“How honest should I be with my students?”. This is the question I asked myself in my inner debate over whether I should share my disappointment with them concerning their lack of motivation in bringing guests to our youth meeting.
My concern was that my words would deflate them and make me look weak; like the Tennessee Professor who eviscerated a student by screaming at them, ”Out! Get out! You have failed this course, whatever your name is! Out! Out! Out! Out!”
Afterwards, the Professor said,
“I deeply regret what happened in class. I lost my temper and did something I should never have done,” he told the station. “I have been under pressure lately, and I have been frustrated with students who pay attention to their cellphones and laptops, then wonder why they get low grades. But that does not excuse my behavior. I apologized to the students and offered my resignation. I am now retired, as I had planned anyway. Please respect my privacy, it is over now.” – Yahoo News
Here are three statements that reveal why, I believe, this toxic explosion happened,
"I have been under a lot of pressure lately"
Personal or outside pressure to perform builds up your insecurity and fear making you react like cornered, wounded animals. You take everything personally, even a student being on their phone.
"I have been frustrated with students paying more attention to their tech than me"
When the people you have been called to lead do not respond the way you think they should, you take it personally; you begin to wonder why you even chose to do what you do. When you are hurt, you are vulnerable to hurting others.
"I am mad that these same students wonder why they're failing"
Whether you’re a teacher, pastor or manager, you invest yourself into others in the hopes that the people you are teaching/training are picking up what you’re laying down. When they don’t adapt or achieve and then blame you as the reason why, you can become numb leading you to throw up your hands and just not care anymore.
This incident made me think even harder about not only WHAT I wanted to say to my students, but HOW, so I took these steps before saying a word.
I deconstructed my disappointment
Why was I disappointed? To be honest, I was more disappointed in myself. Why can’t I motivate my students? What’s wrong with me? What am I doing wrong?
It’s easy to blame students, but blaming students is a dead end. Leadership requires accountably. I’m not saying that students aren’t accountable, but accountability starts with me.
I felt powerless to change things (people) and powerlessness led to fear of what others would think of me. This made me mad.
I started projecting my hurt over my performance onto others as if to say, “you people are standing in the way of my grand scheme.” This kind of pride can only lead to frustration and eventual toxic behavior.
Getting to the root of why I was disappointed with my students/myself clarified the direction I should take with my students.
Dealing with disappointment in ministry is a skill we must master because as long as we work with people, including ourselves, there will be disappointments.
I had to decompress my emotions
After getting to the root of my disappointments, I had to deal with my emotions.
What and who was I angry at? Was this justified?
If I said the things I was going to say, with the emotions I started with, what’s the outcome?
I knew the answers right off the bat. No, I was not justified. These emotions were not helpful and it would have hurt others rather than help them. In fact, it’s possible I could have lost more students and only escalated my problems.
The first person I talked to about this was God. He knew how I felt. He didn’t judge me. He just listened and loved me in all my frustration. Like the Psalmist, I poured out my heart to Him and emptied my emotional tank of toxic emotions.
Communicating my frustrations, in a safe space, released the heat and intensity of my emotions and prepared me talk to my students about some hard truth’s with a clean slate.
I understand why the Tennessee teacher yelled at his students. He had worked his whole life teaching students. The world changed around him. Technology made students more distracted and less interested in what he was saying and he could not or would not adapt.
I don’t approve of what he did but I do empathize with the reasons that most likely led to this outburst.
If he’d though about his students before his own hurt ego, we wouldn’t be talking about his poor reaction to his students’ apathy.
Without excusing my students for decisions they make, let me offer a few insights that I meditated on and that tempered my initial approach,
- My students are good students. They’re growing up in a world they did not ask for and doing the best they can.
- Me pressuring them to perform will not make them perform better. They have enough pressure on them from multiple sources (school, coaches, bosses, parents, etc.) and I don’t need add spiritual pressure to the list. Accountability, yes. Pressure, no.
- These students are young and not quite there yet in their spiritual formation to understand the practical or theological reasons I challenge them to bring guests to our youth group.
- I have only been with them 11 months, we’re still in the trust phase.
There’s more reasons (not excuses) I could put on this list but an empathetic approach de-escalated my intensity.
In the end, I had a good discussion with our students. No feelings were hurt, that I know of, and I did my best to build them up. My talk wasn’t perfect but it was better than the alternative.
Honesty comes out whether we want it to or not. Sarcasm, anger, degrading comments disguised as company policy or spiritual truths aren’t helpful. If you do not deconstruct your disappointments, decompress your emotions and deploy empathy, you might just be a Tennessee Teacher waiting to happen.
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