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Today I Watched

Today I watched. 

I observed. 

I was a substitute teacher for an eighth grade social studies classroom today. I had four different classes, all the same age group, all the same school. These kids live near each other, they eat together, they learn together, they exist in the same environments. After observing four classes of these students, I was amazed by what I saw with one group of girls. 

I watched these girls immediately get defensive when approached. Not even when approached with anger, intimidation, threat, or challenge, but just approached at all by an outsider. 

They were not defensive with their close friends, their inner circle, but they were with their other peers. They spoke to each other with kindness. They supported those at their table. But to an outsider, including me, they immediately reacted with defensiveness. Their walls were immediately up when engaged in conversation with “the other.” 

As I watched this, several questions ran through my mind. What made them so grumpy? Why do they think they can’t trust me? How can they even make a decision to not trust someone without meeting them? What kind of hurt exists in their lives to produce this anger-response? Are they tired? Did they not sleep well last night? Did they not eat enough at lunch? Do they have enough money to buy lunch? Was their last substitute teacher mean or ignored them? Has anyone actually paid attention to them without them acting out for it? These girls are 13 years old. What does their life look like at the age of thirteen that in a seemingly safe classroom environment they immediately put up walls when meeting a new person?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and I likely never will learn more about this group of girls. Even if I substitute teach more of their classes, the likelihood that I can answer these questions is miniscule. So instead of fixing it or fixing them, I’m embracing my limitations in this situation and I’m going to continue to watch.

My default response to these situations previously has been to try to understand them. I want to figure things out and know what is going on. I think most of my life I have considered this to be the act of learning. I love to learn, and usually learning ends in more knowledge. As I write though, after this experience, I wonder if learning includes embracing limitations? I wonder if learning is not always gaining knowledge, but accepting limited understanding? 

I think the answer has to be yes. I will never be a 13 year old girl in this classroom, living the life these students do. I will never understand what they are feeling or why they are feeling it. But I can still learn from them, from this experience, without understanding it. I will observe and learn. I will listen. I will simply take in that which I don’t understand, knowing it will make me a safer person for others to come to in the future. 

I will fulfill my responsibilities as a substitute teacher. I will be compassionate and strong. I will embrace the discomfort that comes with not knowing what to do next. I will watch. 

Watch and learn. 

Today I watched. Today I learned. 

Thanks for making this a part of your day!
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