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Be Better: The Nightmare Student

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Shortly after having my first child (one of those legendary babies that never slept, ate every two hours, and fussed all the time) I was at my wits end and came across a book on my husband’s bookshelf called A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. Sometimes the right book has the way of finding you at the perfect moment, and A Path with Heart was one of these books – a reminder that I wasn’t really losing my mind as a frazzled new mother.

There was one particular passage in the book in which Kornfield talks about challenges, those small, daily challenges that undo us one little knot at a time – the baby spitting up on your clothes just as you’re about to walk out the door; the colleague that snips at you unfairly; that parent email with a certain tone questioning how you handled an incident with her child the other day; the cable guy not showing up after you got off work early and waited for two hours. Kornfield, a Buddhist monk by training, suggests an activity to his reader: For one whole day, imagine that everyone and everything you encounter is your own teacher, a personal “buddha,” existing only for you and your own growth. Whatever you get – no matter how terrible – Kornfield suggests treating that person or experience as a teacher giving you the lesson you most need in that exact moment. Basically, he asks you to imagine every moment of one day as an opportunity.

I tried this for one day, and I experienced a radical shift. I had been very focused on the exhausting demands of new motherhood and what a difficult time I was having with it. On the “buddha day,” however, I saw my son not as a crying, anxious, insatiable being who sapped all my energy but as an opportunity to cultivate patience. And I realized, almost lightheartedly, that I really needed that. I have never been a patient person, and here was this beautiful six-month-old baby boy requiring massive amounts of my patience every day. He was a teacher and I hadn’t realized it. And suddenly all around, I realized the world was full of “buddhas.” The difficult co-worker or parent, the shoddy customer service, the bad weather – all of them seemed somehow new and full of opportunity for learning. That day I began to see them not as impediments to my good day, ruining it in small doses here or there. I actually began to welcome these “negative” interactions all day long and find a kind of humor and lightheartedness in them. If the grocery store cashier was rude, I simply took it as a chance to practice my kindness and make it my own private game to see if I could charm her. If the truck splashed the muddy puddle onto my clean pants, I just laughed to myself, my own private joke, and thought: “That’s interesting. Another opportunity to be patient today. I guess I’ll go back up to my apartment and change.” I admit that I only tried it consciously for one full day, but it was very powerful, and I haven’t looked at the world, or my role in it, quite the same way since.

“What does this have to do with education, Alexis?” you ask.

I’ll tell you. I’ve been thinking about this “buddha” activity lately in the context of teaching. I think we teachers make the mistake too often of taking things too personally, starting with our students. I’m the queen of this. I recall being unable to sleep some nights because I’d be so irked about what a student had done or said in a discussion. Let’s be honest – there are those students that just get under our skin, the ones who really push buttons, challenge authority, challenge our lessons and assignments, act as if they are just daring us to disagree with them.

I’ll be even more honest: for most of my career as a teacher, these students – usually male – drove me crazy. I put on a brave face, but I absolutely loathed having these boys in my class, challenging me (a young, female teacher). I really just wanted those students to go away.

But they never do just go away – buddhas rarely do. And perhaps it was having two very challenging, energetic, and mischievous little boys of my own that helped me understand this lesson as well. But recently I began to embrace the student that is my worst nightmare and welcome him or her into the fold. A perfect example is my student Jack from a few years ago, a student who monopolized the discussions, who loved to shout down everyone else, who relished saying things that would provoke his classmates or me (“feminists are whiny”). Before I would have agonized over having Jack in my class and felt that he was ruining the whole thing.

But after reading A Path with Heart, I began to look at Jack as an opportunity to do two things: to ask myself what it is that I most needed to learn as an educator right then and to reach out to a kid that was not expecting it because he worked hard to push others away.

The results were very interesting. On further reflection, I found that I needed to be a more inclusive educator, inviting many different kinds of voices, experiences, and critiques to the table. I wasn’t always good about that, crusader that I was for certain values. Jack taught me that. And I also found that when I reached out to students like Jack and made them feel welcome – included not defensive, observant not contrarian – something unexpected happened: the Jacks of the world became my favorite students. How had I never noticed that they were so insightful? So honest? So creative? And as I responded more warmly to their questioning nature, they, too softened and became more open and engaged.

And there was something else that I noticed: those Jacks from my past that I thought of as my nemeses in my early years had grown up and were the former students of mine that were doing by far the most interesting things: living halfway around the world, getting PhDs, starting businesses. It’s never the docile parrots that change the world, is it? Why, I had to ask myself, had I been trying to encourage students to question everything and then recoiling when they tried to question me?

So thanks to Jack Kornfield (another “Jack”) for teaching me that we sometimes need to embrace our nightmare scenarios if only to see that what can seem like a menace is really just an opportunity. Your least favorite student (or parent, or colleague…) may just be your greatest teacher yet.

Try the “buddha” challenge for one day at school this week and see what happens.

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