The Best Way to Begin a New Relationship

During teacher training six summers ago, we were tasked with analyzing what we were bringing to our teaching practice. Specifically, what baggage we were carrying from our experience as students.

We were asked about our favorite teachers, and what made them our favorites. Lots of responses seemed to indicate that a good teacher had a little bit to do with teaching skill, and a lot to do with personal connection. The truth is you can’t have one without the other. Good teaching goes beyond chops, it necessitates personal connection.

We were also asked about our least favorite teachers. What they did to us. The overwhelming shame many of us felt, specifically around math.

Mine was my seventh grade algebra teacher. I had been placed in his class because of a score I got on a placement test. I must’ve been extra alert that day for the test because I definitely did not belong in his class. And that was apparent after a few weeks of straight up failing quizzes.

But no one asked me to transfer. Back then, being in a higher math level was more important than being in an appropriate math level.

I even worked up the courage one day to go into his room on my lunch hour and ask for help. It took a lot. It was spring, so I had been failing miserably for months. My mom has convinced me it would change everything. And he even encouraged to the class in general, even telling us that “no one ever comes” during lunch for help, and he eats a tuna sandwich every day by himself.

So I came in and asked for help on the homework. I’d rehearsed the lines and everything. And you know what he said?

“We’re going to go over that in class. Can you wait until then?”

I’d never felt more stupid.

But this is what I was bringing to teaching. This feeling of shame and lack of care from a teacher who was probably doing his best but not meeting my needs.

We sat in silence in training that summer, writing these kinds of experiences down on little slips of paper. Then, we were instructed to crumble these papers and throw them into a big trash can in the middle of the room. The act of physically throwing these papers away was therapeutic, not because it made me forget or separate from the memory of my teacher, but because that day, I made a conscious choice through action to leave my own hurt and trauma out of my classroom.

My students would be better for it. And I’d eventually learn that I was a math guy who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This trash can thing can be done before new jobs and first dates. It turns out that throwing hurtful memories physically into a real trash can is a fantastic way to begin any relationship.