83: Learning My Lesson

83: Learning My Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Learning My Lesson

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

~Paul Boese

I had just received my first long-term teaching assignment days earlier. It was November, and a teacher in an inner-city school had to take an early maternity leave. I was offered the position teaching Core French and Art to Grade Seven and Eight pupils, but I was warned it was a tough assignment. I knew it was in a “rough” part of town. But at twenty-one, I was fresh out of teachers college and full of enthusiasm. I accepted.

I had four classes with over a hundred students to deal with. Some were friendly, and some were quiet and observant, but it seemed that most of the students were loud and disrespectful. All my wonderful lesson plans seemed to go awry as discipline became my number-one priority. My head spun as I tried to identify the “class clowns” with their snickering, inappropriate language and rude body noises. I’m sure it became a challenge to some of them to bring the new teacher down. Needless to say, at one point, I felt they had succeeded, when I found myself weeping in the principal’s office, telling her that I couldn’t take it anymore.

The principal, a Sister, was very supportive and marched into the classroom, ready to issue suspensions. I was simply to tell her who the culprits were. The class settled down and she left, advising me to send her anyone who was being disrespectful.

I began reviewing French vocabulary and was asking simple questions relating to Christmas. “What will you give your mother for Christmas?” My eyes scanned the classroom. Several pupils (the ones who had never given me any trouble) had their hands up. Others had bored looks and were doodling in their notebooks. Others simply had their heads down. I decided to single out one of the pupils with his head down, Robert.

“Robert, qu’est-ce que tu vas donner à ta mère pour Noël?”

The pupils with their heads down looked up. The others stopped doodling and stared at me. Progress, I thought with satisfaction. I finally had their undivided attention. I turned to Robert.

Robert had looked up, but his face, unlike the others, had contorted into a mask of pain. “I hate you!” he cried, and ran from the room.

What had I done? Stunned, I met the sea of frozen, unbelieving faces in the room.

“His mother committed suicide, Miss,” one of the girls near me said softly.

I wanted to cry. “I didn’t know,” I murmured in shock. “I didn’t know.”

Why, of all the pupils in the class, did I have to call on Robert? If I had known about his mother, I would never have used that question as an example. I felt heartbroken and battered, crushed and alone. Poor Robert, I wept inwardly. How must he be feeling?

The next few moments were a blur. Robert ran to the principal’s office, and she came back to the classroom, allowing me to speak to him privately in her office. His body was slumped in sorrow. I did the only thing I could do: I spoke to him from my heart. I told him how sorry I was, that I hadn’t known, and that I would never have wanted to hurt him or anybody in that way. I asked him for forgiveness.

Over the years, I have learned that when you speak from the heart, pupils listen. Robert believed me. I think he saw his pain reflected in my eyes. He sensed my sincerity and genuine sorrow. Robert taught me that you can’t assume that everyone in your class has a mother and father; that you should find out as much as you can about the students you will have in your care; that pupils have histories that are filled with pain and loss; and that you have to remember that you are not teaching “subjects,” but human beings with feelings and vulnerabilities.

As I struggled with the challenges and the shifting personalities of many students that first year, I realized that teaching was always going to be a learning and shifting experience, with successes and mistakes, triumphs and tribulations. Lessons to teach and lessons to learn.

Robert gave me my first gift as a teacher: the gift of forgiveness.

And a lesson I’ll never forget.

~Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli

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