A middle schooler ran away from class on Tuesday. He wrote on the wall with a pencil. I got angry and told him to “get out” of the classroom.
In fact, he left the building entirely.
I was shocked. And even angrier than I already had been.
How dare he leave! How dare he write on the wall of my classroom and then just leave! I had intended to talk with him outside, and now he was just gone? I was told he had escaped to the boys’ bathroom, but by the time I sent an emissary to get him, he had slipped away to an unknown location.
This student goes by “Joker” in English class. He is one of those tough guy students who pretends to sleep while we play games and who doesn’t like to raise his voice above a low rumble. He often tests the limits of what he can get away with.
But as I reflected on our brief interaction––my immediate blow-up, my refusal to accept his explanation, the look of betrayal in his eyes––I began to regret my harsh tone. I began to wonder if other authority figures had dismissed him, treated him harshly, if my rash reaction had been part of a bigger pattern in his life.
Was he okay? Had I permanently damaged him? Was this how parents felt when their children ran away?
At the end of class, I packed up his stuff and left it with the receptionist. He still hadn’t returned.
Then I heard his voice rumbling down the hallway, and I ran to catch him. The receptionist was in the midst of interrogating him in Korean, asking him if he had anything to say for himself. I quickly waved him over to me. “Let’s talk,” I said, leading him into an empty classroom.
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Why..? Is everything okay?”
Authority and Kindness
As a teacher, it’s always a challenge balancing strength and kindness. It’s important to have confidence as the authority figure in the classroom, but it’s also important to remember and acknowledge that I am a fallible human being, too. I didn’t want to make him think doing whatever he wanted was okay, or that storming off was an effective way to manipulate a teacher, but I also knew that I had been too harsh. I had been angry, even before he had done what he had.
So I did one of the hardest things for me to do as a teacher: I apologized.
Apologizing to students is always painful to my pride. I don’t want to rehash my mistakes, and I especially don’t want to admit my mistakes to a kid. But, I’ve come to realize that my apologies to students are some of the most powerful interactions I have with them.
The students always look uncomfortable, confused. They don’t seem to understand my words. They certainly don’t know how to receive them. And the thought hits me: I don’t think an adult has ever apologized to them before. I am modeling something to them that no one else may ever show them.
I was a little nervous this kid was going to turn this apology against me. When you make yourself vulnerable, there is always a chance someone could use it against you. And he is a middle school boy who seems like a natural troublemaker. But I had to be honest.
“I’m sorry I was harsh,” I told him. “I was in a bad mood.”
He nodded, an expression on his face I couldn’t read.
“But you can’t write on the wall. You know that, right?”
He looked me in the eye and nodded, and I knew it had been important for me to say that, too.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” I patted him lightly on the shoulder, and he nodded. “Goodbye, Teacher.”
Beyond the Facade
I still don’t know this kid very well.
I haven’t figured him out yet. He does work hard during class, most of the time, but he also retreats inside himself quite often. Usually I leave work at work, but our interaction stayed with me that night. I realized I want to make a greater effort to not nag or snap at my students. I wanted to do a better job controlling my tone of voice.
And most of all, I didn’t want to fall for tough guy acts or whatever other facades my students put up. Inside every tough exterior is a vulnerable heart, longing for love and affirmation. That heart is what I want to see and speak to as a teacher, not the facades.