Week 12 – A Worthy Birdwalk: Crying in Front of Students

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Yeah it happens.  Here’s how it happened today:

We were reading Chapter 10 of The Aeneid for Boys and Girls where Virgil calls upon the reader’s knowledge of the story of Daedalus.  As you know, I have a very precocious group of 5th and 6th graders who all had some understanding of the story.  And as they began to fill each other in on their understanding of it, the story became weirder and weirder, as stories do in mass tellings.  So, to bring some clarification, I pulled up Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: The Greek Myths on Netflix.  (Thank god for Netflix.  I own this disc, but it is at home right now.  I would have missed a valuable opportunity for a teachable moment which is slightly off topic, otherwise known as a “birdwalk”.)

I pulled it up and showed them the one on Daedalus.  The Storyteller is played by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Daedalus is played by Brother Caedfael (Or King Lear, if you saw that production.  Some of you might know him as Sir Derek Jacobi) to give you some idea of the quality.  The video pulls no punches.  People die.  People are murdered, but it is tempered with a sweet dog who says what we are thinking. I cried three times.  Once when Talos falls, once when Icarus falls, and once at the end when Daedalus is all alone with his pain and thousands of little clay figures.  Then, the lights came up.

The story moved me.  It is sad.  And as I looked around, I noticed I was not the only one with red-rimmed eyes, snuffling into a kleenex.  Yet, as uncomfortable as it is to cry in front of students, I stopped worrying about it a few years ago when I realized that I am human.

Ludicrous as it sounds, in the classroom, I sometimes feel that I have to be happy! and glowing! and positive! all the damn time.  It’s wearing.  Being a real human means that I can sniffle when Hector’s wife Andromache begs him not to go into the fray.  I can blubber away at Ken Burn’s Civil War.  I can feel.

And, yes, I think it does make some of my students uncomfortable.  But they get to see me not shying away from what makes me sad, they see me shake my head and move on, and they see that it is okay to show your feelings.

I’ve never had a student make fun of me, or at least, not in my presence, which is all I can ask.  Students have checked in with me later to see if I was okay.  This has allowed for some very deep conversations with students about what we saw and what it meant for us.

Do I recommend crying as a teaching tool?  Heavens no.  But I do suggest that when it is real, be real.

At the close of the video, we all could see how the Greeks were able to tap into those deep emotions,and Jim Henson’s company illustrates this beautifully.  As it is the day before Thanksgiving, we tied the lessons learned to being grateful for family and loved ones.  Then I passed back an assignment students did two days ago where they each wrote one thing they were thankful for about each of their classmates.  After the video, each student received a letter with a thank you for something from every member of the class, including me.  (We also did one for our school secretary.)  It was a nice way to bring us out of our Greek inspired pathos.

As Dr. Haim Ginott once said, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decided whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

What he means is more in response to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but I think he would agree, that my students seeing me in a moment of honest humanity, allows them to be humane.
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

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2 responses »

  1. As a man I still struggle with shedding tears in class. When I was younger it was easier. But then I got married so stories/movies that dealt with relationships and death hit me harder, then I became a father. I remember the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird as a father and was finally able to truly feel what Atticus was feeling when he said “Thank you Arthur. Thank you for my children.” I could barely finish it. And I definitely had wet eyes. I’m scared to read anything more than a sentence or two of Night now that my son is about the age of the boy in the book.

    But whenever I watch a sad movie or read a sad book with my son I see him looking at me out of the corner of his eye and I know he is seeing if I’m going to cry and internalizing whether it’s okay for him to cry. So I shed some tears, but try and hold it together it’s a stupid, silly, ironic, macho/man, thing where you are trying to be brave and yet you are not being brave and open with your feelings. But as I get older and as I see more… I get braver and more honest with my feelings.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Wow. Thank you. My husband and I have often talked about how different it can be for men than for women. I think that when a man of substance does cry, it must mean something pretty important. When my husband tears up, I know that he feels very strongly about something and that I should respect his feelings. Students and children, I’m sure, recognize this as well. It points clearly to the heart of humanity.

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