In my last article I talked about the art of noticing your students. This goes two ways: sometimes we notice commendable things, and sometimes we notice annoying things. We know that we are supposed to love all students equally, to show no favoritism, to hope all things for all the children in our care, but this is not always simple or intuitive. There is no denying the reality that some children are more winsome than others, their personalities meshing pleasantly with others. Sometimes academically gifted students are relationally challenged. It has little to do with lessons and a lot to do with our intrinsic humanity.
I think back to my own elementary school years, to the angry child in my class who declared that nobody liked her. All the sensitive little girls tried to be her friends, but she was so prickly that it was quite uncomfortable to get close to her. A few more hard-boiled students openly admitted that they actually didn’t like her. Our teacher was wise and pulled us into a circle to talk about the issue. Since the accusations were public, we had to openly discuss what we appreciated in each other. She advised us that having exclusive best friends was not a good idea. We were instructed to pick a different person to play with every recess on the swings. She mixed up our seating arrangements frequently and watched over our interactions carefully. In looking back, I can see that this altercation between pious students and a brash and hurting child could not have been easy to arbitrate. Neither does it go without saying that the good little ones were easier for the teacher to like than the struggling student was.
Everybody has their own set of buttons that get pushed by children. I had a teacher with zero tolerance for sloppiness, encompassing everything from grammar rules to clean fingernails. Another teacher was very picky about being good sports on the playground and would shorten recess for all of us if there were conflicts among any of us. In my own experience, the students who rubbed me wrong were usually the ones who challenged my authority, knowledge, or skills as a teacher. They were the ones who I suspected could probably run all over me and run my classroom into the bargain.
What should we do with the student who gets under our skin? How do we handle the one who seems to know everything before we teach it, and is happy to remind us when we make a mistake, mispronounce a word, or get mixed up with assignments? What should we do with the small braggers, or the ones who don’t like to play when the games aren’t their favorite, or the ones who are always trying to be first? How do we navigate personality clashes?
I have a list of checks for myself when my spirit gets ruffled by a student, which these days are my own children. Not surprisingly, the spotlight comes back onto me. I am the adult, the one who is supposed to be ruling her spirit, the one with life experience and hopefully the maturity to handle the conflict in a redemptive way.
- Identify the buttons being pushed and watch out for them.
- Ask myself if it really matters or if I am overreacting.
- Admit my own mistakes and apologize if I exacerbated the situation.
- Recognize that this child is in my care for a reason and accept the responsibility.
- Ask for wisdom before addressing a child’s character flaws.
- Be kind and give them positive reinforcement as well as correction.
- Show the child a way forward.
I tend to feel resentful and angry when a child indicates that I am wrong. “How dare you tell me what I forgot that I said?” Watching out for these situations helps me to take that trait by the horns and respond more humbly. “You are right. I forgot that I said you can read any book you choose for your report. Thanks for reminding me.” It is quite possible to diffuse a situation before it becomes a big deal when I am aware of the things that escalate into conflicts.
When I take a minute to evaluate whether I am picking a worthy battle, it stops me from responding with snark or hurtful words. This is the place where the Spirit of God either assures me that I am on the right track or convicts me that I am wrong. When I am wrong, it is the time to humble myself and admit it. If the student has crossed lines into disrespect, I am more prepared to give them correction once I have repented of my own sinful tendencies.
It is not a mistake that we have children in our care who are needy. There is nothing quite like facing how unfinished I still am when I am at loggerheads with a little person. This is a major part of God’s plan to grow us up into better teachers and caregivers. Accepting the adult responsibilities of relating to those who are still becoming who they are is pivotal in our sanctification. It’s quite simple and sometimes it’s pretty hard, especially when they expose our deficiencies.
Children are usually sensitive to their own character flaws, and many times they already know when they are not likeable. When a child feels discouraged by their need to change a behavior, we can give them hope. “This is your strength, and it is your weakness. You can think on your feet and respond quickly when you need to, but when you speak impulsively, you say things that you will regret later and that’s when others get hurt. Let’s think of some tools that will help you overcome this habit. What do you think you can do the next time you feel mad about someone on your team striking out?” It can be tremendously helpful to give a child a way to cope and do better.
Our perfect example in relationships is Jesus, who loved children. Apparently, they swarmed around Him to the point where His disciples got tired of it. I am sure these children weren’t all polished specimens of cleanliness and good manners, but Jesus has scathing words for those who cause them to stumble, “It would be better to have a millstone hung around our neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6. Not only that, but He tells us to become like little children. The idea!
Maybe the next time someone rubs us wrong, we can change the narrative from “How can I bear this disagreeable person any longer?” to “What am I supposed to be learning from this child?”