Morning meeting had just started. Mindfulness was over, and my students and I were seated in a circle, knees touching, eyes gazing towards the center. Just minutes before, the room was chaotic, students walking all about, haphazardly transitioning to morning meeting. It was a moment that called for a teacher intervention, and by intervention, I mean an energetic and emphatic herding of my little ones over to the carpet.
The class eventually quieted down; the energy in the room reduced to a simmer. Mouths were releasing their last utterances, and just as most children were silent, I heard one student’s voice bubble up above the rest.
“Teachers are so bossy,” he said, exasperatedly looking down at the floor.
Other students looked at him, then at me, wondering if I’d heard it, and if I did, what I’d say.
“Wow,” I replied, “I am so glad you felt like you could share that this morning.”
Okay, so in reality, I wasn’t entirely glad the child had shared it. In fact, I thought the way he said it was kind of rude, and it seemed as though he said it so I wouldn’t hear it. But instead of letting feelings of resentment and anger take over, I gave myself a second to think. The easy choice would have been to tell him what he said was disrespectful, effectively silencing his voice. Instead, I wanted to validate the feeling, let him know I heard him, and turn it into a teachable moemnt. In my opinion, our students’ feedback is critical in any learning environment. While perhaps I knew that sometimes it was my job to be bossy, he didn’t, and in that moment, my job was to validate his feelings and get to the bottom of the real issue here. Because the real issue was not that he felt bossed around: the real issue here was a lack of independence and a lack of student empowerment.
“Why do you feel that way?” I continued the conversation. “Wait, no, why don’t you all turn and talk to a buddy. Do you agree or disagree? Make sure to tell why.”
My students turned, some of them saying very loudly that “TEACHERS ARE NOT BOSSY,” eyeing me for my reaction in their periphery. It was clear to me that some of them felt like, perhaps, they had to say I wasn’t bossy. Luckily enough, we have many a child not yet afraid of authority, so I capitalized on their perspectives. They began to list off ways or times that they noticed the teachers being “bossy,” whether it was during writing workshop, morning meeting, or lunchtime. One of them went so far to say that we are always saying “do this” and “do that,” even when they don’t want to.
Thought eventually began to die down, and the constructive criticism of my bossiness ebbed. I began talking again.
“Well, let me tell you a secret,” I replied, in so many words, “Jen, Elizabeth, and I really don’t like it when we have to be bossy. But sometimes we feel like we have to.”
I began drawing a multi-flow map on the board, placing the students’ original complaint at the center: that teachers are bossy, which was, in their angst, eventually extrapolated to parents, as well.
Phew. At least it wasn’t just me.
I asked them why I thought I felt like I needed to be bossy at those moments, and on the left-hand side of the bossy statement, I listed what we proposed to be, the causes of my bossiness. I gestured towards the map, using images to depict what it looked and felt like to me when I needed to be bossy.
“You’re exactly right. When you all are talking at the same time, when you don’t listen while I’m talking (just like I listen to you when you’re talking), or when you’re unsafe, it makes me feel yellow,” I said, using our peace talk language, “and it makes me feel like I have to be bossy so that everyone stays safe and so we can get where we need to be.”
The attitude in the room seemed to soften, and I felt the attention of the kids piercing into me. It seemed as though they were actually getting it–that they actually, dare I say, cared.
“So, it seems like we all want the same thing: I don’t want to be bossy, and you don’t want me to be bossy. Right?”
They nodded in response, or gave me the “quiet connection” sign to show their approval of my inference.
“We want you to be independent, and if you can be independent and make choices for yourselves, we won’t have to make those choices for you.”
We finished the discussion, and sent them off to their first expert-hour class of the day. I took the student off to the side–the one who initially brought up my supposed bossiness.
“I’m really glad you shared what you did today, and that you did so in such a respectful way. You didn’t yell or scream. Instead, you said what you were feeling, and it made me feel like I really wanted to help you.”
“Yea, I was just feeling kind of yellow,” he replied, with a half-smile creeping across his face.
“Well, I’m glad we talked about it and learned something new this morning.”
This moment, and many others like it, reminded me of a simple lesson, one that can guide us in our daily charge to not only empower, but to also see and hear our students on a human-to-human level.
When they act out–or even just speak out–it’s because they’re trying to rectify a misunderstanding or work through an internal conflict. Even more so, kids want to be good, they want to be in control of their own decision-making, and they want to show that they are able to build trusting relationships where they can work on their own productively. But most of all, they just want to feel heard, seen, and understood for the things that matter to them.
My student hugged me–I swear, unsolicited–and trotted along his merry way to his first class for the day. I happily trotted along to my meeting, feeling a sense of accomplishment and contentment that not only had I been able to impart an important social-emotional lesson on my students, but that they felt heard.