Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. – C.S. Lewis
On Friday, I had just completed supervision of the first of two lunch periods at my school. I was standing in the center of our campus, greeting students as they passed on their way to afternoon classes (happy Friday, have a great afternoon, only a few more hours before the weekend, etc.). One student stormed passed me — fixed eyes and their face a picture of angry determination. Uh oh. Problem. I can help. I should help.
We are still relatively early in the school year, so while I recognized the student, I didn’t have a name. I politely asked if they were okay and was met by a glaring glance and silence. They kept walking. I turned and followed the student, asking them to stop for a moment. Nothing. Now I was really concerned. I quickened my pace to catch up with the student.
“Stop for a second.” They glanced at me, but kept walking, so I asked, “What is wrong.”
The response came in a low growl, “Don’t worry about it.”
“What is your name?”
“Don’t worry about it. Back off.” The student continued walking.
I followed. Now frustrated.
“I want you to stop, and tell me your name.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Now I was offended. I tried to order the student to follow my directions. That didn’t go well. Finally, I walked the student into their classroom where the teacher gave me a name. I told the student that I was going to leave them, but that we would talk later. I left the classroom feeling frustrated, disrespected, and a little angry. That did not go well.
I messed up. As I write this, I feel a little like I was an actor in one of those scary movies where you know the person shouldn’t go outside to check on the noise in the shed, but they go anyway. All the signs of impending doom are there, but the person presses on — against their better judgement. Those situations, like the one I experienced, rarely end well. And here is the problem: I demonstrated a lack of humility and chose to make this situation about respect for me instead of true concern for the student.
I knew I had made multiple mistakes, and as a veteran principal, I should have known better. I started with good intentions — I was truly concerned about the well-being of the student — but then I allowed myself to become offended by the student’s behavior. I felt disrespected, angry, and then I became stubborn (I can be that way). If you re-read the narrative, you can see the moment that it quit being about concern for the student and it became about me. My motives changed from helping the student to making them comply.
During my supervision of the second lunch period, I was miserable. I worked really hard to justify my actions:
- I was concerned about the well-being of the child
- They should have stopped when I asked them to stop
- It was reasonable for me to ask the student for their name
- I am the principal of the school, I should have been treated with respect
- “Junior High Jeff” would have stopped immediately, given his name, and would have spoken with respect
But, this wasn’t about “Junior High Jeff.” This wasn’t about “Principal Jeff.” This was about a student who was upset and hurting. While I began with good intentions, I allowed the situation to escalate and I made it about me.
The life of an educator should be spent in constant pursuit of humility. It’s easy to make it about self, but it must always be about kids.
For a brief moment, I failed to remember that many students come to school with anger, frustration, pain, and trauma and that these kids often lack the social skills necessary to deal with their emotions. For many, it is something they have to be taught — something they need to learn.
“Uh, Jeff. That would be part of your job.”
In the heat of the moment, I expected that student to handle their anger in an appropriate and respectful manner, and in the process I provided an example of exactly what not to do. To make matters worse, I am a staunch advocate for the education of the “whole child” and meeting the social-emotional needs of students. Sigh.
After a miserable forty minutes of lunch duty, I walked over to our counselor’s office to give her the name of the student so that she could follow-up and hopefully get more information about why they were upset. Low and behold — there was the student. The counselor waved me in and I was greeted with another glare and mumbling from the student. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. I immediately apologized to the student, letting them know that I should have left them alone, respected their space, and followed up when they were in a better place to visit. I told them I could see they were having a bad day and that I was sorry if I made it worse. It took every ounce of self-restraint, to not add — you should have stopped when I asked, you should have given me your name, you were very disrespectful. The student was still visibly angry. They chose not to acknowledge me. But, that was okay, because they were getting some help, and this situation was not about me.
As an educator, our actions and decisions should always be about what is best for kids. It is not about us.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that students should not be responsible for their actions, or that they shouldn’t be respectful to adults. But, I hope you can see that my response in this situation only made the situation worse. It is a constant challenge to be humble and patient enough to step back from a situation and carefully consider appropriate responses that will model the behaviors we want to see from students. Hope that makes sense.