Choosing Your Hill to Die On
As a coach, I see this in classrooms all the time- teacher’s frustrated and angry over very inconsequential student behaviors. Small things that can add up to big shifts in teacher feelings and attitudes. As a new teacher, my hill was pencils. My students were forever coming to class without writing implements. Really, a pencil was the only thing my students needed to participate in our day. One simple item, a ten cent piece of wood and graphite, upon which participation hinged. But for some reason pencils were always elusive and in short supply. Where they disappeared to in broad daylight, I have no idea, but it would not have taken much convincing for me to believe there was a trio of elves that stealthily commandeered them between every subject change. I found myself lecturing students over and over again about responsibility and keeping up with their belongings and on and on, ad nauseum, until I was tired of my own voice. It took me three years to decide I would not fight that battle anymore. Year three, during back-to-school sales at the beginning of the year I spent over fifty dollars on pencils alone. Fifty dollars to save myself from repeating the same refrains over and over again. Fifty dollars to not be frustrated. Fifty dollars to maintain my emotional health. Best money I ever spent. As irritating as it was, the reality is- pencils get lost. They get used. They roll under things. They break. Sometimes they are not very good quality to begin with. Stuff happens. And yes, students should learn to be responsible for their belongings, but maybe pencils are not the marker of maturity and responsibility. Maybe there are other things that are more important. And I for one, won’t be dying on a field of pencils any time soon.
That year there was such a difference in my mental outlook and thus my stress levels. I started a lost and found for pencils without a home, adding a few of my own to the few that ended up there each day. When student needed a pencils, I just pointed to the cup and went on with my day. In fact, they learned just to go get one, and proceed with their assignments. I’m not saying, I became a serene and stress free teacher overnight. My type A personality didn’t disappear because I bought pencils, but I made a conscious choice about where I would spend my emotional energy.
Of course, you don’t have to buy your own pencils (this was back when as a new teacher I was spending over $1,000 a year on my classroom, bills and babies have put a stop to that). You could always right a Donor’s Choose grant, ask your PTA for funding, or find a local business to partner with (who cares if they say Barker Real Estate on the side). The point isn’t really about pencils at all. As teachers we should strategically choose our battles. Waging war over the little things, leaves us weary and emotionally drained when the big issues arise. Teachers set the emotional climate of the room. They are the barometer by which student’s adjust their own emotional temperature. And it is essential that our emotional regulation be superior to that of our students. Students are very good at pushing our buttons. They are very good at grating on our nerves, and finding soft spots, and wearing us down- unless we refuse to engage. We can refuse to fight battles we know we can’t win or be drawn into fights that serve no purpose. We can have a good day, regardless of what happens, and when things do go off rails, we can get them back on track quickly. We can model resilience for our students, teaching them to regulate their own emotional thermometers, no matter how many pencils go missing.