Getting Out of My Own Way

Reading a book

Some moments just stick with you–the flash of insight that marks a big change. A pivotal moment.

I am teaching Level 2 reading, and have passed out an interesting article from the West Coast Reader. Like many mornings, like many teachers, I start by introducing some words from the story that I think people may have trouble with. I write one of the words on the board, and as a group we read it, talk about its meaning, its pronunciation, its relationship to other words we know–you know the drill.

As I turn from writing the next word on the board, my eye falls on Bernice. She is not paying attention. I’m irritated. She of all people needs this work. When we get to the story she will stumble on these exact words and hold us up. Did I not do this prep precisely with Bernice in mind?

Underneath the irritation I am hurt. That may be too strong a word, but that’s the feeling. Bernice is not showing respect for the work I put into preparing this lesson, the knowledge I bring to teaching reading, or the experience I have with students “exactly like her.”

My fingers tighten around the chalk. The muscles in my arms tense, ready to throw it. (Now where did I learn that teacher behaviour?)

Voices of teachers past rise in my throat. Sarcastic: “Well, class, we’ll just wait until Bernice joins us, then we can go on.” Serious: “Bernice, pay attention here. This is important.” Sensitive: “Bernice, would you read this next one for us?”

All this flashes through me in the instant I turn from the board. I take a closer look at Bernice. What is she doing? While I am trying to teach her to read, Bernice is…reading!

I had to laugh. I laughed at the incongruity of it all. I laughed at myself.

If Bernice had been texting a friend or cleaning her nails or doing her math homework, I would never have noticed that my reaction to her inattention was all about me, my work, my feelings. But she was reading, I had to laugh, and the laughter cleared my hurt and irritation.

I relaxed and was able to see what was in front of me: Maybe my strategy of introducing new words had got too predictable. Maybe Bernice was a better reader than I thought. Probably she needed to learn and practice some student skills around classroom behaviour. For sure she needed a lesson in how to manage her teacher better. Food for thought, and enough questions to keep me from being bored!

4 thoughts on “Getting Out of My Own Way

  1. So I was wondering, if Bernice had not been doing something which gave rise to a positive shift in your feelings what other indicators or ways of noticing a pivotal moment can be learnt, It seems like it is ways of being aware of feelings in oneself as they arise as much as seeing what is happening for the students.

    • Janet, you read my mind!
      It is indeed being mindful of my own feelings, then settling myself, that lets me think before reacting, and that gives me a calm place from which to see what’s going on around me.

      I worked with Shayna Hornstein, a physical therapist and a wonderful group facilitator, to give a series of workshops we called “Pivotal Moments.” We invited people to learn their own particular responses to stressful situations, so as to be able to notice them in the moment, and Shayna taught a few techniques to settle those feelings. The settling techniques were not complicated, but noticing your physical reactions in the moment takes some practice!

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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