It’s not about me

Good teachers have to understand that it is not about us. One aspect of becoming a mature teacher is shedding more and more of our egos to enter the work more profoundly. Remind yourself to enjoy all of the good moments in your classes.

My mentor from Bank Street, Madeleine Ray, always emphasizes that a good teacher has to understand that “it’s not about me.” When teachers think it’s about them, we take things personally that have nothing to do with us and get caught in useless battles with kids. We miss important opportunities that way.

There are actually stages of the “it’s not about me” realization. It doesn’t happen all at once. I was always fairly good at not taking things personally that students do or say. But recently, in a conversation with Madeleine, I shared something with her about my teaching—I can’t remember now what that was—and she said, “On some level, you probably still think it’s about you.” Madeleine’s words resounded in my head because I really hadn’t thought consciously about that idea for a long time.

As if to illustrate Madeleine’s point, a few days later I had a funny interaction with a student. She had been one of my most enthusiastic students all year long. “I love ELA!” she would often say, skipping into my classroom. And “Hi, Ms. Sacks,” she would chirp to me whenever she saw me in the hallway. She always strived to do her best on her work. Then a month or two ago, something changed as it often does for seventh graders. She became sluggish in class, wouldn’t want to take out her notebook, or start her work. A few times she complained, “Ughhh, this class is borrrring!” I knew she was probably just going through something but I couldn’t help being a little perplexed. I didn’t think the class was boring or that I was teaching much differently than I had all year. I asked her a few times, “What’s wrong?” She would say, rubbing her eyes, “I don’t know. I’m tired” or “Nothing.”

Then one morning last week, she just sprung into class smiling, eyes wide open. “Hi, Ms. Sacks!” she exclaimed. I said, “Hi!” A few minutes later she said it again, incredulously. “Hi, Ms. Sacks! Wow, I feel like haven’t seen you in months!” She looked confused through her grin.

I was laughing inside. I had seen her, of course, every morning—groggy and cranky.

I said, “What’s different? Are you getting more sleep?”

“No,” she said, still smiling. “I don’t know!”

“You just feel happier?”

“Yeah!”

Who knows what made the difference for her. Maybe she just finished a growth spurt, and her mind and emotions finally had a chance to catch up to her body. Maybe the boy she liked likes her back. Maybe a family member came home after a long time away. Maybe it’s just random. I’m pretty sure though, the whole thing had little or nothing to do with me.

It would have been a shame to take this child’s prolonged negative mood personally and get into battles that would cause her more strife than she was already experiencing. It reminded me what a big part of working with adolescents our patience and understanding is. We have to be the grown-ups, the stable ones, because they are going through so much so quickly.

One aspect of becoming a mature teacher is shedding more and more of our egos to enter the work more profoundly. It takes time, I think. Around the new year, I wrote a post about wanting to put more heart into my teaching—basically to remind myself to enjoy all of the good moments in my classes. These two thoughts seem to be related. I like the idea that higher levels of “it’s not about me” await my discovery. It makes the image of being an experienced, eventually master, teacher a bit more clear.

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