“Why on earth would you want to do that?”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Where in the world did you get that idea?”
They are comments that roll off the tongue without second thought.
They’re a gut reaction to a private question or idea from a student that we can’t wrap our head around.
It doesn’t make sense to us and we can’t understand how it can possibly make sense to anyone else.
So we blurt out our incredulity.
“Say what? You’ve got to be kidding. No, you can’t bring a dead rat to school!”
And we move on as if nothing happened. We turn away from the student and the moment passes, never considering that how we just reacted may stay with that student for a very long time.
You see, what we may innocently describe as a way to shake a quixotic student into reality is actually one of the most hurtful and humiliating things you can ever do to them.
A Foot Tall
No matter where we’re from, or how worldly, we each carry with us a uniquely subjective point of view. What’s fun or interesting or scary for me (I won’t go on a roller coaster), may not be the same for you.
And in the bustle of the moment, we forget.
We forget that our students represent a kaleidoscope of different perspectives and sensibilities. We forget that their panorama of possibility is as wide as the West Texas plains. We forget that our lifetime of hard knocks can limit our view.
So when Sara asks if she can do her independent reading outside in the snow, we respond in a way that can be more hurtful than even sarcasm or outright belittlement. “Are you serious? Of course not! It’s freezing outside.”
The saddest thing about it is that we may never know. When we respond to what we believe to be a crazy idea with disbelief, it feels perfectly normal.
But the student . . . the student is left feeling about a foot tall.
The humiliation of having an idea dismissed out of hand was brought home for me in a small way this past week. You see, I was on the other end of someone’s incredulity, and it hurt. It really did.
Here’s what happened:
Last week I wrote an article called, “Should Students Raise Their Hand In Small Groups?”—which wasn’t written because there are necessarily so many teachers who require hand-raising during small groups.
The article was written because here at SCM we hear from so many teachers who are struggling with small groups and wondering if they should start requiring students to raise their hand.
So there I was late Saturday morning, a couple hours after I posted the article. I like to check my email about this time every week to gauge the initial response.
Now, the overwhelming number of emails I receive are from readers just saying hello, sharing success stories, or thanking me for the article—which is wonderful, of course.
But it’s only natural to have a few butterflies whenever a new piece of work goes out into the world. I always feel a bit of trepidation when opening those first 8-10 emails.
Wouldn’t you know it, the very first one read:
“Who in the world asks students to raise hands in small group?”
There was no greeting and it wasn’t signed. It was just words on a page. But at that moment, it stung. It stung because preposterousness in response to one’s best intentions, inspirations, and perceptions is profoundly deflating.
And the more heart and soul and thought that goes into an idea, the more destructive such reactions can be. It makes the person on the receiving end feel . . . well, stupid.
Really, really stupid.
With more than ten years of writing and publishing under my belt, and the well-earned Crocodilian skin that goes with it, I was able to move on quickly. Long term, it affects me nada.
With our impressionable students, however, this is not the case.
Consider that they may have been thinking about their idea for days before gathering the courage to run it by you. They may have been up the night before, flashlight under covers, devising their plan to attach a GoPro camera to a paper airplane.
They may have been relying on the excitement of this one idea to get them through a tough time at home, a lingering unhappiness, or much, much worse.
Our reaction means everything to them.
When you don’t take their ideas, questions, and curiosities seriously, you don’t take them seriously. And every time you dismiss their thinking as foolish, they grow a bit more jaded and demoralized.
Their dreams, which at first seem so close and within their grasp, drift further and further away. Life begins to lose its color.
That isn’t to say that you need always to give your consent or ringing endorsement. It just means that you thoughtfully respect every earnest idea.
It means that you hear them out and protect their dignity. It means that you make your classroom a safe harbor for creativity.
Because encouraging the wild wonder of your students keeps them curious and interested.
Hopeful and open-minded.
Alive and filled with possibility.
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