Honest Reflection: A Necessary First Step in Doing No Harm

July 21, 2020

“I don’t wear a cape. I teach.”

“Teaching is my superpower, what’s yours?”

I had been enticed to become a teacher nearly two decades ago with inspiring slogans such as these. I was totally committed to teaching my heart out and helping children be their best and brightest selves. I pledged with all my heart to become a “teacher hero” for my students.

With this calling in mind, I worked tirelessly to craft engaging lessons, build community partnerships, and create authentic assessments. I created rubrics, anchor charts, and self-reflections. I worked hard daily to meet the standards in interesting hands-on ways. I set up rules and procedures to make my classroom an optimal environment for learning. I often used catchy alliteration such as “Memory Monday” or “World News Wednesday” for our morning assignments. It was on one fateful “Memory Monday” nearly 17 years ago, that I learned a lesson that has shaped who I am as a teacher.

“This was the worst weekend ever!!!”

Was the response to the “Memory Monday” morning assignment: Write about your weekend. Remember to write in paragraph form. Remember good writers use wow words, vivid verbs, and add details to make their writing come alive. The boy’s response was scrawled haphazardly with no punctuation or capitalization, and definitely lacking wow words. This was not work that a teacher hero’s student would produce.

Now what? After gently asking the student to add more details, coaxing “Remember our lesson on wow words? You can refer to the anchor chart posted at the front.” he still refused to write anything else. Pushing further, I encouraged “Could you explain why this was the worst weekend ever? If you tell me I can help you add details to your written response.”

Still nothing.

Perplexed and crestfallen, I asked him to stay in for recess so we could work on his mandatory morning write. At first, he attempted to ignore my request. However, being an aspiring teacher hero, I didn’t want to “leave any child behind.”  I tracked him down and attempted again to force him to write about his weekend. After recess, he still had a blank page.

I decided to call his parents. During the call, I learned his parents had split up over the weekend. This child’s life had been turned upside down over the weekend and I was forcing him to write about it.

This experience turned my whole teaching philosophy on its head. I learned that before I could jump in and be that “one caring adult” to positively impact my students’ lives I first had to think very deeply about the harm I could unintentionally inflict on those entrusted to my care and guidance.

In light of recent events, it is important to acknowledge that presidents and police are not the only ones who need to reflect on the power they wield. Teachers are widely credited for being life changers. This is not something to be taken lightly for they have not only the power to elevate a student but also the ability to marginalize the students they are so eagerly trying to help.

Reflecting on the nearly two decades I have been a teacher, I realize that I have done harm to my students. Here are some of the ways I have unintentionally harmed my students and what I learned from it.

Rules over relationships

The “Memory Monday” debacle is a perfect example of the pitfalls of prioritizing rules over relationships. Instead of forcing this child to comply with rules, I should have put more effort into nurturing our relationship. Students often have very good reasons why they are not complying with rules. It is not only the teacher’s job to create procedures to ensure learning but also to know their students. If a teacher prioritizes relationships, students will be a lot more likely to follow rules.

Mispronouncing students’ names

Over the years I have made a valiant effort to learn all my students’ names prior to the first day of school. I would quiz myself matching names and pictures so I could greet them by name at the door as they entered the classroom. More times than I like to admit I made significant pronunciation errors which lasted well into the year. How demeaning this must have felt for students. Looking back, I got it all wrong; each student should be empowered to introduce themselves correctly from day one. Names are a significant part of student identity. Teachers must get them right.

Not listening enough

Reflecting on the multitudes of times I have not listened enough, brings me great sadness. I cringe when I recall times I didn’t make more time for students to really share their experiences by minimizing complaints, giving rushed advice, or just plain being too busy to really listen. Without structured times for students to be heard not only by teachers but also by their peers, classroom communities lack a vital component. No child should be made to feel that their experiences don’t matter and that their teacher has no time for their thoughts, wonderings, feelings, and worries.

Negative talk

It’s a familiar scene. Teachers gather in the staff room for lunch and someone starts to gripe about the tough day they’ve had. Looking back over the years, I have been one of those teachers that shared my frustrations about students with my colleagues. Venting to colleagues about student behavior is very damaging to students. When teachers call attention to undesirable student behaviors they can negatively impact their colleagues’ attitude toward that student leading to a myriad of labels such as “trouble maker” or “disruptive.” This labeling can stick with a child for their whole academic career. To label kids is never good for the child, the teacher, or the community.

Neglecting self-care

This is a big one. The first five years of my teaching career, in a desperate attempt to be a teacher hero, I often arrived early, stayed late, and came into school on weekends. Students were the last thought racing through my mind at night as my head hit the pillow and the first as I woke up. Overwork and undersleep sometimes led to irritability and impatience. I deeply regret days that I wasn’t my best self for my students. I realize now that students most likely will not notice if your lesson doesn’t go perfectly but in the words of Maya Angelou “people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I never sat down and wrote on my lesson plan “Hurt students’ feelings today.” or “Damage a child’s’ self-esteem.” or “Make a student feel unimportant.”  But nonetheless, many times, I did. Remembering these times and the students I negatively impacted, whether it was yesterday or ten years ago still haunts me today. My regret does nothing to improve the lives of the students I hurt. It is only intentional reflection and actionable change that will begin to right my wrongs for future students.

With all the best intentions to shape young people into mindful innovators that the world needs, without deep reflection and self-awareness teachers can cause harm. Before a teacher starts dreaming of the life-changing good they can do, they must engage in deep meditation on the power that a teacher possesses and the possible harm that he/she can inflict upon the students entrusted to their care.

As the uncertainty of when, how, and if schools will reopen in the fall, teachers are now tasked with the additional responsibility of asking a whole new set of questions. How do I ensure equity during distance learning?  How can I keep myself and my students safe during a global pandemic?  How can I work together with students and families to reimagine learning?

With a whole new set of unknowns, teachers and schools need to be more reflective than ever. Children living through a global pandemic have experienced a great deal of trauma. Teachers need to make it their top priority to avoid inflicting additional damage and that starts with honest self-reflection.

Lory Peroff, NBCT

Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow alumna who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, five chickens, two ducks, and one peahen.