The other day, I locked myself out of my house. I’d been working from home, and I stepped out to grab the mail. The moment the door shut, I heard the lock spring into place. I tried opening it back up and found that I was out of luck. I called myself an idiot, I tried to open the door again (unsuccessfully), and realized that in addition to no keys, I also had no phone and no shoes (just in case anyone is particularly worried in this moment, Sully was at daycare).
I felt a surge of hope when I remembered that we had a key box on the side door of our house; while we’d imagined it was more for friends and family, I found myself intensely grateful for our planning in this moment. I went to the side door and found it latched. I definitely swore. I saw a tear in the bottom of the screen door, assessed my options (ask my husband to come home on my non-existent cell phone?) and decided I needed to rip open the screen. So, I ripped. I got far enough to reach the key box and put in our code. Then remembered we had to change our code to one with no repeating numbers the last time we moved. My mind went blank. I tried birthdays and other anniversaries and struck out every single time. Then, I tried the car door. I knew I had an extra car key in there, so I thought that I could at least pick up Sully from daycare. Then I remembered that I was shoeless (and wallet-less), and I wondered what my son’s daycare teachers would think when I walked into the building in socks to pick up my toddler. For whom I was responsible.
I was on the verge of tears when I saw that my neighbors were home. While they don’t have a spare key of ours, I assumed they had a phone, so I knocked. They did and kindly let me borrow it and wait in their living room. I knew Jack wouldn’t answer right away; he never answers calls he doesn’t recognize and would have no reason to suspect it was me with an urgent need. I left a message that mentioned I was locked out, I needed help remembering the key code, I needed to pick up Sully, I wasn’t wearing shoes, and oh yeah, we needed to buy a new screen for the side door. And then I waited. My neighbors were helping me think about how to get a ladder up to a window I knew was open (they graciously offered to climb it as 25 weeks pregnant is no time to scale your own house). To Jack’s credit, I’m pretty sure it was all of three minutes before he called me back. He knew the code, which helped me to unlock the box. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me open the side door, which was still latched. I felt all around for the latch, and after scraping up my arms more than I’d care to admit, I saw it; the latch was now right in front of my eyes and absolutely accessible because I’d ripped the screen.
I opened the latch, retrieved the key, returned my neighbor’s phone, apologized and said thank you before unlocking my own door and finding one of my cats dutifully sitting right inside, with a “That took you long enough” expression (that I may have imagined).
I took a picture of my arm to share with my husband (he promptly responded “You’ve gone on a journey”) and thanked my stars for living in an age of relative convenience. But I still felt dumb, even after I’d figured my way through to the end of this problem.
I think this is how our students feel too often. They identify a problem, usually of their own making, and they feel stupid. That feeling overrides rational thought, and they get stuck, sometimes physically, but definitely emotionally and mentally. Their feeling impairs their ability to solve the problem (kind of like how I couldn’t see that the latch was right in front of my eyes the entire time). I could have been stuck outside for longer if I were more hesitant in asking for help, but I knew daycare pickup loomed, and, like I said, I’m 25 weeks pregnant, and I’d just drunk a bunch of water.
Asking for help didn’t solve my problem, but it did help me take my next step; I actually didn’t fully put together that my neighbors and husband didn’t solve my problem for me until I just wrote that sentence. Up until then, I’d still been framing it as others who solved the problem for me. Kids do that, too. They imagine other people being better agents of change in their lives than they are; they often don’t give themselves enough credit for trying to think their way through messy and complicated situations. Once I was inside, I lingered on my feeling of inadequacy and stupidity. Kids do that, too.
All of this is to say that there are some feelings that we experience at any age. At 33, I’m cognitively more well-developed than the students I taught, and it was still hard for me to shake my emotions and work the problem. Every day, we ask kids to confront their mistakes (whether it’s a math problem, or a run-on, or a disappointing grade, or a time they told a lie), and I think we expect them to move through it with relative grace. But I didn’t, or at least, I don’t feel like I did.
I do think there are things that we can do when we work with kids to help ease them toward this process.
-We can talk about (and own up to) our own mistakes. We can ensure that our students don’t see us as adults-who-have-everything-together-and-never-err. We can be truthful when something didn’t work as intended or when we overstepped. We can acknowledge that we didn’t structure that sentence correctly or the calculation error was on us.
-We can apologize whenever we should and to whomever we should, regardless of who they are. Did we cause a wrong? Can our apology be somewhat public? We might not always find ourselves in situations that meet those two conditions, but when they do, we should model how to thoughtfully apologize to someone else (especially if it’s to a student or someone in a position of less power).
-We can lovingly hold kids accountable. We can acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable and sometimes awkward to take ownership, but we can also share moments in our own lives when we’ve done that and cite what we’ve learned as a result.
-We can normalize their feelings. We can make sure that kids understand there’s a huge range of emotions people feel, and our prior experiences shape what we feel and when we feel it. We can, appropriately and generously, share with them that we, too, have experienced embarrassment, fear, shame, and anger, right alongside joy, enthusiasm, and pride.
-We can compliment them when they take steps forward to solve their problems and when they acknowledge and work through challenging feelings. We can be the one to say they shouldn’t hold onto shame because everyone else has been there. We can witness their process, tell them we’re proud of them, and let them move on (and we should probably say the same to ourselves).
In this work, we need to teach humans how to be more human. The best part of that work? We’re all experienced.
Do you have questions about how to help the social-emotional development of your students in moments when they’re feeling vulnerable? Reach out; we’d love to talk it through with you.
Images courtesy of Sara Bailey.