Truth for Teachers Collective | Jul 7, 2021
I stopped being a “polished professional” and started showing up in my classroom as an authentic, messy human. Here’s what happened.
By Victoria Hanson
My first year of teaching landed me in the corner of my classroom.
I had my face turned away towards the wall in an attempt to hide a torrent of tears as our school’s Occupational Therapist ushered my students out for a “bonus recess” in the middle of the day. I was at my wit’s end but mortified with myself for not being able to keep it together. I had failed to show up as the educator who I believed I needed to be and could feel my perfectly crafted, “Polished Professional” persona crumbling.
I was trying to maintain this persona for my students and colleagues because I believed that was how to prove my effectiveness as an educator. I had some ingrained beliefs that dictated how I showed up in my classroom, and while many of those beliefs served a purpose or stemmed from good intentions, they led to the breakdown of my own wellbeing. The way I was showing up wasn’t sustainable, nor was it creating an environment that allowed my students or myself to flourish.
After that first year, I started to examine my Polished Professional and her core beliefs. My students and I spent our morning meetings exploring mindset, mindfulness, and emotions. We read literature with strong characters who exemplified these traits. We learned breathing and movement strategies that could help us to cope with strong emotions. While my students engaged with these things at the moment, the lessons weren’t sticking. There was still a part of me that was deeply unsatisfied with how I felt while in the classroom.
At some point, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to gush about how important it is to show up bravely in the world and communicate how you’re feeling. I could provide endless examples in literature and have students practice belly breathing every day, but there was a crucial element missing. My students weren’t staring at the mindset trait of the week or interacting with the strong characters in those books all day — they were watching me. I was the missing piece, and I had to show up.
Part of the problem was that I wasn’t allowing myself the space to explore the pieces that go into this on my own. I wasn’t sure how to share some of my emotions or struggles with my students. The Polished Professional’s core beliefs weren’t allowing me to show up the way my students needed me to. I needed to shift those core beliefs because my students weren’t benefiting from the Polished Professional. They needed me to be part of the growth process. They needed a Messy Human.
Polished Professional Core Belief 1: Everyone Else First
Messy Human Trait: Communicate Your Own Needs
As educators, we learn how to read the needs of those around us. We scan our students’ body language and verbal responses so that we can adjust our approach. We know the value of supporting others and learn how to become excellent nurturers. The downfall is that we often lose sight of our own needs in the process.
The desire to always appear calm and composed for my students led me to ignore any needs that bubbled up for me. If uncomfortable emotions appeared, I felt like it was my job to hide them. Not being able to express these things, I had a tendency to hold them inside. This usually resulted in me tensing up, becoming irritable, or breaking down.
The irony was that I was trying to teach my students about communication and emotional intelligence while neglecting it in my own life. This wasn’t leading to authentic modeling. It was also causing me to show up in ways that I didn’t enjoy in our learning space.
But sharing my needs felt selfish and showing up as an angry, sad, or anxious human felt messy. So I started small. I let my students know that the sound of Velcro hurt my throat and asked that they give me a heads up before using it around me. I let myself get choked up during our read-aloud of The One And Only Ivan. These small instances helped foster group discussion about things like pet peeves, respecting boundaries, and expressing emotions.
I then started to tune into my body throughout the day. I connected sensations to emotions and used the management techniques I had taught to my students. I shared things like, “I’m noticing I’m feeling frustrated because there is more than one voice on while I am trying to explain the directions. Could you please give me a minute to take a deep breath so that I can communicate with you calmly?” Sometimes I would tell students how the emotion felt in my body. Other times I would share how I was feeling and ask for student feedback about what we could do as a class to support and remedy the situation.
This open line of communication offered an avenue for students to start considering their own needs. It took practice to pay attention to my body so I knew my students would need support to tune into theirs. I started drawing purposeful attention to body language when working one-on-one with a student. I would say things like “I’m noticing that you’re resting your head on your arms while we’re reading together. What are you feeling right now?” or “Let’s take a deep breath together. What are you noticing in your body?”
Students started to use specific language to communicate what they felt. They would ask to use certain strategies to get through tough spots during the day or suggest options for classmates who were struggling. It wasn’t uncommon to see a student close his eyes and take a deep belly breath during a test while his table mates continued to work without batting an eye.
What amazed me is that students only started putting these things into practice when they saw me practicing them too. What I thought was selfish behavior was the most powerful tool for change. This perspective shift is the most difficult of them all and it didn’t happen overnight. It took several consistent and vulnerable moments to get here. But once students start to witness you identifying what’s going on in your inner world and stating your needs, it offers a clear avenue to better understand their own.
Polished Professional Core Belief 2: Maintain Control
Messy Human Trait: Invite Student Input And Problem-Solving
In my mind, maintaining control was the most important ingredient in a safe classroom. While there is an element of truth to this, I soon became rigid and regimented. I had an internal meltdown when students acted out of character or pushed the boundaries. When my classroom climate got out of control or I’d get a “negative” report on class behavior from specialists, I would panic. I felt like my students’ behaviors were a reflection of me as a teacher, and that the only way to fix it was to tighten control. This is when you would find us gathered on the rug and hear me say something to the effect of, “Because so many of you are having a hard time not fooling around with your partners, you will all have to work individually now.”
This changed when a colleague pointed out that each student was capable of making their own choices. I could set up expectations and boundaries, but could I actually control them? This idea shifted my perspective. We were a collective group of thinkers, and my job was to foster that.
After this, it wasn’t uncommon to still find our classroom community gathered on the rug in a circle. But this time I started to invite them into a discussion. Now it was more common to hear me say something like, “I’m noticing that we’re having a hard time staying focused when we work in partnerships. What are you noticing? What do you want me to know about it? How do you think we can fix it?”
The students took this community gathering very seriously. There was an acknowledgment of responsibility. They knew they had an important part to play in fixing something that wasn’t serving everyone. I was still able to share my own thoughts and reasons about the problem with the students, but I was no longer seen as the person who “made the rules.” They solved many issues on their own. When we made a decision it was much easier to remind students of what we agreed upon if the issue arose again to help redirect behavior.
The mindset shift occurred when I realized I could not control my students’ behaviors or choices. Instead, I could guide them to become more aware, intentional, and empowered in their actions.
Polished Professional Core Belief 3: Don’t Let Them Peek Behind The Curtain
Messy Human Trait: Share Your Stories
In my early years of teaching, I was often afraid of sharing anything about my personal life with my students. I was taught that it was unprofessional and took that advice to heart. My students didn’t have a true glimpse into who I was as a human beyond how I showed up in the classroom (and the fact that I had a dog and that my favorite food is ice cream).
But the more my students and I delved into our mindset work, the more my personal stories organically bubbled to the surface. During our discussion about bravery, I found myself recalling the way I didn’t stand up for a friend in elementary school. I asked my students questions like, “Why do you think I did that? Why do you think I’m still bothered by how I acted now and wish I had acted differently?” When we discussed asking for help I shared how, earlier that morning, I was overwhelmed by what I had to get done. Our classroom paraprofessional stepped in to take over some of my tasks. “How do you think that made me feel? Why do you think it was hard for me to ask for help in the first place?”
It is still important to use your discretion when sharing. Consider the emotional development of your students and the appropriateness of what you share. But opening up about your own trials and triumphs creates a connection. My students soaked up my stories, awed by the fact that their teacher struggled with some of the same challenges as they did. And I felt more connected to them for it.
Polished Professional Core Belief 4: You Are The “Expert”
Messy Human Trait: Use Honesty
Honesty is one of the things I thought I was doing well in the classroom. But the truth is, this Messy Human trait didn’t blossom until I challenged some of the other Polished Professional beliefs.
Of course, I was honest with my students in many ways up to this point. But I felt a deep need to maintain the position of “expert” within our space. I believed that to be a successful teacher, I always needed to demonstrate my knowledge, expertise, and competency. I needed to be the one who had the answers because I believed this is how my students would feel safe. I believed this is how I would maintain respect.
It is no doubt important for students to feel safe and trust that you will guide them. I still believe students need to know that you will show up consistently in order for them to grow. But this does not mean that you need to be a shining, all-knowing, stoic example.
My quest for greater honesty started small and with a very simple phrase: “I don’t know.” If a student asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to, there was no more waffling or redirecting to keep up appearances. Instead, you might hear something like, “That’s a great question! I’m actually not sure about the answer — let’s look it up together.” Or “I’m not an expert on that topic. Let’s fact-check that.”
Despite my fears that I would lose trust and respect, admitting when I didn’t know the answer caused a huge shift in student perspective. I was no longer the go-to for all knowledge, but the one to consult about how to find knowledge. Students were learning to dig deeper and ask critical questions. They were learning how to research and where to go to uncover the information they were seeking. They knew it was okay to move into unknown territory. I was still a stable constant because my students knew that if I didn’t have the answer, I would help them to find it.
This subtle shift increased trust within our classroom space. My capacity for honesty expanded even more. If I wanted to change a classroom habit, I would inform the students and ask for their help. If I had to learn a new piece of curriculum and still felt unsure about it, I would admit it to my students. I’d let them know that I could make a lot of mistakes, or we may have to try something more than once. I asked for their patience. They gave it to me.
Polished Professional Core Belief 5: Perfection Is Attainable
Messy Human Trait: Show Up Imperfectly
If your students are anything like mine, you know how much they love pointing out when you make a mistake. I used to bristle when, standing at the front of the room and receiving the kind of spelling amnesia you only get from staring at a whiteboard, I’d hear a student call out, “Miss Hanson! You spelled ‘principal’ wrong!”
But once I started to embody more of the Messy Human traits, this bristling went away. It was much easier to laugh at myself and admit my mistakes. This also invited discussion about how to approach someone with kindness when you think they’ve made one.
Not only did this shift help my students to see my humanity, but it also normalized mistakes. They became more comfortable with making their own and helping their classmates. It also helped them gain the confidence and skills to politely disagree, debate, and think critically.
Yet sometimes mistakes go beyond the realm of academics. Despite our best efforts to show up in our classrooms with kindness and intention each day, there will still be situations when the darker side of our Messy Human gets the best of us. There will be days when we are still cranky, tired, and impatient. We won’t always choose the “best” words to use or respond in the way we wish to.
Know that these mistakes are still bound to happen. They don’t make us bad humans or educators, but remind us of our limits and give us opportunities to respond with grace. When these moments arise, give yourself time to process. Then acknowledge those moments with your students and apologize as needed. You can invite discussion where appropriate and put in place any of the strategies listed above, and then forgive yourself. Your most uncomfortable moments are important for students to witness and can turn into powerful modeling opportunities.
When I began to challenge the Polished Professional’s beliefs, my classroom transformed. My students started to show up, and with a lot less fear. They began to own their imperfections, spot their needs, ask for help, offer support, and use strategies. Not only did I see a profound change within my students, but I felt much safer, satisfied, and joyful showing up in our classroom as a human being.
There is a power in being your authentic self with your students. When they realize you face similar struggles and need the same support, there is a sharing of humanity. And the moment your students realize that you are human, magic occurs. My students needed the magic that came with revealing my Messy Human. And the truth is, I needed my Messy Human too.
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