I find that I have adopted certain catchphrases that I use over and over as a way of giving advice or offering a framework for how to approach a situation, all of which are rooted in my personal experiences in schools. One of those catchphrases is, “children understand limits as love.” I first heard that line from a 5th/6th Grade Humanities teacher named Eliza and it immediately presented itself as a tidy way of summarizing a truth I had experienced right from the start of my teaching career.
The first year I had a classroom to myself, I had a student named Michael. Michael had a swagger about him that drew other kids to him and intimidated me. The school rule was that students received a detention slip for coming late to class three times. When Michael came late to class the third time, I was afraid of a scene, and I didn’t give him a detention slip. He began coming later and later to class, acting more and more bored while he was in the room, and I pretended not to notice. I told myself that it was better to keep the peace, even as I handed out detention slips to other kids for the same infraction (more on my actual opinion of detention another time!).
Some weeks into this fiasco, I overheard Michael saying to another student, “I don’t need to go to English. She doesn’t even care if I come to class.” In a horrified instant, I understood what I had done to him. That day, when he walked into class 20 minutes late, I handed him a detention slip, for the first time looked right at him, and told him that I needed him in the room from the beginning of class every day. He met my gaze, and cocked his head, and smiled, and right then I became a teacher who was on his side.
From Michael, I learned that ignoring challenging behavior is a way of not knowing a child, of not paying attention to who they are and what they might be feeling, of keeping a distance that erodes the possibility of actually teaching that particular child the content you intended each. The subtlety of teaching is that you’re always teaching children something. By privileging my own insecurities, I taught a child that I didn’t care.
In his beautiful little book, The Tone of Teaching, Max van Manen talks about the importance of seeing children: “Being seen is more than being acknowledged. For a child it means experiencing being seen by the teacher. It means being confirmed as existing” (van Manen, 31). When I held Michael to the same standard as the rest of the students, I saw him as a member of the community, and I signaled to him that he was important to me. I know that Michael has traveled through life believing that his high school English teacher cared about him; I wish I had shared with him how much he taught me about what truly matters in teaching.