Why I made them cry

Today was a challenging day.  Today I made two children cry.

But I’m not sorry.

I teach in a district where the families are generally well off. The kids are very much beloved and very much protected.  They have parents who love them to distraction and who try very, very hard to prevent any situation that might cause them stress.

While that’s a sweet and endearing attribute in a parent, I’m not so sure that it is good for the kids.

Sometimes a little anxiety is a good thing. Sometimes it is a growth experience.

Take little “J”, for example.  Today we were doing math, and we were reviewing how to round numbers.  When I asked the kids what it meant to “round”, and how we knew whether to round up or not, “J” raised her hand and cheerily began to explain, “You look at the number and see if its more than half.”   I nodded, then pushed her a bit. “Which number?”  She frowned. “You look at the number, and see if its five or more.”   I tried again.  “OK.  But which number are we looking at, and why?”

I pointed to the board, where I had the problem written. I tapped the number in question, hoping to prompt her.  But her head went down, her lip came out, and she crossed her arms.  “J”, I said, “You’re on the right track.  But I want the kids to understand which number needs to be more five or more if we are going to round up.”  I kept prompting, but she refused to look up.  She wiped away tears and maintained a stoic pout.

I wanted to shake her.  I wanted to say, “Listen.  You won’t always be exactly right on your first try.  Challenge yourself a little!  Think!”

Eventually, she came around, and I was able to show her classmates that she had started us off on the right path, but that we needed to always talk about our thinking and figure out WHY something works.  Those tears and that little sulk meant that I was taking “J” out of her complacent comfort zone.  And she needed it.

Or I could tell you about “A”.  This child is struggling with serious learning disabilities, especially in reading and writing.  She has a language disorder. For all that, though, it is her habit of whispering and lowering her head while she speaks that I believe is her greatest handicap.

This little girl often chooses to hide behind her long, thick hair, letting it cover her face and hide her eyes when she feels challenged in any way.

If I let her continue to speak in the voice of a timid toddler, if I continue to let her hide behind that curtain of curls, I will be allowing her to hide from what she wants for herself.

See, she has told me, more than once, that she wants to study science. She wants to be a doctor or a science teacher.  She dreams of having a job where she will need to present herself with authority and confidence.

She can do it.  She just needs me to push her.

This week it is her turn to be the “meeting leader”.  She needs to choose how we will greet each other each morning, and she must give the directions to her classmates.  She wants to lower her head and whisper without opening her mouth or lifting her head. She hopes, on some level, that I will repeat her words to the others.

I won’t do it.  I tell the kids to ask her for a repetition if they couldn’t hear.  I tell them to ask her to clarify, to be specific about what she wants from us. Gradually, after several tries, she gives us directions in a clear voice, defining the exact parameters for the “famous person greeting”.  She is angry, I can see it, but she has spoken up.  She has made a decision and she’s given us directions.  Just as we are about to follow them, I look at “A”.  She is looking back at me with a fiery glare. Her brown eyes are filled with tears.  Her anger has given her the power that she needed to make her voice heard.  Before she can look away, I nod my head. I give her a quick thumbs up.

She looks away, wiping tears from her cheeks.

We do the greeting, exactly the way she had planned.

I am not sorry that I made her cry.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Like, like, like! That’s our job. We need to challenge kids. If they know we love them, they will bounce back from the tears. I had a little boy with Downs in my class a few years back. Sometimes he would cry when I pushed him to do his work. He wanted to play and dance around and because he was so darn cute he was used to getting away with it. But he was smart and capable, so I expected him to do work that was at his level. His mother was fantastic. She knew that the only way he would progress is if we all treated him like the smart boy he was. And he did. And I still adore him and he still gives me hugs years later. Keep up the good work, Teach!


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