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Don't Get Ego-­Invested

Author: Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase

One of our teachers came into Chris's office and said, “I'm concerned about one of my students.” When Chris asked why, the teacher told him that the student had her head down in class and was really not engaging in the lesson. He went over to her and gave her some options—she could reengage with the class if she was capable, she could go see her coadvisor, go see the counselor, or even go to Chris's office and just be, but she couldn't stay in class unengaged. The student left class but didn't go any of those places, which the teacher quickly realized. He used our Slate system—the School Information System that we created with the Philadelphia web development firm (—to send a message of concern to the student, her mom, and Chris. The student had been having a rough go of it lately, so this was not the first message that mother had received.

The young woman returned to class after being called by her mom, and as the teacher checked in with her, she looked at him and said, “Why do all you teachers have to be so [you can imagine the word she used] helpful all the time? Why can't you just leave us alone?”

The teacher didn't react in a “How dare you use that language with me?” manner. He didn't send her to the office. And he definitely did not turn the situation into a power struggle in the classroom. Instead, he saw a student whom he had known for three years as an advisee and a student who was not OK, and he saw that, in that moment, he was not going to be the adult who was able to break through her anger and get her. So he came to Chris.

Not to get her in trouble.

Not to “report” her.

But to see if Chris could help. That matters. A lot.

So Chris found her and asked her to come to his office. Needless to say, she thought she was in trouble. Students know they shouldn't curse out their teachers.

Instead, Chris told her that her teacher was worried about her, and he asked her what we could do to help.

And the wall came down. She was having a really lousy day. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing that wouldn't get better, but the kind of day that really makes it hard to be in a classroom, because there's no way you're going to focus.

She and Chris talked about that for a while. And then Chris was able to say, “You know, you cursed out your advisor, and his first reaction was that he was worried you weren't OK. He could have gotten all teacher-angry on you, and he didn't.”

That was all she needed. She said, “Yeah, that wasn't OK, what I did. I need to go talk to him. I need to go apologize. I wasn't mad at him. That wasn't right to do that.”

That's massive. That's the ball game. It is everything we want.

And it happened because a teacher cared more about his student than he did about his teacher-self.

It happened because a teacher knew that it really does take a village sometimes, and he knew that it was going to take more than one adult to help the student with where she was that day.

It happened because a student was very willing to move past her own defensiveness and see that she wasn't “in trouble,” but that her behavior hurt someone who cared for her, and that wasn't OK with her.

Mostly it happened because that teacher wasn't ego-invested in his dominance in the classroom. He saw pain where others might have seen only defiance. He saw a kid he cared about, a kid he knew cared about him, lashing out, and that worried him enough to ask for help.

We can get ego-invested in so many ways in our classrooms. We can fall in love with our own sense of authority. We can fall in love with our ability to be the one to “save” kids who don't need saving but who need care. We can fall in love with the bunker mentality—that we, and only we, can make a difference, to the exclusion of the other adults in a child's life.

This teacher did none of those things, so a young woman could trust him and could own her own mistake without feeling defensive. And yes, she doubled back to him and apologized completely. She owned that she was wrong, that she had treated him poorly, and that he didn't deserve it. And she simply apologized, meant it, and told him she would do better.

We are sure that she missed some good course content that day. But we trust that she can catch up. What she —and we—learned that day was every bit as important.

From Theory to Practice

  • Often the conflicts between teachers and students (a) are unrelated to what is going on in school, (b) are due to a student's inability to understand something in the classroom, or (c) stem from a student's frustration with her own lack of success. Examine a recent conflict you have had with a student. Ask yourself, “What was the student really angry about?” If we can understand student anger from a different perspective, we can work with students from a very different perspective. Find the student you had that conflict with. Be willing to sit down and ask him questions about why he was angry and if there was anything you could have done differently in that moment to have defused that anger.
  • Talk to other teachers. Don't assume that everything in your classroom has to happen in a vacuum. If a student is on a sports team, ask the coach how she works with the student. If a student has better success in another classroom, talk to that teacher. If everyone is frustrated, bring in another voice—a counselor or an administrator—who is willing to sit with the student and a teacher or two and talk through the frustration.

DMU Timestamp: October 27, 2015 10:51

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