“How many of you are happy?”
Obviously some of my fourth graders were not, seeing that the majority randomly decided not to participate in a song they all love. But I wanted to find out why.
One of the biggest challenges I am faced with as a teacher is dealing with student’s emotions, particularly those of the less happy variety. I naïvely did not expect to have to deal with tears, cranky attitudes, and stubborn cheerlessness, because, well, I simply didn’t think those issues would ever come up, especially not in my classroom. But at this point, I cannot even count how many students I have seen brought to tears in my classroom. And the strangest thing is most of the time I don’t even understand why they are crying in the first place!
Sometimes one student is mean to another by stealing, hitting, or shunning, which is dealt with immediately by separating the malefactor from the victim and helping them to self-evaluate, reconcile, and learn to make better choices.
Other times a student will accidentally hurt themselves on the playground and there’s not much I can do but tell them to be more careful. But the ones that are the hardest to deal with are those that seem randomly despondent and unwilling to participate. Such as the students I had in my fourth-grade class (who most of which were now avoiding my eyes as I awaited a response to my first question).
Seeing that only a few had raised their hands with an unusual eagerness, I continued.
“Okay, who’s sad?”
This time, a few other hands were raised, the rest of the class remaining silent and still for no determinable reason. At this point, I decided it was finally time to subtly increase their emotional quotient (also known as emotional intelligence, or the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions).
If I could get my class to realize that they can control their emotions rather than have their emotions control them, everyone would be a lot happier and class would run a lot smoother. How hard could it be? All I had to do was begin by helping them identify what was making them unhappy and why. So I asked:
“Alright, why? Why are you sad?”
No one answered.
I could only think of a few reasons why they might not be happy. One being that when class started they had decided to be disruptive, playing their recorders and talking out of turn. This evoked a response from the Khmer teacher who, hearing the commotion and lack of control, charged in with a harsh native tongue saying something so immobilizing that it left the children looking as a child does upon emerging from a magical day at Disneyland to be met with the cold, unsympathetic populace of a crime-infested Los Angeles. She then advanced to the traffic light poster that hangs behind her desk and moved their little car magnets (each labeled with the respective child’s name) from the green light (good) to the yellow (not so good). And that’s when my students seemed to lose all sense of motivation.
Now gesturing to the poster, I began to explain choice theory (the theory that says “…We can control our feelings and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.” [See http://www.wglasser.com/the-glasser-approach/choice-theory for more]); though in much simpler terms:
“Did you know that happiness is a choice? You can choose whether you want to be happy or sad. This,” I said, gesturing to the car magnets now fixed to the yellow light, “doesn’t have to make you sad. This is how we learn. When you see this you know, ‘Okay, I messed up, but next time I’m going to do better!’”
Realizing there’s a lot more to the psychology of emotions that I wasn’t explaining, I felt pressed to enlighten them further.
“That’s not to say it’s not okay to be sad,” I conceded, glancing at the Khmer teacher who had an increasing look of bafflement, “you may have a very good reason to be sad.”
Growing more aware of the depth and complexity of the subject I was diving into, I abruptly cut to a conclusion.
“But we want you to be happy! So if you find that you are sad, don’t be afraid to let us help you.”
Observing no positive change in their demeanor (in fact, if anything they were becoming more despondent), the Khmer teacher turned to me, smiled, and in a Khmer accent:
“Don’t say anything, you just confuse them more.”
Ouch…I knew she meant well, but it still hurt to hear that. I thought that what I was saying could only help and encourage them. But I couldn’t leave on that note. So, considering that I may have done more harm than good, I gave one more valiant effort to cheer them up using the most eagerly awaited phrase known by every Khmer student:
“Goodbye class. See you tomorrow!”
And to my surprise, all I received was a singular cynical reply. “Goodbye teacher. See you in five years!”
As I returned to my office replaying the comment in my head, I grew increasingly discouraged. And it was then that I realized that my “Happiness is a choice” speech was a bit too optimistic and, in reality, difficult to apply.
Now struggling to increase my own emotional quotient, I began to reason why I was so discouraged. I hadn’t been able to explain a concept I passionately believe in to those who I thought could benefit from it most. I felt unjustifiably rejected by my class as I had done everything I could before and after their despondency to ensure their happiness.
But most importantly, I felt like I had failed to do the very thing I aspired to do in my time here. Namely, to achieve what Ellen White calls the “the great aim of the teacher”, that is, “the perfecting of Christian character in himself and in his students” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 68).
I realized now that the test had come full circle. My own beliefs and virtues were open to being either confirmed or disappointed. For as much of a potential character-building opportunity that had been for my students, it was just as much a character-building moment for me.
“Let it never be forgotten that the teacher must be what he desires his pupils to become.” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 58)