Teacher Trials and Error - Skip's Lesson
It’s tough not to get caught up in memories of lessons that worked out; of memories that make a teacher feel worthy and successful. We teachers would love to have everyone assume that we were just born wise and wonderful. Natural born teachers with magical qualities - that’s what we are!
What most of us tend to leave out of the great lessons and memories are all the awful mistakes that led to the breakthroughs. I don’t know about other teachers, but every one of my own accomplishments was birthed by embarrassing and shameful mistakes that I sometimes wish I could erase from my brain.
One mistake in particular still keeps me up at night occasionally. I was a Chief-in-the-Woods at an Eckerd Youth Alternatives camp in Newport, NC. The title "Chief" meant that I was the father, mother, boss, teacher, friend and overall leader of a group of ten “at-risk” teen boys who were sent to live approximately nine months of their lives with me in the woods. I couldn’t just go home after a bad day of work; our work was also our home.
At the time of this particular mistake, I was still in the stage of my development that erred on the side of intimidation and yelling. I had been a quiet pushover previously, and I had been so broken that I converted to the tyrannical end of the spectrum. If my kids weren’t doing what I expected of them, whether or not they even understood such expectations, I would growl and yell and confront. I would grind all life to a halt until I got what I wanted.
Every day is stressful for a “leader” who tries to control others by coercion and intimidation.
One night, after yet another stressful day, I had my kids huddled up outside of their tents to have them “set standards” for how they were to get into their beds quietly and efficiently. My tent was the only one with a raised porch, and I characteristically looked down on these huddles from my lofty perch. I let the huddled kids know that I would keep them up all night if they weren’t able to follow the standards correctly. They knew at this point that I wasn’t bluffing because it had been somewhat recently that I’d broken out of my “pushover” phase by purposely waking them at three in the morning to address their behavior of the previous day.
One of my kids, wearing a look of misery and disdain, seemed to snap. The kid I’ll call “Skip” questioned my holy decree in a mocking, sarcastic tone. I told him to do what I required and that his questions and tone would not be tolerated. Skip did exactly what I could have predicted had I understood anything about kids or human nature at that point. He sneered and said something mocking to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the look. The mocking look enraged me, and I had backed myself into a corner by issuing my challenge.
I acted impulsively and decisively. I showed everyone who the real boss was. I leaped off my porch, strode toward the kid whom I outweighed by at least 60 pounds, stuck my index finger into his chest, and yelled some tyrannical bullshit into his face as I forced him back against his tent.
Skip looked up into my sweaty red face and said matter-of-factly, “Go ahead and hit me. That’s what they all do.”
I can’t remember another time in my life when so many emotions and thoughts hit me in one moment. In that second after hearing what Skip said, I had my most horrifying and shameful epiphany.
I finally saw this kid.
I saw the hyperintelligent car lover that he was.
I saw the sweet, smiling baby that he must have been once.
Life with awful humans had put the misery in his face.
My sheltered brain suddenly added new-found connotation to the fact that this kid came to us from the foster system. I had never considered reasons he might be in a foster system.
I saw years of adult betrayal in that look.
Most horrifying is that I saw myself reflected in that face. I was the monstrous bully that I had reviled my entire life. I was an ugly human being making a difficult life for these kids even more difficult.
Skip revealed my ugly facade to myself, and that was the beginning of the end of the Tyrant Bully Chief Greg.
The truth is that I had gone to work at that camp with the best of intentions. I really wanted to help kids. I had justified my recent insufferable behavior with the knowledge that being soft-spoken and permissive didn't work. I was miserable when I let the kids have their own way, so I eliminated any choices they had in the matter. My bullying behavior was really nothing but insecurity - the only way I thought I could protect my own well-being. Skip helped me figure that out. The great mentors I had at EYA helped me figure that out.
Nobody is immune from ugliness.
It’s heartbreaking now to see teachers and adults continue down that road I was on once because they lack the patient guidance and in-depth training that I had. I hate the popular American narrative of “get rid of bad teachers.”
Why don't we train these teachers?
Why don't we help them understand?
Why don't we hire principals who speak a language other than bureaucracy and intimidation?
A true leader’s worth cannot be measured by number of University of Phoenix credits.
I never told Skip how much he helped me grow as a teacher and human being. I never thanked him for that lesson. I think that I apologized to him for my behavior that night, but I’m not sure. My brain seems to think that I didn’t, based on certain nights it decides to keep me awake with shame.
Skip’s lesson is with me every school year. Whenever I have a sarcastic or holier-than-thou comment loaded up for a student, I remember that I don’t understand everything happening in that kid’s life. I remember that they have bad days that would obliterate mine on the sheer badness scale, and I remember that I’m a guide - not a god.