — not that I can control them, but that I am responsible for deciding how to respond to them — and when I find empathetic things to say, when I attribute positive intent, when I look for ways to make “I love you rituals” in our day… I am happier in my relationship with my students. And I am modeling skills that will help them be happier in their relationships with me and each other.
I once read something where a wife said, “I have a fantastic marriage. I can’t speak for my husband; you’d have to ask him how his marriage is.” I love the lesson here, and I love it for all relationships. It’s not simple, and it’s not easy, to live in community with all these other humans we encounter. But at this moment, I have a fantastic relationship with all 27 of my students. I can’t speak for them; you’d have to ask them how their relationship with their teacher is!