Taking it Personally

Ruby slippers.JPG
Ruby slippers” by RadioFan at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I’m not feeling very empathic right now. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and I’m worried about my seniors.  This is nothing new. In fact, this is pretty much the story of my life.

Every. Single. Year.

This is the time of year where my students begin breaking down.  Not turning in drafts of essays, not reading assignments, fake-reading assignments, not attending school, not understanding that they need to ask about what they missed in a timely manner when they did not attend school. Letting drama with friends and romantic interests overtake their entire lives.

In general, struggling with the concept of incipient adult type things. Like showing up and asking questions and prioritizing and cutting off destructive relationships.

Come to think of it, I also know some adults who struggle with those adult type things.  

But I digress.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a colleague was something I heard in the copy room (where else do we have our best professional development?):  I was lamenting my students’ lack of motivation or ability or whatever, and she looked at me and said,  “Always remember, they’re only 15.”  

I’ve never forgotten that. It has helped me through many an interesting incident in school. Throwing a paper wad  into the trash for a 3-pointer?  They’re only 15.  Forgot that we have a test today even though we’ve talked about it for 4 days in a row? They’re only 15. Can’t remember to bring a pencil/put your name on your paper/capitalize the pronoun “I”? They’re only 15. Thinking that I can’t see them texting in their lap/pocket/purse large enough to hold a small dog in which they have arms buried up to the elbow? They’re only 15.

Now that I teach older students, I just keep repeating to myself, “They’re only 17. They’re only 17.” And for a few students, “They’re only 18.”  If I say it enough times, a la Dorothy Gale, perhaps I will make it home to my metaphorical Kansas, a place where I always enjoy teaching and the students all love me.

And where everyone can capitalize the pronoun “I.”

In my nerdier moments, which let’s face it, is pretty much every moment with me, I even pull out the scientific facts to comfort myself: “They have brains that are not fully myelinated; their pre-frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed.

Yeah, I really do say things like that.

There are days, like yesterday, where I just want to have a pity party.  Teaching is my life’s work, and I am a person who cares deeply about the investment I have made in this work.  And it hurts when a student doesn’t appreciate the work I’ve put into trying to make the class something worthwhile.  

At times like these, I have to step back (after multiple cups of herbal tea, headache medicine, comforting music, and a fun book or television show), repeat my mantra, They’re only 17, and get over myself.  I am a paid professional with multiple degrees. They, although sometimes much larger and even older-looking than I am, are not.

So, today I am creating a new challenge for myself. It’s called “Jennifer’s Guide to Not Taking it Personally.”

Here are some highlights:

  • Instead of fixating on the few who are making me want to question my life goals, I will focus on the many kids who are doing the right thing.  There are so, so many amazing students, and I should notice them more.  I will compliment the student who has beautiful notes every single day.  The student who is prepared for discussion every time.  The student who always, diligently, does his or her work, often unnoticed.  I will let them know: I see you.
  • I will start a conversation with a student who is faithful and diligent but perhaps quiet.  I will choose a different student that I don’t know as well and try to get to know her, to draw her out of her shell a bit.
  • I will not spend too much time agonizing over grades for students who haven’t put forth a good faith effort.  Instead, I will pass it back; I will then ask him or her to redo it.  In other words, I will spend about as much time on grading the work as the student put into completing it.  As much as I can within the confines of my district, I will teach for mastery rather than for number grades.  If a student hasn’t shown a good faith effort towards mastery, I will ask for another attempt rather than try to figure out how to give him or her points.
  • I will not engage in long conversations about excuses.  I will calmly (with the help of herbal tea) accept that the student didn’t complete whatever it is he needed to complete, briefly and impartially inform him of the consequence for that particular action, and move on to something more interesting, like teaching my actual content.
  • In the midst of this frustration, I will be kind. I will be kind. I will be kind. I will listen, smile, greet, laugh, apologize, and try my very best to be fair.
  • I will teach my heart out, even if I’m the only one who cares that day. I will deliver a dang good lesson for myself and have an amazing time doing it.  

So there.  And so now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m due for a good night’s sleep.



  1. You can not possibly know how timely this is (as I have World Experience students leaving tutorials because they are now scrambling to make up an online assignment that they didn’t bother doing in the first place but now that grades are due are suddenly worried about their score and want to know how quickly I can get them graded and entered because scoring them all over the holiday wasn’t enough of a drain on my time you get the picture. Whew.) I started to copy & quote a few of your bullet points but then realized it ALL is relevant, applicable and desperately needed in my life right now!

    I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.


  2. 80/20 We have to chose sometimes, spend 80% of our time on the 20% of the kids who drain us of all that is good and fun and motivated OR spend that 80% on those that deserve all we have to give and leave the 20%ers to their natural consequences. I like to remind them that we are the last free education these kids will ever get, not that it matters to them but, I feel better! Certainly, we find kids who worm their way into our hearts in spite of their past bad behaviors and it is important to leave room for grace – because we are called to this noble profession.


    1. So true. I have tons of students that I love who were not the best students when they were in my class! Sometimes that offer of grace can be part of what helps them grow up.


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