With state mandates, district regulations, and high-stakes tests, it’s easy to forget the power of teachers. But teachers hold a frightening sway over the lives of students. One glance, one statement, or one act at a critical moment can shape a life—either diminish it or enlarge it.
One afternoon I ran out of patience with Challon. I had explained to the class how to write a thesis statement, but I knew Challon hadn’t been listening. She was too busy brooding. Her eyes were on the ceiling, her face was in a scowl, and her fingers drummed the desk.
I knew life at home was tough for Challon. So after the class was at work, I pulled my stool up to her desk. Challon, I decided, needed a personal orientation to thesis statements. But still Challon didn’t put forth the effort to track with me.
This was the last period of a fraught day: a fight in the hall, a new student, an interrupted lunch, and a general restlessness. And my head ached.
“Challon,” I snapped, “you exhaust me.”
I said those words with my eyes flashing and an edge to my tone. I said those words to relieve my stress, not to help Challon.
And this time, Challon tracked with me. Her face looked so reduced, like I had stripped her dignity. In four words I had undercut the relationship I had so deliberately been building with her.
The bell rang, and Challon escaped, leaving me in defeat. After teaching this long, I knew better. I knew that a hasty rebuke can sear the soul of a struggling student. And I could see by Challon’s face that I had misused the power of my words.
I graded several essays, fighting my guilt. But I knew exactly what I needed to do. Tomorrow I would say sorry to Challon—and say it humbly.