20: Tools of the Trade

20: Tools of the Trade

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Tools of the Trade

Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.

~Elie Wiesel

There are days when I find it necessary to step outside my classroom and check to be sure that my name is still in the TEACHER space over my door. Sometimes I feel that I am a student in my classroom rather than the teacher.

My sixth grade students were seated in a large circle on the floor of our classroom. Each student held a different tool in his or her hand. Some were common tools—a hammer, a wrench, a flashlight, a screwdriver—and others were unfamiliar tools to the students—a copper pipe cutter, an awl, a chalk line. The lesson had gone perfectly. The students discussed how words are like tools—they have the ability to build or to destroy, and they discovered how the right tool used at the right time for the right job can yield great results. The sixth graders freely shared personal stories of how they had experienced someone’s words used as a tool, to wound or to heal, and some even bravely shared how they had personally used their words at times as tools to hurt or to help others.

I watched and listened with a sense of satisfaction—the students were engaged, attentive, and enjoying the lesson. They got it! It was one of those times when I sat back and reveled in the magic of being a teacher—to have the opportunity to watch young people discover a greater truth about life, about each other, and about themselves.

A few days later, one of my students, Laura, had an unexpected and uncharacteristic outburst of disruptive defiance in class. She refused to work with her group. I was aware from reading Laura’s file that she had struggled with defiant behavior in previous years, but we had developed a good rapport and she was always a respectful, thoughtful, and positive contributor to our class. Her behavior caught me off guard. I asked her to excuse herself and told her I would visit with her in our next door team center in just a minute. She refused to leave and sat silently glaring at me from the back of the room. I rather firmly told her she needed to excuse herself—this was NOT optional. She knew I meant it. She marched from the back of the room to our classroom door—huffing and shooting me an angry look, then proceeded to slam the door as she left for the team meeting room.

I continued our lesson and when the students were working together in their groups, I motioned to my aide that I was going to step out to visit with Laura. I gently closed our classroom door behind me, then marched the five steps next door to our meeting room where Laura was seated. In an unexpected and uncharacteristic gesture of frustration, I slammed the meeting room door behind me. As I stood over her, I began to express how disrespectful and uncalled-for her behavior had been to our class. Her defiance had triggered a wave of out-of-character anger in me and I was sharp in my tone and harsh with my words.

Without looking at me, she absorbed the brunt of my anger with a rigid and steely exterior. When I paused for her response, she slowly turned and smugly stated, “You’re using your tool against me.”

I was speechless. There are times as a teacher when you are at a critical crossroads with a student and the road you choose will make all the difference. Although part of me resented that she was continuing to be so defiant—even in her brilliant rebuke—I paused to reflect on a quote that is posted on our team center wall: “THINK! What is the right thing to do, and do that.” The truth of Laura’s words and our team center’s quote penetrated my conscience like a sharp scalpel.

I knew at that moment the right thing to do was to humbly bend my knee, kneel down next to her chair, and softly say, “You’re right, Laura, you are so right. I have used my words unwisely and unkindly. Will you forgive me?” I paused and waited silently next to her chair and gently put my hand on her arm to reassure her of my sincerity. Her defiance slowly melted away. She turned and looked me in the eye and simply said, “Yes, I forgive you, Mrs. Ekre. I’m sorry, too.” We continued to visit a bit longer and shared a few laughs and a couple of tears. Eventually, we walked back into the classroom together.

For the rest of the day and the rest of the year, Laura never had another outburst. At the end of the year, she wrote me a beautiful letter about how she loved being in my class and that some of the most important lessons she learned, she learned in Room 25. Attached to the note was a small key—a tool, she said, for a language arts teacher who taught her how important words can be. It serves as my reminder of a lesson I taught as a teacher but one I really learned from my student.

~Beth Ekre
2009 North Dakota State Teacher of the Year
Social Studies, Language Arts teacher, grade 6

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