Let me tell you about Jake.
Jake is a fourteen year old boy. He loves football, of course, and dreams of making it big as a player one day. He doesn’t love school. It’s boring and it involves a lot of reading, which Jake finds difficult. He gets embarrassed when he can’t do the work in class and this sense of shame quickly turns into anger when combined with anything else that might put him in a bad mood (missing breakfast, arguing with a friend or teacher, being told he has yet another detention later etc.).
Jake shouts. He swears and often does things he will later regret and apologise for. On one occasion he stole my new phone from my desk drawer and ran off with it down the corridor, only to return red-faced when he realized how much trouble he could get into. Another time he pushed me against the classroom door and forced his way out of the classroom, apologizing later with his eyes downcast. Jake is one of the most challenging pupils I have ever taught because his behaviour needs constant individual management and at the same time he needs an incredible amount of support to access the work covered in class. All this in a mixed-ability class of thirty. Whether he is refusing to complete the carefully-made differentiated worksheet I have given him, busy throwing rubbers and stuffing chocolate wrappers down the backs of the radiators or waging all-out war against myself or his fellow students, Jake’s presence is constantly felt. To be honest, it can be exhausting.
But there is another side to teaching Jake. He has lovely handwriting, a great sense of humour and a capacity to forgive, forget and move on which I deeply admire. He can also be kind; when I once left the classroom in tears because his class effectively mutinied against me he was the one heard saying ‘Is Miss crying? That breaks my heart’. He finds the subject I teach him so difficult that when he does understand something he feels an obvious sense of pride which other, more able students often do not. It may sound silly, but I can’t express to you how thrilled I was for him when we discovered that he was the only person in the class who knew the meaning of a certain word. It quickly became a running joke that whenever this word cropped up we would all look to him to explain it for us, even though the rest of the class had grasped it by then. I found myself shoe-horning it in wherever I could just to see his face when he heard it.
I am Jake’s teacher but, however much of a cliché it may be, he has probably taught me far more. Here’s just a few of the things I have learned:
- Few relationships are irreparable.
Jake and I have had some pretty big teacher-student bust-ups and after one particularly bad one I was convinced he would hate me forever. Moreover, I felt that I probably hated him just as much! In both your professional and personal life, don’t think it is too late or that too much damage has been done because this is rarely the case. There is hope for that friendship, marriage or business. You can still rebuild your relationship with that child, partner or colleague. But it will take some persistence, some care and Jake’s ability to apologise, forgive and move forward.
- The power of ‘sorry’.
‘Sorry’ is one of the most powerful words on the planet. I find it very difficult to stay angry with Jake, no matter what he has done, when he comes to me to apologise. It’s not about manipulation but a genuine expression of remorse and it can go really far in resolving conflict. I am trying to get better at apologizing when I need to and I have found that one of the best ways to open up a dialogue with a person you have an issue with is to be the first to say sorry. Next time you can see that the conversation you are having with someone is about to blow up into an argument, try taking a deep breath and saying ‘I’m sorry if you feel that…’ or ‘I apologise if I gave you the impression that…’ Trust me, it works!
- Don’t just see the me.
Teaching Jake is difficult. I have made that pretty clear. However, it is a whole lot easier when I am in the practice of remembering the he and ensuring that the me does not completely take over in moments of conflict. What I mean is that we are all guilty of letting our own thoughts and feelings cloud our decision-making in times of stress. We all think about how we are feeling and what we want to happen. In a sense there is nothing wrong with this. It is healthy to listen to our emotions; they are important. What is unhealthy is when we allow them to dominate our thought processes without taking into account the he or she – in other words, how that other person is feeling and why they are behaving in a certain way. It became much easier to deal with Jake’s outbursts in an emotionally healthy way once I began to understand just how challenging he finds not just my lessons but his entire experience of education.
When you are next reflecting (or ranting, or angrily blogging!) about a conflict you have had with someone, try – as hard as it is – to understand their point of view or at least think about why they might have acted in such an apparently unfair or unreasonable way. You will probably find it makes it much easier to see them in a positive light and therefore have a more enjoyable experience (or at least, less painful) the next time you see them.
So what do you think? Have you ever taught a Jake? And what do you think about the ideas I’ve shared? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
P.S. It goes without saying that I have changed some of the details about Jake, including his name.