There was once a girl in my English class who refused to listen to me. I kindly asked her twice to wake up and stop sleeping. I mean, the work we were covering was complex and important for her to learn, and there was no way for her to learn it if she was sleeping in the back of the room.
And so the third time I caught her sleeping, I calculated that it was time to lose my cool a little and make sure she understands how serious I am about staying awake in my class.
And so I yelled at her.
In front of everyone.
She woke up and stayed awake, and I couldn't help but think that I am a highly effective teacher who has classroom management down. Sometimes I have to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and make an example out of students to make a point.
At the end of class, I approached Sara, and asked her why she keeps sleeping my class. "Why aren't you working, Sara?"
She looked at me with tired, wet eyes and quietly told me that her little sister had an asthma attack the evening before, and that her inhaler had run out. And since her dad works third shift and her mom hasn't been around in over a year, she had to call 911 and ride in the ambulance to the hospital with her little sister. Sara told me that her dad picked her up that morning from the hospital and dropped her off at school.
You can imagine how I felt in that moment. This girl who experience hell the night before, who practically raises her little sister and desperately needed rest, was shamed by her teacher in front of everyone. It was a punch to the gut, and all I could say in that moment was that I was sorry. Sorry for what she had to go through and for how I treated her.
This moment early in my career was a catalyst for me. I became aware of the fact that students are not just blank slates when they walk into our rooms, but instead are living stories with very real conflicts. As their teachers, we are being invited into these stories. And while the part we play is often short and temporary, our words and actions can have a monumental impact.
While this story is hard to want to remember and not something I ever want to repeat, it was the start of a relationship with Sara. I started learning more about her life, her family, and her story. I learned she needed more grace from me on those tough mornings when she was flat out tired.
I'm reminded of the great teachers from my own story. Yes they were great at teaching content and skills, and could talk beautifully and design great lessons. But their real greatness started with relationships.
Keep an eye out for the Sara's in your schools this morning. Give grace. Use patience. Learn their stories. And build relationships.