All Or Nothing

Not Black Or WhiteIt’s funny how badly we want things to be all one way or all the other. For such maddeningly complicated creatures, we seem wired to crave the binary.

Coffee is good for you, or it’s bad for you. You love her, or you don’t. I’m overweight because of genetics, or because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough. I’m an extrovert or an introvert. A patriot or a traitor. I can be trusted, or I can’t.

My success is my responsibility, entirely in my hands, or it’s the statistical result of a rigged system. I’m latently racist, or lavishly progressive. He’s handsome, he’s creepy; she’s hot, she’s not. I’m a good teacher, or a bad one. A success, or a failure. I’m full of wisdom, or I’m full of—

Well, you get the idea. (Or you don’t.)

I see it in my students all the—

Actually, correct that. I often, but not always, see elements of this in my students. Mixed with other factors, of course. Because nothing in real life is that absolute, whether we like it that way or not.

Not My FaultWe’ve all had those kids who seem to believe in the core of their being that nothing is, was, or could ever be their responsibility to tiniest degree. They usually have parents who feel the same way, and who let us know regularly all the things we’re doing to thwart their lil’ Boo-Boo’s success. 

He’s just acting out because he’s bored, you know. Because he’s SO SMART. He was tested as gifted when he was four. He needs someone with the proper training to meet his special-gifted-smartness needs. 

I couldn’t do the assignment because I wasn’t here. You didn’t tell me. I didn’t understand. I had band. I had tryouts. I had to work. I don’t have internet. Our printer’s broken – I keep telling my dad we need a new one or I’ll flunk school, but that’s not my fault. 

That’s binary. It’s declared victimization to the nth degree. The only thing surviving the constant barrage of injustice they so nobly endure is their outrage. 

Stressed Student

But honestly, I have far more little darlings on the other side. They don’t merely own their role in the whole learning-and-grades thing – they resist with holy fervor the suggestion that other factors might even play their own parts. And it’s far more prevalent when they’re struggling than when they’re succeeding.

They apologize for being tired – it’s just that sleep is a character flaw. Even protein is for students who don’t care about that biology test tomorrow. They didn’t ask for help earlier because they should have understood, if only they’d tried harder. They didn’t email because they didn’t want to bother me. They’ve never had trouble like this before – they used to be smart.

Last year. 

Feeling Stupid

Their grit is admirable, but lacks a certain… practicality essential to long-term survival. Their solutions tend to involve brute force – texting the essay a sentence at a time. Having a friend take pictures of every page in the chapter and snapchatting it to them. Moving into foster care in hopes of being accepted by a family with reliable internet. Redoing assignments in hopes of raising all those 88% and 93% grades to something respectable. 

Far too often they end up thinking maybe they should drop this class. 

OK – a few are just whiney. They’ve had it a bit too easy and now school’s getting hard and they’re crumbling. Suck it up, Boo-Boo! Put on your AP panties and get to learnin’!

But many are simply broken. Shattered. Not always from abuse at home or tragedies outside of school, although there’s more of that than any of us care to confront. Mostly, though, it’s just the full weight of “can’t” swinging on a long chain of “all-my-fault” BAM! right through their innermost sense of self. 

SnowflakeIt’s binary. Raised to take personal responsibility, they fear the least acknowledgment of factors outside their control – lest they find themselves “making excuses.” In not wanting to flake out, they take denial to the weirdest places – stuffing the resulting misery down into their little psyches for safe-hiding.

What they all need, of course, is balance. They’re rarely without the slightest trace of blame, but neither are they omnipotent beings who’ve simply chosen the path of ignorance and sloth. We’d like to help them learn to better manage their time, stay somewhat organized, and be a bit more practical when it comes to finding solutions. 

And lest you think I’m coddling snowflakes here, kids feeling stressed out don’t process information or perform complex tasks very effectively. In other words, if we can’t help them find some balance – to become a little less binary – they won’t learn much. 

Plus, they’re one thin veneer of civilization away from going all Lord of the Flies on you if you’re not careful... 

My school is on trimesters, and this is the end of the first tri. I thought it might be nice to do a little review game, kinda dial back the intensity for a few days as they prepare for exams, but still reinforce some content. It was typical classroom stuff – I ask, they answer, teams get points, etc. I’ve done it for years with great success. If anything, I was worried it might be a bit funzy for an AP class. You know, too silly.

Then, I inadvertently released the Kraken. 

The KrakenI wasn’t being fair. Their team gets easy questions, while ours always gets the hard ones. Why are we doing this anyway? It doesn’t help. How are we supposed to remember all of this?! Can I just go work in the hall?! WHO CAME UP WITH THIS LIFE DESPAIR ANGER DARKFARGLE ACCUSING DEATHCRY! 

It wasn’t everyone, and it didn’t spiral completely out of control. But boy, the angst did fly, in a variety of forms – complaints, frustration, helplessness, and some unexpectedly childish slapstick. I was… surprised. And mildly annoyed. What the everloving...?

Here’s the dirtiest of secrets about educators – it’s not how lazy we are, or that we really just want summers off. It’s not our incompetence or our hidden socio-political agendas or our secret need to have teenagers for friends. 

It’s that any time we catch ourselves losing our patience with kids – tempers rising, clarity of thought fading, word choice becoming less and less ideal for the classroom – we’re immediately struck by an accompanying conviction that we’ve failed. We’ve blown it in Classroom Management 101. We’re annoyed with them, but from the deepest recesses of our internal pomp'n'circumstance comes the ululation that we're supposed to be the teacher. It’s on us

We misjudged the lesson. We screwed up the organization. We choked on difficult content. We let a 13-year old push our buttons. We got careless, or overly ambitious, or maybe we just suck at this but it’s too late for dental school. 

It’s all my fault. I should have planned better. I should never have let them get so comfortable, or ridden them so hard, or changed direction, or kept things the same for so long. If only I’d spent more time… were more talented… just thought to…

You see the twisted little irony in play? 

Angry Teacher

Most of us suspect deep down that every conceivable shortcoming of every child boils down to our failure to work the right miracles for those most resistant to our care. We rarely think of it in those precise terms – that would be insane, after all – but it runs through everything else we feel, think, say, or do. 

Except when we don’t. 

Because maybe it’s not us at all. Maybe it’s those darned kids. I’m busting my butt here, day in and day out, and they belittle my best efforts like that? I can’t help that they just won’t do the work. Horse-to-water, amiright?

The Psychological Bowl

I can’t control how badly they’re being raised. This is my classroom and I’ll run it how I think best. If they don’t like it, they can call up their representatives and ask for one of those vouchers they’re so hot’n’bothered over. It wasn’t like this back in my day. Someone really ought to do something about kids like this. 

Binary. Just like our kids. We probably fight it a little harder; hopefully we’re at least aware of it a little more. Still, the gutters here at the Psychological Bowl are mighty generous while the actual lanes seem far too uneven and narrow. 

Are there things you could be doing better? Probably. Is it worth examining your approach to classroom management? To lesson planning? To interactions with students? Absolutely. But is it all you?

Don’t be inane. Of course not. 

But neither is it all them, and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter. We signed up to change the world one starry-eyed delusion at a time, and that means we do it whether it’s possible or not. Reality may be an inconvenience, but it will NOT be a permanent barrier.

All the more reason to stay aware of the lanes between the absolutes, even if we’re rarely quite sure exactly how much is us, or them, or the weather, or circumstances, or pedagogy, or...


They’re such maddeningly complicated creatures. Then again, so are we.

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