Role Modeling

One of my most frequently used activities while working with college students (borrowed from Beverly Tatum) asks students to spend sixty seconds finishing the lead-in “I Am…”. Tatum designed the activity to highlight the invisibility of privileged identities (few students write “I am white”, but many write “I am black/latino/etc.”), but my favorite use is to help students consider what qualities they would like to model for the younger kids they mentored. Students analyze their list to see which they would like to share with their mentees and then develop actionable steps they could take to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of role modeling lately, spurred by both my volleyball team and my students at school. Through these roles I can easily see how powerful modeling can be for children, whether intentional or not.

My spring volleyball team (the Pink Panthers) is full of focused, talented young women. They are quite good for their level, but the level doesn’t challenge them much. They win the majority of their points on serves, and doing more than returning a ball directly back over the net isn’t on our radar. Many of the core volleyball skills, like moving to the ball, getting set for passes, and sending the ball to teammates are rarely tested during a game. It is difficult to even explain these concepts as many of my girls have never seen high-level volleyball. So I model them instead. There’s rarely a day when my co-coach and I don’t leave the gym sweatier than the girls; we run laps with them, play scrimmages with them, and work hard to send them excellent passes and serves during drills. Our energy and drive to get to the ball or jog from one end of the court to the other during a drill encourages the Panthers to do the same. And it pays off each game as they continue to handily beat their opponents, and become better volleyball players to boot.

But not all modeling is so positive. The most glaring example comes from a third-grade parent on a recent field trip. Hearing the children’s desire to experience an earthquake simulator, this mom glanced around, unhooked the canvas barrier to the exhibit, and led eight kiddos into an obviously closed exhibit. Safety concerns aside, I was aghast at the example she set for these youngsters about entitlement and following rules. While I like to think I would never do something quite as bold, I’ve been struggling with the potential impacts of what I’m modeling when I interact with my class each day.

Reading How to Stop Yelling at Your Students reminded me of my disdain for the “discipline” my school expects me to impose upon my students. I rarely actually yell (aside from encouragement to the Pink Panthers in their noisy gym) but I imagine my frustration-laced scolding must feel like yelling to most of my third graders, just as it often does to me. I strive to contain my frustration, often taking several moments of silence before responding to a triggering situation, but the model of high expectation, low reward, low punishment schooling doesn’t leave many options for instructors. My school has few-to-no consequences for misbehavior — but what’s worse, there aren’t sufficient opportunities for students to truly engage in their work. Given that I discourage inappropriate outbursts from my students, I worry that my own spates of discipline send mixed messages.

Patience Please

Can I crawl under my desk? Can I storm out and tell the office staff that I don’t want to be the substitute teacher any more? Can I just break down and scream? Or can I calmly explain to my students that their behavior makes me question whether I can be a teacher?

I rapidly assessed each of these options as I considered how to respond to five students shouting at me for attention. Though my consciousness desperately sought a solution, none of these seemed like they would end well. So I pressed on as though nothing had happened, trying my best to hide my inner trauma.

Quitting is rarely an option that comes to mind when I’m frustrated, but it was high on my list as I battled through another solo-teaching day. I finally understood so many of the articles about the first year of teaching. It is hard. With teacher salaries so low, I’m surprised anyone stays past their first challenging group of students.

Initially, I tried to pin my struggle on tiredness from a long week without enough sleep. Certainly this was a factor, but there was something deeper that I imagine only teachers and parents can truly empathize with. It is exhausting to constantly put others needs before your own, particularly when their needs sound a lot more like wants — and you just want to eat the only food you’re going to see for eight hours. It is nearly impossible to care for the hundredth time about one person’s interpretation of a comment that may or may not have been intended to hurt their feelings. It is emotionally draining to repeatedly ask students to implement basic manners, and rather than correct their behavior they argue or negotiate with you instead. Add each student asking you questions that doubt whether you know what you’re doing or if you have their best interest at heart, and it’s surprising that few teachers ever throw things in their classrooms. Nowhere have I seen the limits of patience more tested than as a teacher.

And yet at the end of the day, even the really terrible ones, as we sigh and go home, we say, “they are good kids, they really are,” and we return the next morning. We see those children, all of them, as humans with the capacity for good. But there is no curriculum for guiding them to achieve their potential and to deal with their unique challenges, leaving teachers to simply do their best they can, grasping for any patience they can find.